Our policy is to do everything in order to make sure that everyone [in Israel] has a roof over their head. – Ron Melamed.In October 2004, a single mother who had been squatting in an empty apartment for 14 years, telephoned Ran Melamed, Associate Director of YEDID, The Association for Community Empowerment.
“She was trying to prevent her eviction from the apartment by threatening to blow herself and her daughters up with gas,” Melamed told ISRAEL21c.
Fortunately, YEDID (meaning ‘friend’ in Hebrew) was able to find another apartment for the woman and her children.
“Our policy is to do everything in order to make sure that everyone [in Israel] has a roof over their head,” says Melamd.
Over one million citizens of the State in Israel live below the poverty line – among them, 600,000 children.
“There is nothing more humiliating for a person than waking up in the morning and knowing that there is no way to buy new clothes for the kids. There is nothing tougher than seeing your child go to school without breakfast and coming home to a lunch made up of potatoes and bread. YEDID fights to relieve the shame, despair and humiliation,” says Melamed.
Because, as in many countries, government support in Israel is inadequate, organizations for social change are becoming increasingly involved in both supervising the social welfare system and carrying out social welfare projects.
“The government’s job,” says Melamed, “is to make sure that laws, rules, and procedures are carried out properly and that residents and citizens of the state get what they deserve according to the law.
“Our job is to make the State, the government, and local authorities fulfill their obligations.”
YEDID – which received this year’s Award for Excellence in Social Activism – was established with two main objectives: assistance (through information and social empowerment), and activism (directed toward changing the social policies of the government).
YEDID’s battle plan is threefold: to provide individual assistance on a case-by-case basis, to push for change in governmental policy and to organize community programs. The citizens rights centers (CRC)s are located in both Jewish and Arab towns. They provide free information to clients about their rights and equip them with the tools necessary to deal with local authorities and other government institutions.
YEDID’s 18 Citizens Rights Centers (CRC) cater to citizens in the following income brackets: those on welfare; those who earn minimum wage (NIS 3,300 or about $770 a month ) and those who — as a family — are in the lower end of the middle class bracket , earning NIS 5000 – NIS 6,000 ($1100 – $1300) a month per family.
“The CRCs incorporate three elements: the personal touch, the empowerment of groups and the community touch and community program,” says Melamed.
Its services help citizens who don’t know what to do when, for instance, they don’t get their check from Social Security. Some may be unemployed and find that they are not eligible for unemployment benefits, or have been fired without severance pay. There are also those who cannot meet the mortgage payments or the rent. YEDID runs the ‘Year of Housing’ project which provides clients with free assistance and advice on issues concerning both public and private housing.
“We help the individual figure out what needs to be done,” says Sari Revkin, Executive Director of YEDID. “We provide information, help with contacting agencies, Hebrew translation when needed. We might call or write. We give everything up to and including legal assistance,” she told ISRAEL21c.
“We have programs to teach people how to find jobs. The difference between us and other companies that do this is: first, that we do it free of charge and, secondly, that we are really dealing with those of low income,” says Melamed.
Yedid also pinpoints shortcomings in the system and advocates change to correct those flaws.
“How quickly we can push for an implementation of change in policy depends on how newsworthy the issue can be made. If there is an interesting story behind it, then we get very quick results,” says Melamed.
YEDID’s projects are divided into those for children and parents on the one hand,
and for adults and the elderly on the other. The children’s programs are mainly educational, in order to prevent school dropouts. There is great emphasis on the importance of the parental role and on coaching parents to offer the children the help and support they need when they come home.
“If the parents can’t cope, or can’t help them with their homework, explain things, provide them with what they need, it doesn’t matter what you have achieved with them during the day,” says Melamed.
For adults, there are courses such as empowerment budgeting, on how to think for themselves to get out of the poverty cycle. And for the elderly, there are also Hebrew courses, because those who don’t speak Hebrew are not eligible for government classes and are effectively paralyzed in society.
