Unlike Charlie’s Angels, the fictional TV detectives, “Sarah’s angels” are a band of Israelis – 6,000 strong — who are part of a uniquely Jewish organization founded to do acts of kindness for Jews and non-Jews in Israel.
Sarah’s angels volunteer for Yad Sarah, an Israeli NGO that has grown to be the world’s largest lender of goods free of charge, and Israel’s largest voluntary organization. But it’s much more than a regular gemach, a Hebrew acronym for “acts of kindness” that denotes a place that lends items to the community.
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The organization has more than 100 branches around the country, including in Arab municipalities. By lending medical equipment and providing free services such as day rehabilitation centers, information for parents of children with special needs, and geriatric dental clinics, the organization is able to save the Israeli economy an estimated $400 million a year in hospital expenses thanks to its focus on homecare.
About 80 percent of Yad Sarah’s donations come from Israelis.
A recognized ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council of the UN advisory body), Yad Sarah has become a model for countries like Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Angola, Cameroon, China, El Salvador and Hungary.
“There is no one country in the world that has this kind of service with everything together, a one-stop station,” says Meir Hendelsman, volunteer director for international cooperation.
In contrast to other volunteer-run homecare services around the world, Yad Sarah also offers meals on wheels, sheet washing for the bed-bound, free home repairs, legal aid for the elderly and transportation for people with disabilities.
Home care is more than medical
“The core of Yad Sarah is about Jewish people. There is something in our soul,” says Hendelsman, a religious Jew.
He tells ISRAEL21c that the heart of the organization’s success is its 6,000 volunteers, mostly pensioners, who staff the branches that lend out thousands of articles of medical equipment in return for a small security deposit.
Popular items for loan from Yad Sarah include wheelchairs, crutches, oxygen tanks, breast pumps, cribs, medical alert systems and hospital beds. At any given time, about 18,000 wheelchairs are in circulation.
Anyone can make use of the non-profit’s services, no questions asked: “You can come to our offices driving a Cadillac, or riding a donkey. Walking even,” says Handelsman, who was previously a director at the Israeli Health Ministry and was asked to join Yad Sarah a few years ago. “We don’t discriminate between wealthy or poor, Jewish or Arab,” he says.
Refugees and tourists to Israel can also enjoy the organization’s services, with a larger deposit required.
Yad Sarah also offers “Life Story,” an opportunity especially meaningful to Holocaust survivors, says Handelsman, but it’s available in Arabic and other languages too.
“Elderly people want their life story told,” he explains. “So we’ll send a volunteer who is qualified at this. They will meet 10 or 15 times or as many meetings as it takes. He cries. The volunteer cries. They both cry, and finally the person will get a book of their life story to show the family.”
Founded by an extraordinary person
Yad Sarah was started in 1976 by Uri Lupolianski, a past mayor of Jerusalem, when he was a young teacher who’d moved to the country’s capital city from Haifa.
Lupolianski noticed a strange phenomenon: Every winter, ambulances were coming to pick up children to take them to the hospital. After a day or so the children returned home. He asked a neighbor what was going on.
He learned that when the central heating systems in Jerusalem apartments were working at full force, the dry air would cause or exacerbate breathing problems in children. They could be treated at home with respirators or simple humidifiers, but this kind of equipment was out of most parents’ reach at the time.
Lupolianski, who was living in a religious community, had an idea to establish a gemach out of his own apartment that would lend out humidifiers and respirators for free.
This continued for some years, and after Lupiolianski’s dad sold his shoe business in Haifa he offered his son a large sum of money to expand the gemach. He asked that the organization be named after his mother Sarah, Lupolianski’s grandmother who was killed in the Holocaust. “Yad” in Hebrew means hand, but also help, or charity.
In 1994, Lupolianski received the Israel Prize for his Yad Sarah initiative.
Today the organization employs 200 staff members who work hand in hand with the thousands of volunteers running the organization that has become a worldwide model to emulate.