Sukkot and the housing shortage

As the whole country is abuzz with the sound of sukkot being built, it’s a shame that the government doesn’t take a lesson from it all. And by “it’s a shame” I mean, it’s shameful. Why? Because the issue that kicked off this summer’s nationwide protest movement is the crushing cost of housing, and because sukkah building provides a clue to solving it.

Consider this: Building my family’s sukkah only takes an hour. Granted, it’s only 6 square meters. But to build a sukkah four times that size would only require another 30 minutes. With help, I could build a sukkah large enough to seat everyone in my apartment building in less time than it takes the pizza place to deliver a couple large pies.

How is this possible? Modular construction. The materials are light, strong, uniform and long-lasting. Construction is so simple that it requires no more than a rubber mallet and a step stool. Beyond sukkah building, though, modular construction is used in only a small percentage of Israeli housing and commercial construction.

Of course, building sturdy apartments is a much tougher matter than building sukkot. But Israeli construction companies make it tougher than it needs to be. Contractors may blame the slow work of municipal inspectors and other factors beyond their control, but the fact is that the contractors just aren’t very efficient.

Honestly, I’m not very good with a hammer — but I know what’s possible. I grew up in South Florida during the construction boom of the 1980s, when entire shopping malls were erected within a few months. Here, by contrast, the construction of small, uncomplicated buildings can drag on for years. It doesn’t take the producers of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, who manage to build enormous, ultra-modern homes in just a single week (the length of the Sukkot holiday!) to tell you how unnecessary that is. What’s worse is that this snail’s pace of construction costs every one of us — renters and homeowners alike — unfathomable sums.

Using modular construction and other modern, cost-saving techniques would reduce building costs by cutting down on materials, labor and clean-up — significant savings in time and money that would make the cost of housing much, much less of the burden that it is now.

The protest tents that captured the country’s attention all summer have come down, but the housing crunch is as strong as ever. As the government contemplates ways of lowering the cost of living, let’s hope they see the potential brilliance of the simple sukkah.


If Mahmoud were Menachem…

ahm_1494743fOk, so, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might have been born Jewish, as a report in the Telegraph claims.

The knee-jerk reaction to this is to snicker at the irony of the situation. After all, what could be funnier than the greatest single enemy of the Jewish people currently living having Jewish roots?

(Now that these allegations have surfaced, they’ll probably remain as vexing to Ahmadinejad and historians as the allegations of Adolf Hitler’s Jewish roots.)

Well, it isn’t funny at all. Anyone who laughs at Ahmadinejad’s alleged Jewishness implicitly accepts and condones the notion that being Jewish is a shame and a handicap, an embarrassment that deserves to be hidden away. It only reinforces the ugly stigma against Jews that goes unrepudiated in the Muslim world.

Rather than heckle Ahmadinejad with taunts about his ancestry, he should be confronted over the unbearable bigotry with which he — and the vast majority of the Muslim world — relates to those taunts.

Mr. Smith challenges the pope

He’s enjoying lunch in the lobby of the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem, speaking casually but knowledgably about Jewish suffering. He’s wearing a “Shema Israel” pendant and recalling the “awe-inspiring” experience of visiting the “Kotel” (Western Wall) during a family to visit to Israel when he was 13. But Stephen D. Smith is not the typical Jewish tourist.

Smith, the son of a Methodist minister and a religious education teacher from Nottinghamshire, England, is the founder and director of the United Kingdom’s Holocaust Centre and a passionate advocate for Christian-Jewish relations. He is here to promote his latest project, No Going Back, a collection of essays directed at Pope Benedict XVI that Smith collected and co-edited for the occasion of the pope’s visit to the Holy Land.

The essays come from some three dozen Christians, Jews and Muslims from all over the world who answered the simple question, “If you had five minutes with Pope Benedict XVI, what would you say to him?” They reflect, Smith says, a great sense of concern that this papacy is much more hardline than that of John Paul II, and that the current pontiff’s conservative views on internal church matters are harming relations with the Jews.

