For African migrants, shelter in a storm

For African migrants, shelter in a storm

Millburn philanthropy aids refugees at center of Israeli social crisis

Refugees line up for breakfast in Tel Aviv through a program underwritten by the Millburn-based Good People Fund. 
Refugees line up for breakfast in Tel Aviv through a program underwritten by the Millburn-based Good People Fund. 

For hundreds of African refugees living in Tel Aviv, a good breakfast starts in northern New Jersey.

For two-and-a half months, the Millburn-based Good People Fund has been providing the money — $200 a day — to serve breakfast to as many as 500 people in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park.

The small fund channels money to small-scale, mostly volunteer charitable projects. For a number of years, the fund had helped the Tel Aviv-based African Refugees Development Center, founded by an Ethiopian political refugee in 2004.

“In February, when the situation got to be sort of critical, we started to raise funds to provide a breakfast,” explained Naomi Eisenberger, the fund’s director and sole employee.

February was when the refugee situation hit the news, after a homeless man froze to death in Levinsky Park. In response, advocates for the migrants protested in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence with a mock coffin. Advocates said the plight of the African migrants, said to number as many as 50,000, had been aggravated by government policies designed to discourage asylum-seekers.

In a partial response, the Tel Aviv municipality quietly installed a shipping container in the park, which sheltered 50 migrants.

Since then, the politics around the Africans has grown only more heated, with prominent politicians warning they are “a cancer” on Israeli society. Some have been beaten or firebombed.

Eisenberg said that “as Americans, we really have no right to judge Israel on what they’re doing. We’re just looking at this from a humanistic point of view. These are hungry people who need to be fed until such a time as the government decides what to do.”

As it happens, one of the fund’s board members was in Tel Aviv this winter. Allen Katzoff — a Boston resident who served as director of Camp Ramah in New England and director of the Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Boston Hebrew College — is a Good People Fund board member who has been living half the year in Tel Aviv while his wife teaches at Bar-Ilan University.

It was Katzoff who met the key volunteer who makes the breakfast program possible: Gideon Ben-Ami, a retired restaurateur.

“Gideon is one of these amazing human beings,” one of the “Good People” the fund was founded to support in their charitable efforts, said Katzoff. “He goes around much of every day collecting food from various bakeries and supermarkets, where they’re going to get rid of it, and distributes it to various shelters.”

Ben-Ami had helped out a church group that was helping the refugees, and he told Katzoff that there was a real need to serve breakfast because “these people are sitting around all day long starving until the evening comes.”

‘It fills them up’

So far, the breakfast program has served more than 30,000 meals.

Ben-Ami collects the food. “Without him, there would be nothing,” said Katzoff.

The actual preparation and distribution has been taken over by a small organization of the African refugees, Bnei Darfur. “Both Gideon and I were able to step back,” said Katzoff. “It’s much better if the refugees can do it themselves.”

The menu depends on what is collected.

Sometimes, it is bourekas; sometimes it is leftover pizza (not very popular among the Africans).

“What they really love is bread,” said Katzoff. “We cut it up, serve it as sandwiches with jelly or cream cheese. It fills them up.”

In the winter, they served hot tea. Now, it is an orange drink.

Because most of the meal is donated, the cost of a morning’s breakfast is only 40 cents per meal.

“We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out,” said Eisenberger. “Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.

“All of us are very aware of the political situation and the volatility of it. Allen Katzoff, who has been spending winters there many years, said to me a while back that this is going to explode, and it has blown up. It’s distressing to see what’s happening.”

This article was reprinted with the permission of New Jersey Jewish Standard in Teaneck.

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