Passover in Israel

Leket volunteers deliver food for the elderly in Israel prior to Passover and in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, April 2020. 

In Israel, the days leading up to Passover are usually the most bustling time of the year in local supermarkets, with shoppers stocking up on kosher-for-Passover products ahead of the week-long holiday. However, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many Israeli families are doing their shopping, both due to a desire to minimize potential exposure to the virus and because of government-mandated restrictions on movement.

While some are donning masks and gloves to nervously head to the grocery store, others are opting for either delivery services or are placing pick-up orders. However, customers in some areas are indicating that delivery services are so overwhelmed that the chances of receiving an order before the holiday is slim. In addition, the elderly, those in quarantine and families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face additional difficulties in getting food for Passover.

Batya Medad, 71, from the Binyamin community of Shiloh, is married with five adult children and eight grandchildren. She told JNS that since she and her husband “are an ‘elderly’ couple, we will be making Passover alone without friends or family for the first time since immigrating from the U.S. almost 50 years ago.” She said that the only other time it was just her “nuclear” family for seder was when one of her children developed chickenpox back in 1976, forcing the family to cancel their Passover plans.

Medad explained that she orders her groceries from her small local supermarket via WhatsApp. While her husband has been handpicking produce at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market for decades, she said she has learned to let it go and allow others to pick her fruits and vegetables, “even if there is a mushy tomato or a soft cucumber here and there.”

Medad, who lived through both the Gulf War and Yom Kippur War, insists people must “maintain basic health and stay active” while adhering to Health Ministry social distancing directives.

Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket, an organization which “rescues” food and  redistributes it to 175,000 needy people weekly through their network of 200 nonprofit agency partners throughout Israel. He told JNS that “Leket is working to make sure that all our recipients have all the food that we can provide to them, before [Passover], and we will continue to provide food during [Passover] to those who come to our attention.”

Gitler explained that “normally, Leket gets food donated from hotels, corporate events, or the army, but because of the situation [as many of his regular food providers are shut down] we are down about 95 percent in cooked meals to hand out.”

As a result, he said, the organization has launched an emergency campaign to raise funds to replace those meals.

“Normally Leket never purchases food, but now we are buying on average 10,000 meals a day,” he said.

He explained that “logistics is more important now than ever as many of the organizations we work with are closed, but their client populations still need food.”

Leket volunteers are now delivering food packages to homes themselves, he said, or working with local municipalities and organizations that are still open to either deliver food or arrange a pick-up spot for families in need, while being cautious to follow Health Ministry guidelines.

His biggest concern is after Passover, he said, if the situation gets worse and funds dry up.

At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces has gotten involved in food distribution, especially to the elderly, through its “Operation Golden Guard.”  Last week soldiers delivered 54,000 packages to elderly Israelis in isolation due to COVID-19.

Miriam Pollock, who immigrated to Israel from San Francisco and lives with her fiance in Jerusalem, told JNS that she was unsuccessful in trying to arrange for a supermarket delivery to her house.

“We placed an order online and the supermarket claimed there was a problem with the credit card, but I know the card is fine. It seems like they overbooked orders and were trying to get out of delivering,” she said.

Last week, however, Pollock ran into unanticipated trouble. She was stopped by police while headed to the supermarket on foot, and when the officers determined that her store was more than 100 meters from her house, they proceeded to issue her an NIS 500 ($138) fine. According to Health Ministry directives, Israelis must remain within 100 meters of their homes.

“I wasn’t even 100 meters away, maybe around 50,” said Pollack,” but they gave me the ticket for expressing my intention of going more than 100 meters.”

Pollock said that when she asked the officers how she was supposed to buy food when the only supermarket is more than 100 meters from her house, they told her she should drive. When she informed him she doesn’t own a car, she said, she was told she should have ordered a delivery, which she explained to the surprised officer was not a viable option.

Pollack has decided to fight the fine. She believes that the ticket was not justified as she was on her way to make a food purchase, which according to the Health Ministry directives is completely legal under the guidelines even if the grocery store is further away.

‘Quiet deeds, day by day’

Arnie Draiman is a Jerusalem-based philanthropic consultant who works with more than 50 nonprofit organizations in Israel. He has been in the field for 25 years.

He told JNS that many of the organizations he works with “are frontline [charities] who feed the hungry, the elderly and Holocaust survivors.” Draiman says he works with diverse groups of non-profits representing all sectors of Israeli society.

Over the past few weeks, he said he has raised more than NIS 1 million ($276,491) from overseas donors, “with about 80 percent of the funds going towards the purchase of food.”

On a personal level, Draiman is part of a volunteer group of 68 southern Jerusalem residents that shops for the elderly, run by a local community council.

“I helped set up a phone network so that the elderly can call if they need help, and our volunteers bring them food and medicine,” he said, adding that he is aware of many similar initiatives throughout the country.

According to Draiman, a system has been put in place in his neighborhood in which each apartment building has one representative volunteer assigned to help those in need with food deliveries or anything else during this difficult period.

Draiman summarized this volunteer spirit by quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century, who said, “I am convinced that the sense of meaning grows not by spectacular acts but by quiet deeds day by day.”

People should continue to do the small things, said Draiman, but just more of them to make a difference for others.

“Make a call, set up a ‘Zoom’ [online meeting], just the little things that may not seem significant but are more significant at this time,” he said. JN

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