Bridging the cultural gap

I have a particular soft spot for those who identify problems facing the Torah community and take responsibility for solving them. Former Baltimorean, Paysach Freedman is one of those people.

When I first met Paysach nearly two decades ago, he was all of 26 and busy setting up a network of 18 night kollelim, Linas Hatzedek, focusing on mitzvos bein adam l'chaveiro, under the direction of Rav Yitzchak Berkovits. While overseeing Linas Hatzedek, Paysach also became involved in large-scale tzedakah distribution, working closely with the legendary Rabbi Chaim Goldberg, ztz"l.

In the course of that work, he identified some unique needs facing the English-speaking community in Israel — whether it be as tourists, yeshivah and seminary students, young kollel couples, new immigrants, or older retired couples. Those whose Hebrew is not fluent frequently feel incompetent and misunderstood. (I often tell bureaucrats with whom I'm dealing that I went to Yale Law School, hoping to establish that I'm not as dumb as I sound.)

But the struggles of English speakers are cultural no less than linguistic. Americans, for instance, who are told that there are no appointments available with the recommended physician or health professional for three months are likely to simply resign themselves to the situation. Native Israelis will beat down the doors until they get an appointment.

Many English-speakers do not realize that a negative response from a government office is not necessarily the end of the matter. There is usually an appeals procedure and room for effective personal advocacy.

I can fully appreciate the need for an organization devoted to helping English speakers. Even after 40 years in the country, I rarely open a letter from a government office on the grounds that I won't understand the contents, and, even if I would, it will almost assuredly be bad news. That, Paysach points out to me, is a dangerous course. Just the day before, someone phoned his Chaim V'Chessed hotline unable to figure out why his bank account was frozen. When Paysach asked him whether he had any outstanding debts, it took the fellow some time to recall a stack of letters from Shaare Zedek Medical Center he had ignored and which had now resulted in a lien on his bank account.

HAVING IDENTIFIED a community in need, Paysach sat down four years ago with leading English speaking figures involved in chesed and tzedakah, including Rabbi Goldberg, whose photo hangs on the wall of his office, to discuss areas of focus for the new organization, Chaim V'Chessed. The list of departments that emerged from the discussion included: bureaucratic hassles like property taxes, visas and passports; national health insurance; hospital assistance; dealing with the medical bureaucracy, including the various national health services; women's health issues; mental health referrals; special-needs education; and death and bereavement.

The need for the new organization became evident immediately. Chaim V'Chessed only had to advertise its hotline number, 072-CHESSED, for six months. (The hotline number is also splashed throughout the Newcomers Guide, which reaches over 16,000 English-speaking households, and for which Chaim V'Chessed writes the large information section updated annually.)


Rabbi Freedman helps a family navigate a late night crisis

Today, Chaim V'Chessed averages over 4,000 hotline calls per month. Three full-time employees patrol the corridors of Jerusalem's major hospitals, dividing their time between those cases already known to them and seeking out those lost in the maze. Mrs. Nechama Nulman, the medical department coordinator, frequently visits the hospital emergency rooms listening for snatches of English.

Zevi Weingarten, who has been working in Jerusalem hospitals for well over a decade, recently received a desperate call from a young couple. The wife had been waiting patiently for ten hours for a scan, while fasting. Within minutes of the call to Chaim V'Chessed, the scan was performed.

Two days after arriving in Israel for a family simchah, an older couple found themselves in a hospital emergency room. Unbeknown to them, the husband was suffering from severe internal bleeding. Meanwhile his wife was left wandering from office to office with only rudimentary Hebrew. Finally, her sister-in-law advised her to call Chaim V'Chessed. Paysach was at her side within half an hour, and over the long weeks and multiple surgeries to follow, he and Zevi Weingarten were constantly attending to the couple's every need.

One of the most difficult labyrinths for English speakers to navigate are those involving special education and the various government committees involved in assigning a child. Chaim V'Chessed's Faigie Gugenheim and special consultant D'vora Grossbaum have decades of combined experience in Israeli special education.

A mother was told that her four-year-old daughter needed supplemental language help, but would first require a psychological evaluation. For weeks, she tried in vain to phone the person in charge of scheduling evaluations at her kupat cholim, but was repeatedly left on hold. Within two hours of contacting Chaim V'Chessed, kupat cholim was on the phone to schedule the evaluation and offering profuse apologies for the delay.

The woman assigned to do the evaluation, however, was not an English speaker. The little girl did not connect to her and performed so poorly that she was recommended for a special education school she did not need. That's when D'vora Grossbaum stepped in to conduct her own evaluation, and because she has been recognized as one of Jerusalem's foremost speech therapists for 40 years, the kupat cholim accepted it in place of the one conducted by its own staff member.

Chaim V'Chessed depends on the latest technological wizardry. There is simply no other way to handle such a volume of cases with 14 employees working from multiple locations. Paysach sits at his desk surrounded by a semi-circle of computer screens that allow him to monitor every conversation taking place. He can do the same from his tablet on his six annual fundraising trips abroad. Every employee wears a headset at all times in the office, which allows, inter alia, for him or her to receive information even in the midst of a conversation.

The sophisticated use of technology, says one employee, "allows us to work sixty seconds of every minute." Freedman has made presentations to high-volume Jewish organizations in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York on customer relationship management (CRM).

Chaim V'Chessed computerized record keeping — including recording every single phone call that reaches the office — provides it with an invaluable database. If a client calls, for instance, and needs an immediate bilirubin count for an infant whose bris is scheduled for that day, a simple computer search quickly turns up several cases of home testing of bilirubin. The database allows Chaim V'Chessed to immediately identify changes in government policy or even a particularly ornery bureaucrat by virtue of the large number of similar calls received in a short space of time.

The large population being serviced by Chaim V'Chessed also gives it leverage in negotiations with government officials. Over the past year, Chaim V'Chessed convinced the Jerusalem water department to stop demanding huge security deposits from foreign owners of apartments. It also successfully lobbied the Education Ministry to cover medical and dental treatments for children of non-Israeli citizens. When the Meuchedet health plan announced plans to open a new women's health center, it was only natural that it consulted with Chaim V'Chessed, which has handled as many as 109 referrals in the area a month.

Chaim V'Chessed does not handle every problem that might confront an English speaker in Israel. It does not, for instance, provide tzedakah to those in need. But even there, by listening sympathetically for a minute or two, the person answering the call may elicit that the caller has become unable to work and is entitled to a large payment from Bituach Leumi.

Mrs. Sarah Juravel Sacks, the bureaucratic coordinator, tells me, "By concentrating on what we do well, we are able to do it extremely well." Because the office turnover is low, the quality of personnel high, and the three-month training period so exhaustive, the quality of service naturally keeps improving.

Of the hundreds of effusive thank-you letters in Chaim V'Chessed's database, Paysach has no trouble identifying his favorite, because it sums up so many others: "Without Chaim V'Chessed, we could not have continued living in Israel."