YEDID is a revolutionary vehicle for the restructuring and healing of society. Since its establishment in 1997, YEDID has assisted close to 80,000 families and individuals, with as much love and care as if they were family members, according to the testimony of those assisted by the program.
“If it hadn’t been for YEDID and Vardit at the Jerusalem CRC,” says Dorit Yaskin, a single mother of two, “I would have been evicted from my home.”
YEDID stepped in at the last minute to relieve a situation of extreme pressure for Yaskin, one of whose children was ill, preventing her from working regularly.
“Even when I didn’t have the strength to call,” says Yaskin, “Vardit called me.”
Although Melamed is only in his second year at YEDID, he has known founder and Associate Director Sari Revkin for the past 15 years.
Revkin established YEDID with Avi Armon, a former colleague at another social action organization she founded; and Ofir Katz, a lawyer specializing in NGOs. They felt there was not enough work done on the periphery, with people of low income.
Revkin holds an MA in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a BA degree in Psychology and Social Work. She has an impressive resume and in 1992, along with Planned Parenthood in Maryland, she coordinated and developed grass roots programs for low income citizens, covering health, housing and education.
“We try to look at the client in a holistic way,” says Revkin. “If someone comes with a problem, that person probably also has a lot of debt, and the children probably also have problems in schools.”
“The aim is to turn citizens into independent people in the face of the required bureaucracy of life,” says Linda Epstein, director of the Chicago Federation in Israel, which has a partnership with the Kiryat Gat Branch of YEDID.
“People on low incomes often do not know how to budget,” says Epstein. “At YEDID one of the courses taught is how to budget – for instance how to avoid getting high cell phone bills. What has been learned at YEDID is that for people trying to live on low-income, it is a challenge to budget.”
In fact, a group of university professors from Chicago who visited the Kiryat Gat branch of YEDID (founded with the help of the Chicago Jewish community) this summer were especially impressed with the budgeting course.
“One professor was particularly excited about what he witnessed and felt that YEDID’s Citizens Rights Centers would be perfect for the inner-cities in the US.”
Each CRC employs a salaried, full-time director, a part-time case manager and from 10 to 70 volunteers, many of whom are former clients. Other volunteers include doctors, lawyers and social workers.
On staff in the legal department of YEDID are both the head of the legal department and head of the information center, as well as four lawyers who deal exclusively with housing issues.
“It is very powerful to see the volunteers work alongside professionals, such as architects, doctors, lawyers, and social services who want to contribute, to help,” says Revkin.
This combination of people is an opportunity for those from different socio-economic groups to sit together and talk about change.
YEDID also has an excellent relationship with the municipalities, says Epstein.
YEDID’s has achieved four major victories last month alone: It convinced the Knesset to institute the planned Nutrition Program, so that all children throughout their school year will be provided with healthy hot lunch. YEDID was also instrumental in the distribution of gift certificates to needy families.
It organized thousands of citizens in Sderot to petition the Director General of Egged Bus Company, requesting more bus stops in areas prone to attack by rockets – launched by Palestinians in the nearby Gaza Strip. Also, following a request by YEDID, the Health Minister is sending the Southern Region psychiatrist to Sderot, to increase mental health services
YEDID received this year’s Award for Excellence in Social Activism – presented by the Sderot Conference on Society in conjunction with the National Council for Volunteerism in Israel. The award is presented to groups and individuals who work to influence government policies in order to decrease social gaps and to protect the rights of the lower class and those in need.
In December, at Melamed’s suggestion, YEDID will be hosting Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich will be giving lectures and conducting meetings with students, social rights activists and organizations for social change about the documentary work she conducted for years on American society, its welfare system and minimal levels of living.
Melamed believes the YEDID model could be useful in the United States as well.
“As far as I know and read, the empowerment and the connection within the community is something that is missing in the US. At the CRCs people come first for themselves, and after they get help they stay on, to give back, because they feel beholden.”