Abigail Klein Leichman
June 26, 2023

When you show up at a lonely elder’s door with a cake, chances are you’ll be greeted with a delighted smile and maybe an invitation to come in and share a slice or two.

That’s the idea behind a very simple volunteer project that is spreading across Israel like, well, buttercream frosting.

It’s called Uga B’Haftaha – Cake by Surprise – and it all started when Holon resident Tal Harel came back from a post-army trip to Australia and began delivering food from the municipality to homebound seniors during the pandemic. She was just 22.

Israeli volunteers bring cakes to share with lonely elders
Tal Harel, founder of Cake by Surprise. Photo courtesy of Tal Harel

“I saw that many elders are very lonely and some asked if I could stay and talk, or call them sometimes. They would say, ‘Maybe you can come with your friends or family next time.’

“One day I had a delivery for an elderly woman and I thought it would be nice to bake her a cake. When she opened the door, her face was so surprised and happy,” Harel tells ISRAEL21c.

It was then she realized how a cake changes everything.

When delivering groceries or prepared meals, the recipient feels grateful but also needy, perhaps a bit embarrassed.

“When you bring a cake, it’s turned into a social visit and prompts the person to ask you in for coffee. And the next thing you know, you are talking,” says Harel, now a 25-year-old Pilates instructor.

“It’s not about the cake — that’s just a prop. It’s about giving people the attention that they crave.”

3,000 volunteers

Harel posted her idea on Facebook and initially got only four likes. But before long, she had a team of 80 volunteers ready to deliver cakes to 120 elderly people in Holon before Jewish holidays around the year.

Today, Cake by Surprise has about 3,000 volunteers matched with 3,000 seniors in 16 cities across Israel.

Israeli volunteers bring cakes to share with lonely elders
Naama, a corporate volunteer from Altshuler Shaham delivering a cake to Yitzhak Ventura in Ramat Gan. Photo courtesy of Uga B’Haftaha

New volunteers are matched with someone in or near their hometown, suggested by the local welfare department or by word of mouth and sometimes even by request of a faraway family member. Many of the recipients are Holocaust survivors.

About half the volunteers are parents who take their kids along, and half are high school or university students.

“It’s not about the cake — that’s just a prop. It’s about giving people the attention that they crave.”

Wix donated a website. A dedicated app handles communication and logistics, because every visit is coordinated in advance.

“Despite our name,” Harel explains, “we don’t surprise our recipients. Before we visit, we have volunteers call the person to see if they want a visit, and we call again afterward to see how the visit went.”

Harel wants to expand Cake by Surprise to a weekly endeavor due to the warm reactions of recipients, who form bonds with their assigned volunteers.

Corporate volunteers and soldiers

Harel’s project caught the attention of the media and VIPs from all walks of Israeli life, and corporations were soon donating money, products and even employees to the cause.

For corporate employees, soldiers and youth movements wishing to participate in groups, Harel often arranges visits to senior day centers rather than individuals.

Israeli volunteers bring cakes to share with lonely elders
Members of Latet Youth delivering a cake to Elka. Photo courtesy of Uga B’Haftaha

“I was told that after they finish the day at the center around 1:00, the elders are lonely, so they are very happy when volunteers come with cakes,” says Harel.

Sensitive to the fact that many seniors are on a sugar-restricted diet, Harel asked popular baker and social-media influencer Keren Agam to teach her volunteers how to bake cakes without sugar.

Before Shavuot, a holiday often celebrated with cheesecake, Agam shared a sugar-free recipe and Harel turned it into a competition.

“All the volunteers took photos of their cheesecakes and the best one won a basket of cheeses donated by Meshek Tzuriel.”

Cure for loneliness

Harel hopes one day to do this nonprofit work full time.

“We have a big problem with loneliness no matter where we live,” she says, emphasizing that “the cake is just the excuse to meet.”

Israeli volunteers bring cakes to share with lonely elders
Krembo Wings youth movement members preparing to deliver cakes through Cake by Surprise. Photo courtesy of Uga B’Haftaha

She traces her care for the elderly to her very close relationship with her grandmother.

“Every day, seniors tell me their family doesn’t stay in touch and I want these elders to have the same relationship with a younger person that I have with my grandma,” she says.

“All of us will be elderly one day and we need a solution for loneliness.”

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