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“Do Not Forsake Me in Old Age”

It is shocking that nearly half of all elderly Israelis live below the poverty line, and many are so impoverished that they have trouble meeting their most basic everyday needs. Yet, over 17,000 Israelis in need over the age of 80 have the good fortune of being part of The Fellowship’s ‘With Dignity and Fellowship’ program, which provides them with food for the rest of their lives.

It is a unique humanitarian endeavor which provides nutritional security and alleviates the hardship and loneliness often associated with old age. The program’s annual budget of approximately NIS 60 million is entirely funded by donations.

The Fellowship is a remarkable philanthropic enterprise that was founded in 1983 by the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and is now headed by his daughter, President and CEO Yael Eckstein. Its activities focus on three pillars: fighting poverty in Israel and among Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union (FSU), providing security to Israelis in conflict zones (including soldiers) and for Jewish institutions around the world, and facilitating Aliyah, especially from the FSU and Ethiopia. In 2021, The Fellowship was able to help a record number of people – more than two million – through hundreds of different projects, becoming the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Israel. “We are honored to be leaders in providing basic needs for the poor, the elderly, and those who suffer most,” Yael Eckstein notes.

The ‘With Dignity and Fellowship’ program serves 55 regional councils throughout Israel that are ranked in the lowest socio-economic category. The Fellowship’s staff works closely with the welfare officials in each of these regional councils, and it is the local Welfare Department that refers the program’s beneficiaries to the Fellowship coordinator in that area. Racheli Muler, The Fellowship’s Director of Programs for the Elderly and the head of the ‘With Dignity and Fellowship’ program, oversees the work of 18 full-time regional coordinators throughout Israel.

Muler explains that, “all of our beneficiaries are 80 years old or older and rely entirely on a meager social security stipend as their sole source of income. Many don’t have any family support – financial or otherwise.” When a new beneficiary is referred to the organization, the regional coordinator conducts a home visit in order to meet them and to determine together which type of food support best suits their needs.

Three tracks offer food security

Most beneficiaries receive a monthly shopping stipend totaling NIS 300, which they can use to procure food at their local branch of the Shufersal supermarket chain. All they have to do is tell the cashier that they have a store credit and show their ID card – an arrangement designed to preserve their dignity. While some use up the entire amount in one monthly shopping expedition, others prefer to “buy” smaller amounts of food more frequently. Physically going to the supermarket and selecting their own supplies encourages these elderly people to leave their homes, thereby helping relieve boredom and loneliness.

For those who are unable or unwilling to leave their homes but would like to prepare their own meals, The Fellowship arranges a generous monthly food delivery from a local supermarket. The recipients can choose among different types of food baskets – including basic products, a vegetarian option, and a basket specially tailored to immigrants from Ethiopia. Out of respect for the recipients’ dignity, these food deliveries are packaged exactly like regular supermarket deliveries, with no special markings indicating that they are actually donations.

The third track consists of weekly deliveries of cooked meals. Once a week, a delivery person brings these beneficiaries seven pre-cooked nutritious meals that are packaged using a special technology that enables them to be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks while remaining fresh. Every day, the beneficiary simply takes one meal tray from the refrigerator and heats it up in the microwave or toaster oven. This track suits people who can’t cook by themselves and for whom nobody else cooks, and who would otherwise not have access to hot meals.

Large volunteer network

In addition to providing food security for thousands of elderly poor, the ‘With Dignity and Fellowship’ program also helps fund medication for certain elderly people as well as regularly providing urgent aid – ranging from dental treatments and medical devices to paying for ambulance services and purchasing basic furniture.

The program also operates a large network of over 2,500 volunteers of all ages, who regularly visit or call elderly people in order to combat loneliness. Prior to major holidays, these volunteers pay visits to those who are homebound and bring them small gifts.

“We are in regular contact with our beneficiaries in order to see how we can help them as much as possible and improve the service we provide. We ask them for feedback all the time,” Muler points out. Beneficiaries remain in the program until the end of their lives, unless they move to an elderly care facility or to a regional council that is not served by the program.

Gal Feldman Ben-Avraham, who is the program’s coordinator for Netanya, is in regular contact with all 700 beneficiaries in that city and spends much of her time meeting new people referred by local social workers. “Many elderly poor live in appalling conditions, with broken or no furniture and appliances. Many times, I find that they only buy the most basic food so that they can afford medicine. Many don’t have any family in Israel or at all and are very lonely. After seven years, I still haven’t gotten used to these sights, but The Fellowship provides a ray of light: we have the tools to help these people, and once they join the program, their lives improve. They are no longer alone. Moreover, we stay in touch with them to make sure that their needs continue to be met as well as possible,” she explains.

Svetlana Kozinsky, who made Aliyah from Ukraine in 1991 and lives by herself in Nof HaGalil, is one of the program’s many grateful beneficiaries. “The Fellowship has been supporting me for the past two years and helps me with everything I need,” she says. “They helped me buy an oven and gas stove and thanks to them I can now cook at home. Every month, I receive a gift card for buying food; they bring me presents for Purim, Shavuoth and Rosh Hashanah and call me on my birthday. Thank God The Fellowship exists in this world, and I’m not afraid of starvation anymore!” Since Svetlana’s son lives abroad and her sister lives far away in Beer Sheva, Yafit from The Fellowship has become like family for her. “I’m always happy when she visits and I feel that she really cares about me,” Svetlana declares with a big smile.

Rebecca Kopans