Israeli cultural critic takes homeless problem into his own hands

Homeless shelter founder Gilad Harish said he saw a major increase in homeless after immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel in 1991.Ending up on the streets with nothing to eat is the last thing new immigrants imagine …

Homeless shelter founder Gilad Harish said he saw a major increase in homeless after immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel in 1991.Ending up on the streets with nothing to eat is the last thing new immigrants imagine happening when they arrive in Israel, which many had envisioned as the proverbial “land of milk and honey.”

Although, the vast majority of immigrants to Israel do quite well, a small percentage slip through the cracks, said Tel Aviv lawyer and author Gilad Harish, who attacked the problem head-on by opening Gagon, Tel Aviv’s first homeless shelter, in 1992.

Harish, a well-known commentator and author on Israeli society, made several guest appearances in the San Francisco Bay Area in March as part of the New Israeli Voices Scholars-in-Residence program sponsored by the Israel Center of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.

Harish said he noticed an increase in the number of homeless on the streets of Tel Aviv following the wave of new Soviet immigrants in 1991. About 70 percent of Tel Aviv’s homeless are from the former Soviet Union and nearly all are men, he said.

“When the recession hit Israel in the early 90s, the principle of ‘last in, first out’ kicked in, and many Russian immigrants lost their jobs,” Harish said. “Being new to the country, they didn’t have a strong family support system to fall back on like other Israelis do. Some ended up on the street with nowhere to go.”

Gagon, which means “little roof” in Hebrew, was inspired by Harish and his wife Sharona’s three-year stay in the United States where they toured numerous homeless shelters. The main shelter and two smaller shelters in Tel Aviv serve about 50 people on any given day. Guests get a hot shower, regular meals, clean clothing and a clean bed. The Tel Aviv Municipality provides medical treatment and rehabilitation services to help people get back on their feet or into permanent care facilities.

While the number of people who are homeless in Israel is small, hundreds of people in the Tel Aviv area alone can’t afford to buy enough food. Harish expects the problem to get worse as the Israeli economy continues to decline.

Concerned about the number of people who go hungry in Tel Aviv, the Harishes opened the city’s first soup kitchen in 1990. Lasova (Hebrew for “until you are full”) serves an average of 350 people a day and provides meals for the Gagon shelter. Restaurants and food manufacturers donate much of the food served at Lasova. People also visit the restaurant to obtain free, second-hand clothing. More than 5,000 articles of clothing were distributed in 2000 alone.

“One day, a local businessman came in and sat down at a table thinking we were a regular restaurant,” Harish said. “When he learned Lasova is a soup kitchen, he was amazed because the surroundings are so nice. He decided right then and there to volunteer and has been here every day, twice a day for the last five years.”

Harish relies on volunteers and donations to keep his charities running. Three paid staff members run the shelter and soup kitchen.

In 1998, Harish opened a network of youth centers to help underprivileged children. The Kadima Youth Clubs provide children from needy and troubled families with free tutoring, nutritious meals, and social activities. (Kadima is Hebrew for “go forward.”)

“The parents send the kids for the meals, and the kids come for the computers and to have fun,” Harish said. “These kids are at risk of dropping out of school and falling by the wayside. They need additional education and support to get a leg up in the world.”

The five clubs, including one club for Arab youth, serve almost 200 impoverished children in and around Tel Aviv. Harish plans to add more clubs to help even more children. The clubs have a small paid staff and rely heavily on volunteers. Most are teens and young adults from youth movements, nearby army bases, schools and kibbutzim. Last year, four Kadima volunteers decided to take a year off after they completed their military service to volunteer full-time at the Youth Clubs.

“These youth are devoting a year of their lives to a charitable cause because they feel it is their duty to make a positive contribution to society. They are the real hope of Israel,” Harish said.

A sharp rise in corporate philanthropy during the past few years is a sign businesses feel a greater responsibility to the community, too, Harish said.

Taking a page from America’s book, a growing number of Israeli companies now sponsor charitable organizations and events. It’s not uncommon to see a corporation’s logo on an ad for the symphony or a poster for a new art exhibit. CPAs from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers Israel even take time out of their day to pick up and deliver food donations to Lasova.

“Companies sponsor organizations such as Lasova partly for the positive public relations and exposure, but mostly because they feel an obligation to support their community,” Harish said.

The Israeli government recognized volunteerism’s critical role in Israeli society by making it the theme of last year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) celebration. The Harishes were also recognized for their charitable work and asked to participate in the Yom Ha’atzmaut torch-lighting ceremony. Each year, 12 Israeli citizens are chosen to light the torches. The great honor is bestowed on those who have made a significant contribution to Israeli society.