In addition to the threat of Islamic extremism, the book focuses on concerns about three recent developments and what they mean for Christian-Jewish relations:

* The recent restoration of four excommunicated priests – especially Bishop Richard Williamson, whose anti-Semitic comments and Holocaust denial embarrassed the church and strained Vatican-Jewish relations.

* The Good Friday prayer, a rather negatively worded prayer for the conversion of the Jews that had been diluted in recent years, which Benedict XVI decreed may be restored to its earlier language.

* The advancement of the beatification process of World War II-era Pope Pius XII, whom Jewish groups claim did too little to combat or condemn the Holocaust.

“If a priest were excommunicated for consecrating gay marriage, he would not be accepted back into the fold. Yet a bishop who espouses anti-Semitism has been welcomed back into the fold,” Smith says, referring to Williamson. “So what message is the church trying to send? That gay marriage is not okay, but that anti-Semitism is okay?”

In light of all these events, Smith continues, “Views of this pope are forming as someone for whom fostering and enhancing Jewish-Christian relations are of less importance than in decades past. Our book… seeks to address these growing and legitimate concerns on His Holiness’s visit.”

“Many of our authors are people who sit between the communities; that is, they may be Catholics who are working positively on Jewish-Christian relations, or Jews working on engaging with Catholics. And when they see that kind of internal change going on, it sends all the wrong signals,” Smith says. “Because nothing that the church does internally is ever a purely internal matter.”

Smith, 42, has been delving into Christian-Jewish relations for two decades now. He studied Christian theology with an emphasis on Jewish studies and that, he says, is where he began to confront the issue of Christian anti-Semitism.

“I became extremely troubled by it,” he says, “especially because it didn’t seem like it was really being dealt with.”

So in 1995, Smith and his brother James built the Holocaust Center “to challenge Christians.”

Later, in response to the Rwandan genocide, he founded the Aegis trust. The organization educates about genocide, commemorates such atrocities and supports the victims of genocide.

He was also introduced to Carol Rittner, a Roman Catholic nun who is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, editor of various Holocaust journals and author of several books about the Holocaust.

“She focuses a lot on the nexus between Christian ethics and conflict resolution, and she’s quite demanding in her thinking on that,” Smith says.

The two teamed up with Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer in 2000 on the book The Holocaust and the Christian World.

Since then, and in particular since the passing of John Paul II, who guided the church to an unprecedented rapprochement with the Jewish world, Smith and Rittner have grown increasingly wary of the church’s conservative bent. That’s why they collaborated again on No Going Back.

“Just as Jews try to ‘build a fence around the Torah,’” Smith says, “Pope Benedict XVI appears to be trying to build a fence around the church. The church is saying, ‘This is who we are, and we’re going to wear it on our sleeves, and whatever anybody thinks about that, we don’t really care.’

“That’s the wrong signal to be giving – particularly in the Middle East,” Smith feels. “That doesn’t give Jewish partners any confidence. It certainly gives no right to be able to come and say, ‘Let’s all make peace and Israelis and Palestinians reconcile with each other.’”

If Benedict XVI does not make bold statements on anti-Semitism, Smith says, what remains will be merely “vacuous statements that will make people wonder what, if anything, the church has to offer.”

The pope did address the issue of Holocaust commemoration upon his arrival in Israel on Monday, saying, “It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.

“Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,” he continued. “Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found.”

Those comments should go a long way toward soothing worries about the pope’s position in light of Williamson’s Holocaust denial. But the rest of the Christian world, Smith says, will still have to prove its resolve in the face of Islamist groups whose aims include the destruction of millions of Jews. As a man who has spent so much of his life raising awareness about the Holocaust, he is very worried that that danger is being overlooked.

“The big threat [of Jewish mass murder] is not past!” Smith says with great gravity. “I don’t think the Jewish people are past the threat of genocide at all. And the issue goes way beyond whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons that it can drop on Tel Aviv. The problem is the ideology of the Islamist groups around the world, for whom hatred of the Jews is a central tenet.

