Jerusalem's Supermen

May 9, 2009

11 min read


Two unknown heroes tackle the poverty in Israel.

When I made my first trip to Israel at the age of 12, the countless beggars sticking their hands out and pleading for tzedakah (charity) in the center of town gave me chills. I was struck by the man with one leg, the poor woman who claimed she was deaf, and the man who thought he was the Messiah.

Almost 15 years later, after visiting the Holy Land many times and finally making aliyah, the beggars seem like old friends. The same people asking for and receiving donations day after day have less impact on my emotions than they did before. They have become a part of the scenery of downtown Jerusalem and the Western Wall plaza. I know they're making enough to survive (most as much as 200 shekels a day from tourists and passerby), and so I often wonder: Is there is any real poverty in Israel?

I was rudely awakened last week as two angels led me on a journey into the hidden pain and the equally concealed chesed [kindness] of the people of Israel.

My husband Yitzchak and I meet angel number one, Dovid Cohen, at his apartment door in Jerusalem's Ma'alot Dafna neighborhood. A middle-aged man taking care of his elderly father, Cohen tosses a bag of balloons in my hand ("For the children," he says) and rushes us to a rundown white station wagon parked below. We were on our way to pick up angel number two, Chaim Goldberg.

The two-man team spend 4-6 p.m. daily giving to and checking on their most recent recipients of the over $1.5 million they raise each year.

The two-man team spend 4-6 p.m. daily, Sunday through Thursday, and much longer on Friday, driving from one neighborhood to the next, giving to and checking on their most recent recipients of the over $1.5 million they raise each year.

One of our first stops is in Mea Shearim. The streets look the same as usual; young girls in matching blue skirts and men in black hats are bobbing all about. But we aren't here to buy religious articles or books. We pass the shops and enter an eerie, dilapidated building. Yitzchak and I exchange glances. Goldberg tells us the family's history: The father is suffering from a recurring childhood heart disease. The mother's last birth resulted in heart problems and asthma. The baby also needs treatment. The parents have four kids, astronomical medical expenses and no strength to work.

"Go up, knock on the door, and tell the mother Chaim Goldberg sent you. Check on them and find out how much they need," Goldberg says as he hustles us to the door. "Let them know their treatments will be covered. Oh, and don't forget to tell them Shabbat Shalom."

We hurry up the stairs and enter an apartment to see children covered in grime. We exchange words with a kind woman who sheds a glowing grin at the mention of Goldberg's name, and return to report.

Goldberg pops open his palm pilot and records the needed doctor's name and fees, giving Cohen directions to the next apartment. Cohen has driven half way by the time the directions are finished.

We are at a woman's school, the only institution the organization funds. From the outside it appears an ordinary flat, but from inside we see several makeshift dorms, a kitchen, classrooms. An elderly Sephardi rabbi emerges from the library and gives Goldberg a jolly hug while we look around. The school is a haven for "girls of the street," a place where young women from secular families who have recently become observant can come to learn, and a home for those who have none.

The rabbi brings out one of the newest students to meet Goldberg.

Dressed in a poorly fitting black skirt and a shirt whose collar tugged uncomfortably at her neck, the rabbi tells Goldberg she is badly in need of clothing.

"Where are you from?" Goldberg asks her.

"Tel Aviv," she responds, her eyes fixed on the patio's wooden planks.

"Where were you living before you came here?"

"A hostel," she whispers. "My parents didn't want me."

"I understand you need some clothes," Goldberg says. "Do you know how much a couple of dresses would cost?"

"I have no idea," the girl responds. "I wouldn't even know where to go."

"Do you have someone who could take you?" Goldberg asks as the rabbi whispers him a modest sum.

The young girl nods and within seconds Goldberg has stuffed a check into her hands – 400 shekels to cover the cost of some properly fitting clothing. The girl is beaming but continues staring at the floor, embarrassed by this great kindness. She thanks him softly and returns to her dorm.

Yitzchak and I exchange glances again. "What is going on here? Are these guys for real?" If I didn't know any better I would have thought I was dreaming.

Though their chesed project seems like a fairy tale, Cohen and Goldberg's story is very much real.

Chaim Goldberg moved to Israel from Chicago in 1967 and within months he began raising and giving tzedakah money. He says it was ingrained in him from a young age.

Goldberg runs this million-dollar operation from a palm pilot, taking absolutely nothing for administrative costs.

"I'll never forget one Passover night. My father says, ‘open the back door.' A man is standing there and my father hands him his good holiday shirt. ‘Don't tell your mother,' my father says to me, and he closes the door."

Goldberg's great grandfather was the first person to give out Shabbat food packages in Chicago. Chesed is in his blood.

Goldberg learns Torah all day long and does his chesed in the evening. Very shrewd and sophisticated, he runs this million-dollar operation from a palm pilot, taking absolutely nothing for administrative costs.

He targets those who suffer in silence. He looks for the people who are too ashamed to ask for help and who say, "Please, please, we have enough," even when they have precious little or nothing at all. They find their cases mainly through word of mouth: social workers, the corner grocer, the woman who works in the area doctor's office or a Torah-study partner.

