You could pass him by on the street and not recognize him—a simply dressed, humble man. What you can’t see is his heart of gold.
Aryeh Lurie grew up in a poor family in Jerusalem. Late at night, his mother would scrounge for discarded cucumbers in the shuk (marketplace) and went home to pickle them. That and a piece of bread would be the family’s lunch.
Yet despite the circumstances, Lurie’s parents never failed to care for others. Every Shabbat morning, his mother ladled out the first portion of cholent into a bowl and gave it to her son with the instructions, “Bring this to our neighbors. They have less than we do.”
“I said to myself, when I grew up, I will also help Jewish people,” Lurie recalls.
“Growing up poor teaches you to care and be sensitive to others,” he explains. “That is a great lesson for life. What I learned from my experience was to go to any lengths to protect the dignity of the poor person—especially a poor child. With their self-esteem intact, they can grow up to be successful adults. But if their dignity is damaged and they feel bad about themselves and less than everyone else, their life can turn into a downward spiral. When we help the poor and also maintain their dignity, we can help them fulfill their potential and becoming caring, giving citizens.”
As a student, Lurie began collecting extra food and distributing it to local families in need. In 1998, he formally established Yad Ezra V’Shulamit, naming his organization for his parents, from whom he had learned the importance of gemilut chassadim. He started by delivering baskets of food items to fifty families around Jerusalem each week.
“When I gave out my first basket, I had no idea it would turn into 3,000 food baskets a week,” he says. “I just gave away one and it kept growing.” Today, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit is a nationwide organization. Every week, food baskets containing chicken, fresh produce, and grocery essentials are distributed to more than 3,000 families.
On Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, 30,000 food baskets are distributed throughout the country.
Yet Lurie knows that this is not enough. More is needed to help people stand on their own feet. “I like to meet the people we’re helping and personally see what’s going on,” he says. “I remember the struggle of my childhood every day. I want kids not just to eat, but to have the proper clothing, notebooks, pencils and backpacks when they go to school. They need to feel good about themselves.”
Toward that end, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit has opened after-school Children’s Centers in Jerusalem and Tzfat. These warm, welcoming places each provide hundreds of children with a hot, nourishing lunch, help with their homework, tutoring, and recreational activities. The organization also operates teen centers in Jerusalem and Tzfat that provide a safe, structured environment for older youth. A community center will soon open in Tzfat that will feed 250 children, and host beautiful simchas for destitute families.
As Pesach approaches, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit is making sure that every family celebrates with dignity.
“In every generation a person must see himself as if he himself went out of Egyptian slavery right now,” writes the Rambam, describing how we must comport ourselves at the Seder table. But how can one do that when he cannot put food on the Seder table? Yet it is the people who are most trapped who need to taste freedom and dignity.
This year Yad Ezra V’Shulamit has undertaken its largest Pesach campaign to date. It aims to give 30,000 impoverished families food baskets containing the basic food supplies needed for the holiday. Hundreds of vouchers for food and new holiday clothing for children will also be distributed.
“‘Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat’ are not just words to read in the Haggadah,” Lurie says. “We have to really mean it. I am asking the entire Jewish community abroad to take these words to heart and help a family in Israel celebrate Pesach properly, with plenty of food for everyone.”
To donate a Pesach food basket, go to yadezra.net/Pesachfoodbasket.
Or call 972.2.540.0058 or 972.2.585.6002