“People often say, ‘Well, this is a conflict between the state of Israel and other states, and Israel is strong, etc. But what people don’t appreciate is that the threat is not really against Israel, per se. It is against Jews, many of whom live in Israel. People conflate statehood and military conflict with a threat against people because of their ethnic background…”

“What were the four main elements in the Holocaust? A racial ideology; a target; the stated intent to harm that target, and the means to carry out that threat. The same pieces were in place in Rwanda. And they are in place with the Islamists, too – all, that is, except the means. And that is only so because they are not coordinated.”

In World War II Europe, Smith says, “churches protected their own institutional survival at the cost of their moral credibility.” He shutters to think the Christian world may let the same thing happen again.

Durban II? Yawn…

For the record, I don’t care one whit about Durban II. What I do care about is Bushehr, Natanz and Isfahan. Everything else is just a sideshow, and a waste of time.

Neither flour nor Torah

studyingThe global financial meltdown’s spread to the sources of funding on which this country’s haredi institutions depend is proving the mishnaic axiom that “when there is no flour, there is no Torah.”

As The Jerusalem Post reported last week, the well of foreign donations that keeps kollelim, yeshivot and other haredi institutions afloat is running dry, sending full-time scholars out into the job market. The story of Tuvia, a 20-year-old hassid from Jerusalem who chose to operate a machine at a drug company rather than face the threat of choking poverty, was indicative of the changes under way.

The current crisis, though, is ironic – for, as the mishna above continues, “when there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21). Yet today, even as Torah study is on the rise, the financial well-being of the Torah-studying world faces a precipitous decline. Something is amiss.

Many haredi leaders would respond to such a paradox with a call to greater devotion – in study, in prayer and in deeds. Yet, again, this would ignore the glaring contradiction between the increasing strictness of religious observance and lengthier commitment to Torah studies among the haredim and this sector’s worsening financial straits. The contention that this suffering would be alleviated through divine recompense if only young men would concentrate more on their Gemaras can only bear so much of the strain of observable fact before it shatters. Tuvia the machine operator is just one example of what happens when it does.

Heavenly judgment notwithstanding, poverty among haredim is almost entirely self-inflicted. Only about half of haredi men and women of working age are employed – some 30 percentage points lower than the figure for non-haredi Jews – and the jobs they do hold tend to be in lower-paying sectors. The haredi community, therefore, is unable to independently fund its kollel system and relies heavily on donations from abroad. Considering how impossible this equation is, the only thing that is surprising about this crisis is that it hasn’t come sooner.

FOR ALL those who have watched with concern while the haredi community’s singular devotion to Torah studies has pushed it deeper and deeper into poverty, the impending collapse of the kollel economy is good news. Not, God forbid, that anyone should take pleasure in the distress of others, or in the thought that Torah learning may decrease. Rather, it is good news that what has been painfully obvious to so many outsiders may finally be sinking in among stalwart proponents of the widespread kollel culture that has created this catastrophe: that the system is broken, and demands repair.

The first step is to recognize that the kollel paradigm currently in vogue is a deviation from traditional Jewish norms. It is only recently, with the advent of the welfare state and other social changes, that the large-scale subsidization of long-term Torah study has taken hold. Yet even in other times and places, when wealthy patrons could have been relied upon for support, the vast majority of Torah scholars did not accept payment either for teaching or for studying holy texts.

As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld has noted in his commentary on Pirkei Avot: “While in Temple times, scholars had either supported themselves, or been paid a pittance out of Temple funds, during the Yavne period a policy emerged of encouraging the community to regard the support of the sages as a religious-communal function.”

Even so, Rosenfeld continues, “many scholars still plied their crafts as cobblers, smiths, scribes, etc., supporting themselves in this way in their spare time. In principle the scholars accepted no remuneration for their communal activity, or for the instruction they gave, and certainly not for studying. The ideal was that a scholar ‘should study for the sake of heaven’ and live from his own toil” (Tanna de-bei Eliahu 5:2).

