A few weeks ago, instead of having the usual assortment of guests around our table, my family and I chose to spend Shabbat with a special Jerusalem couple who serve the homeless and the hungry. For our family, this was a unique experience, rich with unforgettable showbox details, while for the unfortunate people with whom we shared our meals, this was a way of life.
Rabbi Yechiel and Esther Koslovsky are the administering angels to hungry and sometimes homeless people. It has been three years since they have sat down for a Shabbat or holiday meal with their own family, or within the comfort of their own home.
Esther is the moving force behind Eshel Avraham, the tiny two-room kitchen situated directly opposite the Kotel. The kitchen provides a hot meal to 40-60 men and up to 10 women daily. On Shabbat, three meals are served in a warm holiday atmosphere. The third Shabbat meal has the largest turnout.
Because of a lack of space, it takes place at the police headquarters building next to the Kotel, and more than 400 people attend. It is the first time in many years that some have experienced a Shabbat atmosphere while for other “regulars,” the atmosphere provides a spiritual as well as a physical respite from everyday hardships.
Since opening the kitchen, Esther has encouraged her husband and three children who are still living at home, to take part in the full-time production of feeding the hungry. It has now become a full-time occupation for the family. The work is physically exhausting, and they do it all themselves.
The food is donated and/or bought at cost. A volunteer caterer in town cooks the food. Rabbi Yechiel spends a lot of time picking up food, bringing it to the caterer and then delivering it to Eshel Avraham. The biggest burden is the $800 rental fee for the two tiny rooms. There is no organized funding for the project, and the Koslovkys have had many run-ins with the banks and landlord when money is too scarce to pay the rent.
Since opening the kitchen, the Koslovskys have eaten all their meals with the hungry and destitute. For the Pessah seder, they have fed up to 200 people, renting a special hall next to the Kotel to provide room.
The Koslovskys’ dream is to expand their tiny quarters in order to accommodate more people. They also dream of giving regular Jewish studies classes to feed the spirit as well as the body.
Not long ago, Esther felt that she did not have the strength to continue with the project. The mental and physical strain, as well as the financial burden, were taking their toll on her and on her husband, who has since developed diabetes. The strain has also affected their personal and family life, as everything revolves around this project. Esther turned to Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and asked if she could simply stop. The answer was that since so many people are dependant on this one meal a day and have nowhere else to go, the family was not permitted to stop.
Our family was a firsthand witness to this truth. My husband sat in one room with the men and I sat with our daughters and the women. The people who came to eat were mostly “regulars,” some of whom have been eating there since the place opened. It is a mixed crowd. While some were unkempt, others looked perfectly presentable, and seemed down on their luck.
One grandmother from America brought her grandson to Israel for the first time and, not realizing that bus transportation ends early on Fridays, got stuck at the Kotel. She heard that they could get a meal at Eshel, and went there Friday night. It had been many years since this woman had sat at a traditional Shabbat table and the blessings brought back memories of her own childhood. The tears began to flow freely as she told the Koslovskys how wonderful it felt to be there.
One of the “regulars” was an elegant looking haredi woman in her 30’s with an aristocratic manner. I learned from the Koslovskys’ daughter, Odelia, that she is originally from Switzerland, and is divorced with seven children, all of whom live with their father. On occasion, some of the children come to visit her and she brings them to the meals. There is nothing about the woman to indicate that she is dependant on a “soup kitchen” for nourishment. We had a pleasant conversation, but she did not volunteer any information about herself and something about her told me not to ask.
On the other hand, there were many who were more than willing to talk about themselves, and having someone to listen to their showbox stories seemed every bit as important to them as getting nourishment.
Trudy, single and in her 40’s, is an unemployed social worker from Holland who fulfilled an old dream of coming to Israel. For two months, she worked as a volunteer on kibbutz, and left after feeling exploited. Occasional cleaning jobs have afforded her a mattress on the roof of a hostel in the Old City. For the last two months she has been a regular at Eshel Avraham. Then there is Audrey, or Chaya Gittel as she calls herself now. She made aliya from America on her own in 1991. Unkempt and very thin, Chaya Gittel seemed somewhat unstable and very hungry. After eating everything on her plate, she looked around hungrily for more, and was told regretfully by Esther that there was nothing left. I offered my girls’ almost untouched plates, saying “It’s a shame to throw away good food.” Unhesitatingly, she took the plates and ravenously polished off the food. When asked what she would do if this place didn’t exist, Chaya answered that she would not eat. She was not the only one. Everyone else answered similarly.
Last year, headlines were made when a homeless man died of the cold at the Mount of Olives cemetery. This man used to eat at Eshel Avraham. When I asked the Koslovskys about the welfare system, they said that they do not ask questions. Whoever is hungry is welcome – no questions asked.
In an age in which people are busy pursuing their own needs, we need to pause and think of the not so fortunate. A poignant moment for me came at the end of Shabbat. Trudy had gotten accustomed to seeing us there and had begun to view my family as “regulars.” On parting from her, she said “see you tomorrow for lunch.” When she was out of earshot, I whispered to my girls: “Thank God you won’t; we will be going home”. And then I said to myself, “I only wish you all could go to a place you could call home.”