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Yael Eckstein: Salary Inequality and Poverty in Israel is a Battle We Can Win

Yael Eckstein holding hands of an elderly woman, Netta, in Israel. (Credit: Olivier Fitoussi)
Yael Eckstein holding hands of an elderly woman, Netta, in Israel. (Credit: Olivier Fitoussi)

Israel is often considered the meeting place of ancient traditions and modern innovation, where religious fulfillment meets technological startups. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the small country of less than 10 million residents holds special meaning to billions of people around the world. But Israel struggles with severe income inequality and debilitating poverty levels that are notably higher than in other developed countries. For the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (“The Fellowship”), this struggle has inspired their 40-year legacy of generosity and support.

President and CEO of The Fellowship, Yael Eckstein, leads all ministry programs and serves as international spokesperson for the organization, which is the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Israel. In 2021, fundraising by The Fellowship exceeded $200 million, allowing The Fellowship to help 2 million Jews in need in Israel and around the world. The need for The Fellowship’s contributions is greater than ever, even as strides are being made to decrease salary inequality and poverty.

Just how dire is the situation in Israel? According to New York Weekly, average incomes in Israel are higher than in France and the UK, with the average adult income in Israel coming in at $65,843. But the bottom 50% of the population have average salaries of a meager $17,092, while the top 10% earn $323,634 annually – nearly 19 times that of the bottom 50%.

Israel’s salary inequality levels are comparable to those in the United States, and both Israel and the US are considered to have the worst income inequality in the developed world.

The Taub Center For Social Policy Studies in Israel published A Picture of the Nation: Israel’s Society and Economy in Figures in June of 2023, providing a comprehensive view of the severity of poverty in Israel, and its far-reaching implications on those affected. The results were nothing short of alarming: 21% of Israeli families live in poverty, with minority groups of Haredi Jews and Arabs being disproportionately represented amongst these. When the data was restricted to those families with children aged 4 and below, that number grew to 25% of the population.

In short, nearly 2 million people in Israel – with almost 1 million of these being children – live in abject poverty, in far worse conditions than the rest of the Western world.

How The Fellowship Makes a Difference

As social expenditures on health, education, social welfare, and social security are decreased following pandemic-era highs, Israel’s in-need population is leaning on organizations like The Fellowship more than ever.

“Israel is a nation of immigrants,” Yael Eckstein explains of her home. “While these people come to their biblical homeland for the promise of a better life, they often encounter unique difficulties – barriers of language and culture that make it difficult for them to adapt to life in their new home.”

This is where The Fellowship steps in, providing monetary, physical, and psychological support to a wide variety of residents. Elderly and Holocaust survivors, impoverished families, children and youth in Israel and the former Soviet Union, and minorities in Israel all receive aid from The Fellowship.

Yael is quick to recognize that the good work of The Fellowship is thanks to its donors, who “give sacrificially to help Israel and her people,” resulting in essential items and services for Israeli families.

Much of The Fellowship’s budget is allocated to food for the needy, which includes prepared meals, food cards, and food packages delivered to the elderly on a monthly basis. The Fellowship serves hot meals to thousands of people at their more than 40 soup kitchens, and food cards are distributed to in-need families at Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

Almost 12% of Israelis are senior citizens, and the elderly population is growing twice as quickly as the rest of the population. Medication, home visits, and emergency funds for basic needs are provided to the elderly by The Fellowship. Emergency call buttons are given to Holocaust survivors so that they can immediately connect to a support hotline providing medical services. The Fellowship has also provided vehicles to local municipalities for use in picking up elderly residents and taking them to community centers and medical appointments. During the cold winter months, heating vouchers are distributed to the elderly.

For families in need, The Fellowship funds shelters for battered women and children’s homes, as well as enrichment activities and services for young people and elderly residents. The Fellowship purchases and delivers appliances, clothing, and food to those living without, and many children receive clothing and school supplies from The Fellowship.

Poverty Has Long-Term Implications For Children

The Taub Center report provided proof that “family income during the first thousand days of a child’s life has a critical influence on future academic achievements.” Children 4 years old and younger who live in poverty earn much lower test scores than their wealthy counterparts, inevitably affecting their future success and earnings.

Even though 59% of government expenditure, or NIS 297 billion, was allocated for social expenditure in 2021, a large void is left. This is where The Fellowship steps in, providing daily “boots on the ground” aid to those who are struggling to make ends meet, with few options to improve their situations.

The Fellowship’s Work Continues

Yael Eckstein leads The Fellowship with strength and compassion, initiating outreach that is based on love and generosity of spirit. As she said in a recent reflection, “The Bible tells us, ‘There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:11).”

Israel may indeed still be full of poor people. But through generous and reliable donations that annually reach $130-165 million, The Fellowship’s open hand to Israelis leads to hope, love, and lifesaving aid.

Looking forward, salary inequality and poverty may be Israel’s biggest battles, but Yael Eckstein and The Fellowship believe that these battles can be won – and they are working daily to create that reality.

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