Of course, there have been a number of outstanding rabbis who have devoted themselves entirely to Torah study and teaching, including the gaonim of Babylonia. But they have been the exceptions to the rule. Throughout the centuries, the greatest figures in all of Jewish scholarship worked for a living.

Many a brilliant scholar employed his faculties in a position of prominence. Avraham Ibn Ezra, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Ran and Ovadia Sforno were physicians. Bahya ibn Pakuda, the Ravad and the Ralbag were philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians and judges. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, the Rashba and Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abravanel were deeply involved in finance.

Others engaged in simpler occupations. The Amoraim Rava, Abbaye, Abbahu and Hama traded wine and other goods. First-century Tanna Abba Shaul Ben Batnit was a shopkeeper in Jerusalem. The Hafetz Haim, refusing to make the rabbinate his livelihood, helped his wife maintain a small grocery.

Babylonian Amora Hisda became very wealthy as a brewer. Abba Shaul was a baker. The Rashbam was a sheep farmer. The great Italian mystic Ramchal earned a living as a diamond cutter.

Some, despite their exalted status in the study hall, earned their living through difficult or humble jobs. Honi Hame’agel, the renowned miracle worker from the period of the Second Temple, repaired roofs for a living. The Amoraim Hanina and Hoshaiah were cobblers. Some sages even tanned hides, despite the odiousness of the job.

WERE THESE men greedy for material gain? Were they inferior in faith and constitution to the young men of today, who spend their days and nights in kollel in exchange for meager stipends? The mere utterance of such a thought in today’s Jerusalem or Bnei Brak would be scandalous.

What, then, motivated our greatest scholars to toil? Their scholarship, evidently.

Although the Talmud is replete with admonitions to study Torah diligently, its pro-work ethos is overpowering.

“Love work and despise high position [the rabbinate],” the sages say in Pirkei Avot 1:10.

“The primary thing is not study,” they add in Avot 1:17, “but action.”

Going further in Avot 2:2, Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi – the very redactor of the Mishna – says, “Good is Torah study together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both makes one forget sin. All Torah study without work will result in waste and will cause sinfulness.”

To make this message unequivocal, they admonish in Pessahim 113a: “One should flay carcasses in the marketplace and earn a living. He should not say, ‘I am a priest, [or] I am a great man, and such work is beneath me.'”

In terms even stronger still, the Rambam writes, in his Mishneh Torah: “Whoever thinks he will study Torah and not work, and will be supported from charity, profanes God’s name, shames the Torah, darkens the light of knowledge, causes harm to himself, and takes his life from this world, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world.”

“Do you think,” the incredulous kollel student might well ask, “that our Torah sages of today are unaware of all these things?!”

To which we would respond, of course not! Indeed, that is what is most troubling: that, in essence, today’s haredi leaders have overruled practically every giant of Torah knowledge who has ever lived. And the consequences have been dire.

By encouraging more and more able-bodied young men to delay their professional careers, and by discouraging them from pursuing the broader technical knowledge that would improve their chances of earning a respectable wage, they have condemned hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to destitution. So, too, they have denied the working man the dignity and the sanctity with which our earliest sages invested him. Yet they rely completely on the work of his hands and eat bread by the sweat of his brow.

This problem will not be solved until paid kollel studies are limited to only the most promising of students. Doing so would allow for these students to be provided with higher stipends, which would both ease their economic hardship and more accurately reflect the value that the community places on advanced Torah scholarship. (At the same time, they ought to be required to perform some kind of community service, outside their studies.)

But what of the rest of the students, who would be sent out of the kollel? They need not abandon Torah study altogether – only combine it with professional training, followed by gainful employment. This would ease the financial pressure on them and on the rest of the community, ensuring the security of institutions of higher learning and freeing up resources for those truly unable to provide for themselves.

Defenders of the current paradigm will no doubt marshall all manner of arguments to justify its perpetuation. But resisting these critical reforms can only mean one thing: neither flour, nor Torah, for years to come.

