In 1971, a Chassidic Torah scholar with $500 in extra money from his wedding decided to start a gemach (interest-free communal fund). By the late '80s, that gemach was lending over ten million dollars a year.
How did a Torah instructor, with no substantial personal resources of his own, come to run a gemach of that magnitude? That was the question that I faced when I came to write about Rabbi Shmuel Avraham Myski, zt"l, for the Jewish Observer, shortly after his too early passing.
Ultimately, the only answer I could offer was: When a person has an overwhelming desire to give to others, the Lord provides him with the means to do so and on a scale beyond anything that could have been contemplated initially.
Rabbi Myski certainly possessed that overwhelming desire to give. He was accused, not without with some justice, of trying to grab all the chesed ("kindness opportunities") in Monsey, New York, for himself. . He did not wait to be asked for loans, but sought out those in need. He noticed, for instance, that a local shoe store was not properly stocked for the peak Passover season, and deduced that the owner had exhausted all his credit. A loan was forthcoming without ever having been sought.
The lessons learned from Rabbi Myski's remarkable life came back to me recently during a series of visits to Yad Eliezer's Jerusalem headquarters. About the dedication of the organization's founders Rabbi Yaakov Weisel and his wife Hadassah there can be no question. Fourteen years ago, robbers broke into the Weisels' apartment in Jerusalem's Ezras Torah neighborhood.
By unhappy chance, Rabbi Weisel, who had never before kept any substantial sum of money in the house, had just received a large cash contribution. He knew that he was under no Halachic (Jewish legal) obligation to endanger his life, but the thought of all those who would benefit from the money prevented him from handing it over. The robbers stabbed him 21 times, missing major blood vessels by millimeters, before fleeing with an empty safe.
Today Yad Eliezer is an empire of kindness, providing $15,000,000 a year in assistance to some of Israel's poorest families. But it started from nothing more than a simple impulse to help some neighbors in need.
Twenty-eight years ago, Mrs. Hadassah Weisel sent one of her daughters door-to-door to collect food for a neighbor with a number of disabled children and her own major health problems.
Each such trip brought back news of other such families in similar need. Soon the Weisel daughters were supplemented by a whole corps of neighborhood girls. Today Yad Eliezer has thousands of volunteers all around Israel collecting food and provides food worth over $4,000,000 annually to close to 100,000 Israeli Jews, through its monthly food baskets, weekly meals to the home bound, and special holiday distributions.
Yad Eliezer's infant formula program began in a similarly humble fashion. Mrs. Weisel noticed a neighborhood woman whose infant son could not hold his head up. After discreet inquiries, she ascertained that the baby's malnourished mother could not nurse, and to save money, she was diluting the infant formula with three times more water than recommended. As a result, the infant suffered from an acute vitamin deficiency. Yad Eliezer today supplies 1,800 mothers who cannot nurse for one reason or another with all the formula needed.
Many outside of Israel know Yad Eliezer best from the advertisements urging those making weddings for their own children to adopt the wedding of a poor couple in Israel. The cost of the latter is only a fraction of that of dessert alone at more lavish affairs in the Diaspora.
To date the organization has made over 10,000 weddings in this fashion. (The adopt-a-wedding idea has since been expanded to an adopt-a-bar mitzvah program to purchase tefillin for impoverished Israeli boys.) Two years ago, the organization purchased two wedding halls in Jerusalem for nearly $4,000,000, which allows them to further reduce the costs to the poorest families and offer relief to "middle class" Torah families. The stigma to fully subsidized families is also removed since the halls are used for all kinds of families.
Like most of Yad Eliezer's programs, the wedding program also began with a single individual in need. A young woman came to the Weisels' door collecting coins in a nylon sandwich bag on behalf of a poor young woman wanting to marry and start a family . She told Rabbi Weisel that she herself was the bride. Her father had been unable to meet his financial commitments, and she was afraid that her equally poor groom would against his will be forced to break their engagement.
About seven years ago, the Weisel's son Dov, who is today the director of Yad Eliezer, visited a woman with no family support raising a son on her own. Even though there was no food in the house, she told him that her greatest concern was that her son had no one with whom to study religious and character building texts.
Dov found a young Torah scholar to learn with the boy. It occurred to him that there must be many other young boys with no supportive male figure in their lives. A small $150,000 pilot program proved so successful that a full-scale Big Brother Program was developed. Today 3,500 boys between the ages of 8 and 13 spend at least three hours a
week with an avreich, who not only learns with them but becomes fully involved in every aspect of their lives.
Another 1,200 are waiting to get into the program. The total budget of the program is around $3,000,000, of which well over 80% provides much needed supplemental income to young Torah scholars. Again, a single case became the impetus for a major program.
How did what started as a handful of private kindness endeavors by one couple develop into Yad Eliezer? As with Rabbi Myski, the only answer is: siyata d'shamaya (help from Above). But that kind of siyata d'shamaya does not come to
everyone. Dov Weisel tells a story that goes a long way to explaining that of his parents.
A few years ago, he was sitting with a group of substantial contributors when a poor man knocked on the office door. Dov asked him to wait, as he was in a meeting. At that point, his father took him aside, and told him, "Never forget that the poor man is the important one. He is the purpose of this organization. The wealthy are only important because they can help him."