"Every community has a gabbai [manager of neighborhood charities and synagogue affairs] who knows the inside scoop and he reports to us," said Cohen.

But the suggestions remain merely ideas until Goldberg decides what to do. With so many suffering, Goldberg has to choose, and selecting recipients involves an investigation. Goldberg checks out his cases by showing up at their homes on Erev Shabbat and finding them with no food. He visits families in the winter and sees they are at home shivering. He uses his gut instincts to decide how best to handle each family's situation.

Cohen said some families are written checks, but others are not so good at handling money. Those families are given heaters, refrigerators, washing machines, food, or whatever else they might need. Cohen and Goldberg have connections with area appliance and grocery stores, and they get their products at cost.

Knowing the details is very important. Cohen is very sensitive to this. As the organization's administrator, chauffeur and fundraiser, he encounters a lot of truly suffering people, but just as many who make a decent living begging or do it to feed their gambling, drug or other addictions. Likewise, he said, he knows many people and organizations that give away tremendous amounts of tzedakah each year to the rightful recipients, and others that give to the wrong address or squander the money raised on their administrative expenses and entertainment.

"There is a man without legs in Jerusalem. He goes around schnorring [begging]," says Cohen. "People see him and they think, ' I have to help this guy…' But this man is a compulsive gambler. He lives in a fully paid apartment, and is given a comfortable monthly stipend from the government. All his schnorring is for scratch cards."

Cohen sighs. "People erroneously think, 'I gave tzedakah, now it is between me and God.' But in order to fulfill the mitzvah of giving tzedakah," Cohen explains, "it has to get to the right address."

Goldberg and Cohen's kindness is not delivered to any one location. It has found its way into homes across Israel – from Tzfat to Beersheba, from religious to secular, from Russians to Ethiopians, and into the hands of recent terror victims and their families. They do it for the people, but they also do it for themselves.

"It is a real high," Cohen explains. "It is nice to sit at the Shabbat table with the knowledge that a series of people are eating Shabbat dinner because of me… It is exhilarating." Cohen also says seeing what others don't have helps him appreciate that which he does.

Our last two stops demonstrate Cohen's words. When Goldberg and my husband knock on a young immigrant's door, she opens it with a smile. The couple had recently moved to the Holy Land with their many children, whose father had yet to succeed in finding a job.

"I'm Chaim Goldberg," he says. Her smile turns to anger and she traps him inside her apartment.

"You, it is you! Why did you do this? What did we do to deserve this?" she asks, pointing to a brand new washing machine Goldberg had delivered last week. She says she is upset because it says in Proverbs that it is praiseworthy not to rely on the gifts of others.

"I don't need a refrigerator. The patio is my refrigerator."

Goldberg smiles. "It is not a gift," he says. "It's mine, and you can use it as long as you'd like."

With that he begins to walk around the filthy, rundown apartment, looking to see what type of refrigerator would be best to have delivered. He asks her what type would be most suitable.

"I don't need a refrigerator," she says, pointing to her balcony where all the family's food lay strewn. "The patio is my refrigerator."

Another brief argument ensues. Goldberg thanks the woman for agreeing to store his new refrigerator and ensures her it will be delivered in the next couple of days. With that he slyly grins and exits.

Next, Yitzchak and I walk to the first floor of modest apartment building at the edge of the Bucharan Quarter. Goldberg tells us the family has hit hard times and the sons need special education to get them through their lessons. He has agreed to foot the bill. They also needed a cabinet to put away their clothes and blankets; before Goldberg heard of them, all their belongings were in cardboard boxes and strewn on the dirty floor.

We knock and a middle-aged woman answers with a cheery grin. "Chaim Goldberg sent us," I say, and the woman opens her arms and embraces me. I hand her the check for her children's schooling and she only tightens her squeeze, thanking me and telling me what a wonderful mitzvah we are doing.

She invites us in to see the cabinet, which was delivered the week before. She shows us how beautiful it is, open the doors and points out that her things are folded so nicely. She calls after us to wish us a Shabbat Shalom and while we bless her with health, happiness and success, she wishes us the same.

I am doing all I can to hold back the tears stinging my eyes. I have never seen a woman as grateful as this one.

I walk down the stairs in shock; I am not sure if I have ever seen a chesed as great as Goldberg and Cohen's. Like Superman, Cohen and Goldberg come and save those in need, but quickly change back to Clark Kent in order not to receive any, as Cohen put it, "underserved respect." He tells me, "I'd rather have humiliation in this world, but have respect in the World to Come."

I can't shake the feeling that I am witnessing a miracle.

I can't shake the feeling that I am witnessing a miracle. I thank God for having given me the opportunity to see what it really means to do a mitzvah. I make a personal vow always to give my tzedakah money to these two angels, so that I know it is going to the proper place.

As the sun begins to set and Cohen drops Goldberg back at his home, I ask him a final question. "What keeps you going?"

Cohen takes a deep breath and says, "The Talmud says that two things will save us from the pains of the coming of the Messiah: Torah learning and acts of loving kindness. I just want to help things go in the right direction."

With great sadness we report that Rav Chaim Goldberg passed away March 30, 2016, at the age of 67 in Jerusalem. May his memory be a blessing.

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