An Orthodox oasis

Yehiel can barely contain his joy as the Egged bus rolls off the highway and into Tifrah. Finally, he says with relief after the long ride from Jerusalem, he has arrived.

Tifrah lies 10 minutes of non-descript highway travel outside of Ofakim, a town as down on its luck as any in the country that, nonetheless, looks like a gleaming metropolis compared to this dingy little moshav. What could possibly draw Yehiel, in his pressed white shirt and black Borsalino hat, to this place that is covered in sand and enveloped in sticky, humid heat?

“The yeshiva, of course!” he says, jumping off the last step of the bus, grabbing his belongings and walking quickly toward the largest building around.

“I know,” he says, used to the skepticism, “the big, famous yeshivot are in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, right? Well, as serious and great as they are, when the guys go walking around there, what do they see? Store windows, and other distractions [e.g. girls]. Here, there’s nothing. Where are you going to go? What are you going to do? All you have here is the yeshiva.”

It’s true. Beyond the corner grocery store, there’s hardly any landmark in Tifrah worth mentioning. Somehow, the biggest little haredi town in the Negev has managed to last 60 years that way.

Come to Tifrah some afternoon and you’ll find what appears to be a ghost town. Children’s bicycles and baby strollers lie overturned on unkempt lawns, in front of small houses in various states of disrepair. There’s no commercial center, no movie theater, no shady park, not even so much as a falafel stand. Located in a lonely stretch of desert where people could go to “get away from it all,” but don’t, Tifrah is half oasis, half mirage – and all haredi.

The watchword here is making do with little. Physicality, as it is plain to see, takes a very distant second to spiritual development. The focus here is part of a conscious effort by the residents to put simplicity first… and second, and third, too. But it’s also an outgrowth of the fact that not much else has taken root here.

The name of the town is borrowed from a verse in Isaiah, Chapter 35, which foretells the future glory of Israel, when the desert will “blossom as the rose.” While that prophecy has taken shape in other parts of the Negev, it has essentially skipped over this little patch of the rosebed. No matter, residents say; Tifrah’s survival is miracle enough.

To hear the story of that miracle, you have to find the home of Menahem Finkelstein, a short man with a wispy white beard who has lived here since 1958 and serves as the unofficial historian of Tifrah. It’s a modest house, one of the oldest standing here, but it is where the Finkelsteins’ nine children were raised and where countless yeshiva students have enjoyed a Shabbat meal. The shelves are lined with religious books – but also the histories of Winston Churchill that Finkelstein made his children read, a book of paintings by his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and the memoirs of his father, the leader of his community in a small Romanian town that bordered on Hungary.

Finkelstein grew up in Haifa (“I went to synagogue and played with Zevulun Hammer,” he relates with pride) and joined cross-border raids into Jordan (“I went through a sergeant’s course with Dan Shomron, who would go on to become commander of the air force,” he adds). He sought out Tifrah in a time when, he says, “the word pioneering was never used in quotation marks but was taken seriously.”

Taking Tifrah seriously, Finkelstein gladly unfurls the tale of his beloved moshav. Sitting in the parlor on a sweltering day, cooled by a small fan as he fills a bowl with sunflower seed shells and puffs on cigarette after cigarette, Finkelstein offers up a glass of cold cola and digs deep into his memory.

IT WAS 1949, he says, and a group of Orthodox Hungarian Jews, most of them Holocaust survivors and most of them in second marriages after the slaughter of their families, were holed up in a transit camp with thousands of other new immigrants to Israel. They were desperate to find a place where they could start a new life in the Jewish state. Fortunately, the Jewish Agency had land to offer them at Tifrah.

“One evening, about 25 of the men set out from the transit camp and met a woman from the Jewish Agency, who showed them their new moshav,” Finkelstein says. “Well, there was nothing here. I mean, nothing! There was a wall and a few trees amidst the sands. There was nowhere to sleep. A handful of construction workers from Beersheba were brought in to help the olim erect tents. And that’s how the moshav came to be.”

In time, the men built tiny two-room houses. Electricity and flowing water would have to wait for six years. “Amenities” would wait even longer.

