“After a few months of crisis, workers’ savings were eroding, and people were looking for someone to turn to. Now they have seen that the Histadrut can help them," Irit Fourien-Weizmann, vice president of human resources at the Histadrut, told Davar. She heads the new mutual aid fund that the Histadrut has put in place to help its members and their families survive the pandemic.

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The Histadrut set up the fund just three months ago and has already received over 1,000 requests for aid. Three hundred families were approved as eligible and received food baskets, computers, blankets, and more. 

"The fund will continue to exist after the pandemic," said Fourien-Weizmann. "It was built to serve the long-term members of the Histadrut."

Director of the Mutual Aid Fund, Adv. Irit Fourien-Weizmann (Photo: Private album).

At first, Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David stated that the fund would only be open to single-parent families, a sector that is more vulnerable to crises. After two months, and many requests for assistance, eligibility was expanded. 

"The chairman of the Histadrut has decided to allocate a significant budget for the project, and he is pushing us to use it all," said Foreign-Weizmann. “The first criterion for eligibility is still the payment of membership dues for three consecutive years. The idea is to designate the fund for Histadrut members, people who identify with the organization.”

We make sure to come to them as sisters in solidarity. This is not charity”

“The second criterion is the income threshold. Here, too, we started with a stricter criterion that later on was expanded,” she continued.  "Currently, the highest income acceptable is NIS 9,000-14,000 a month, depending on the number of children and whether it is a family with one or two breadwinners."

Fourien-Weizmann explained how the new fund functions to Davar. 

How do you apply?
"We have set up a digital form. We mapped out the membership directory so we could quickly figure out if the applicant was eligible in terms of seniority and salary. We sent a link in a text message to everyone whose phone number was in our directory, and who met the criteria.” 

Mirella Mikhalovich and Dana Bar-Lev during a round of home visits. (Photo: David Tversky)

“There are three threshold conditions, which are seniority, salary, and number of children. Those who apply then speak to a social worker, who tries to understand the source of distress and make an appropriate plan. At the same time, a basket with several hundred shekels worth of food and dry goods is sent to them.”

How many people meet the criteria?
"When we launched the fund in October, our database showed that there were about 40,000 people who met the criteria. With the wider criteria, another 210,000 additional members meet the parameters. This does not mean that everyone is in need, just that they meet the criteria.”

“It's sad to say, but in Israel in 2021, having a paying job does not necessarily save you from poverty. Of our eligible workers, very few are married couples, less than ten. The distress is found mostly in single-parent households. More than that, I can say that it is especially acute among women. 98% of those eligible are women, most of whom work part-time.”

What other assistance, besides food, can the fund give?
“For us, the food basket is the first step. During the conversation with the social worker, we try to understand if there are additional needs. It could be computers for children with headphones and a camera so that they can participate in distanced learning.”

'We buy computers for children with headphones and a camera. But we can also buy a bed if there is a need." (Photo: David Tversky)

“It could also be blankets, stoves, we added clothes to the list because we heard from people who needed clothes for the winter. We send gift cards, not used clothes. We made a package for babies, which we adapt to the age of the child, with formula and diapers.”

“If there are children sleeping on the floor, we will also buy them beds. And if there is no washing machine or refrigerator, it needs to be taken care of. In recent days, we have begun to provide such things as well.”

Fourien-Weizmann said that the chairman of the Histadrut contacted Mirella Mikhalovich, 70, a retired social worker who until recently worked for the social workers' union, and asked her to support those who reach out to the fund.

"I have spoken to more than 260 families in the last two months," said Mikhalovich, on her way home to Jerusalem. "When I ask them if there are other things I can help with, many times they won’t tell me. There is the issue of shame. That’s why it is important for me to actually visit every home, call anyone who has asked for help, and understand the needs.”

“The situation of many families is very difficult, and these are working families. Most are not on welfare and are not accustomed to being in the position of asking for help. Men and especially women, who somehow got along before coronavirus, have been hit hard by the crisis and knocked down," she continued. 

Dana Bar-Lev, from the Workers’ Division: "The Histadrut has rethought how to take care of these families" (Photo: David Tversky)

Dana Bar-Lev, 28, from the Workers’ Division of the Histadrut, accompanies Mikhalovich on her visits. 

"The coronavirus disrupted the lives of these families," she said. "These women are put on unpaid leave, living on unemployment benefits, and the Histadrut had to rethink how they are being cared for now."

"For me, these are members of the Histadrut who have paid the Histadrut membership dues for years, and this is the way we should take care of them. In the past, if there were layoffs, they would get legal aid. Now they get blankets, or food” Bar-Lev continued. 

One of their home visits was to a worker in a call center in a government office that was once again put on unemployment at the beginning of the third national lockdown. Mikhalovich and Bar-Lev arrived to deliver her a warm winter blanket and slips for clothes.

"It's hard for me not to work," the worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said. "But it's nice to have someone think of you, and I think more women should know about this project.”

Histadrut employees step up to help: "This is not charity"

"These visits make the families very happy," said Fourien-Weizmann. "We make sure to come to them as sisters in solidarity. This is not charity.”

She said that with the exception of Mikhalovich, who was hired as a professional for the fund, all of the fund’s organization is done on a volunteer basis by Histadrut employees.

Dudu Bezalel, the Histadrut's vice president of operations, deals with the logistics and makes sure that the assistance reaches those who need it. Arnon Bar-David, Histadrut chairman, heads the fund and Ofir Alkalai, the Histadrut’s executive director, manages the fund.

"The idea of the fund is not to send a single basket of food and be done," said Fourien-Weizmann. "These are families in need of support. We will send them another basket of food for Passover. We will continue to support them. Unemployment is not going to end tomorrow, and even if someone is receiving support from their parents, everyone is still under strain. The children are still at home. We have a long way to go, and we all understand that.”