“In 1962, when I got married, I became one of the first members of the moshav to install a restroom inside his home,” Finkelstein says, still proud of the achievement.

Finkelstein had come to Tifrah after his army service – following his brother, who had come in 1955, and his father. Together they tried to make a living as farmers, like most of the members of the moshav. Most had a few chickens; communally, there were a few cows, and they raised peanuts, potatoes, strawberries and grapes. Some found work outside the moshav, mostly in Beersheba, to make ends meet. Menahem would tend to the family fields in the morning and then work in the city during the afternoons and evenings.

In those days the moshav was nominally a member of Mapai, but that would soon change.

When Tifrah residents started having children, the moshavim movement sent a teacher – with a head full of socialist educational ideas and legs wrapped in pants.

“It was an intentional move to force their way of life on us,” Finkelstein says, the slight still burning. That got the Orthodox residents’ blood boiling and, as Finkelstein tells it, the entire population of the moshav stormed off to the Jewish Agency’s offices in Jerusalem, where they demanded of the future prime minister Levi Eshkol that he switch them to the haredi Poalei Agudat Yisrael.

“At the time,” Finkelstein says, “switching political affiliations was as difficult as parting the Red Sea. And when Eshkol relented, after several days of protest, he received very harsh criticism. But he said, ‘What am I going to do against these stubborn Hungarians?!’ So that’s how we became the haredi moshav that defeated Mapai.”

The satisfaction of the political victory, however, was short lived. Life on the frontier was brutally hard, and many of the original settlers left. Then, Finkelstein says, “when North African immigrants arrived in the mid-1950s, the Jewish Agency pressured us to accept them, since there were empty houses here.”

The integration of the new immigrants with the old was less than successful, to say the least. But Finkelstein insists that the Hungarians’ opposition to the newcomers was religious, not racial.

“The social tensions were serious. They had a different way of life, a different view of education. By 1957, the Hungarians had brought in ‘reinforcements’ in an effort to ensure political dominance. Eventually, though, the two groups reached a modus vivendi whereby the administrative duties of the moshav would be split roughly 50-50, and there would be separate schools for the two ethnicities.

“The forces were still even, though, and we knew the tensions would remain,” Finkelstein continues. “So we brought in 10 more haredim to tip the balance. These were a bunch of newly religious guys who had served heroically in the IDF. One of them had served in the naval commandos; another, had he not become religious, was destined to become head of the air force.”

Even as such animosity faded, and fresh faces were brought in, attrition continued to keep tiny Tifrah from flowering.

In those days, many of the soldiers serving in the Nahal Brigade were essentially auxiliaries reinforcing settlements across the country, and Tifrah tried to entice the haredi soldiers who came to the moshav to stay. That met with little success.

In addition, the moshav’s agricultural production continued to dwindle as the members aged and as the end of government rationing made farming less economical. By the 1970s, the moshav’s production was pretty much limited to milk, and that too was doomed.

“Long ago, there were days in which, if you went to Beersheba with a few liters of milk, you could come home with a decent amount of money,” Finkelstein recalles. “But later on, it only made economic sense to be in the milk business if you had a large farm with lots of cows. That involves a large investment, and we weren’t able to do it. Tifrah had only a few cows, and the people who were left doing the farming had grown old. So the milk business here dried up. Those who could, sought work outside the moshav.”

TIFRAH’S SAVING GRACE was Yeshivat Tushia, which opened up in 1968. It had two dozen students then, but boasts more than 600 now. Almost all of them, it seems, know Finkelstein, greeting him warmly and updating them on their studies.

The building where Yehiel and his classmates study without distraction is the largest and most appealing in the entire moshav. Nestled between decrepit dorms and shady eucalyptus trees, it is the only edifice around that has been refurbished in the past few years, and it is by far the busiest building around. The afternoon prayers of hundreds of young men ring out in the main hall, then fade into a symphony of Talmudic argument that could easily be mistaken for any other yeshiva in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak.

In a way, it’s the fulfillment of the dream of the original pioneers of Tifrah. On the other hand, it’s a symbol of the moshav’s struggle to survive. Only a few of the students will stay here once they marry, joining the kollel at the other end of the moshav. As for the veteran residents, the situation isn’t promising. Some 300 families live in Tifrah, totaling about 2,000 people – but, Finkelstein, notes, many of the residents are elderly. Most of their children moved out to the main centers of haredi life, in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Kiryat Sefer and Ramat Beit Shemesh.

“Only one of my children stayed in Tifrah,” Finkelstein notes with sadness. “I’m to blame, of course. I always said, ‘If I had to live anywhere other than here, Jerusalem is a good place to be.’ And that’s where they went.”

While money is tight around Tifrah, Finkelstein says there’s enough to keep things going. Members receive money from the National Insurance Institute. And, the moshav still owns farmlands that it rents out to farmers, in cooperation with other moshavim in the area that suffered similar agricultural travails. Combined, there are 200,000 dunam under contract, bringing in a yearly gross income of NIS 100 million, Finkelstein says.

(Until five years ago, Finkelstein ran the company that oversees the properties. Now he is semi-retired, working a few days a week as a financial controller for a roofing tile company in Beersheba.)

Finkelstein says plans are in the works to build an old age home in Tifrah, and maybe a factory, too. Some have even suggested trying to make the place more like Kiryat Sefer, with a hub for hi-tech work catering to haredi employees. But if history is instructive, Tifrah’s blossoming will remain modest.

“Several years ago, when Meir Porush was deputy housing minister,” Finkelstein says, “he offered to authorize the construction of 1,000 apartments in Tifrah, but I turned him down.”

Why? After struggling for so long to survive, wouldn’t the influx of residents have breathed new life into the little moshav?

“We would have gained a thousand homes,” Finkelstein says, pausing before delivering the moral of the story, “but we would have lost Tifrah.”

Looking out on the sandy street that rings the hard luck town, Finkelstein sums up more than 50 years of shaping this little corner of the desert.

“We like Tifrah like this,” he says, “it’s good for us the way it is. We don’t want to lose the character of this place. We want tranquility.”

Besides, he says, “Just being here is a success.”

Gleaning the fields

My son has a green thumb. I discovered this today in a field outside Kfar Sava, north of Tel Aviv, as he happily stripped leeks of their roots and dried leaves and carried them from the field to a large shipping crate (see photo at right). He’s not even two years old, but he’s already showing a hearty disposition for hard work… and a penchant for charitable acts.

Israelis have gone in two different directions in recent years, with some enjoying the wealth that has driven the country’s impressive economy and others wallowing in poverty. Although poverty statistics are a matter of some debate — and of much propaganda — the inescapable reality is that hundreds of thousands of people here are hungry.

Among the numerous charitable organizations working to alleviate that suffering is Table to Table, which takes an innovative approach to the problem. Rather than seek to raise funds to buy food, Table to Table focuses primarily on “rescuing” the tons of food that are routinely wasted in a modern society.

Catering halls and cafeterias of large companies are prime targets, with myriad meals that can not be served as “leftovers” to customers, but that would provide welcome nourishment to those left off the guest lists and without corporate meal plans.

Also important are farms, where produce sometimes ripens at the “wrong” time, or is perfectly edible but looks too “funny” to fetch top prices from the markets. In such cases, farmers can give the food away, and be compensated for their losses. Table to Table, through their division Project Leket, arranges trips in which volunteers come to pick fruit or vegetables to be donated to soup kitchens and other charities.

It was one such trip that my son and I made today, joining some 50 members of our synagogue. Ariel can’t wait to go back and do it again. Maybe next time he’ll be old enough to realize that his “playtime” in the fields is a small contribution in the daunting quest to alleviate hunger. And that, I hope, he’ll enjoy even more.

(Last year, I visited with Table to Table and joined a Project Leket trip to the same fields. Interestingly enough, the harvest on that occassion was also leeks. You can read more about that experience, and about the organization, here.)