Mitch Chupak: How the Jaffa Institute helps disadvantaged Israeli children

Mitch Chupak (Meredith Holbrook photo)

Mitch Chupak the is the director of development at the Jaffa Institute, an Israeli non-profit that works with disadvantaged communities. A key focus of its programming is supporting children who live below the poverty line.

Chupak, who’s originally from New York, recently spoke about poverty in Israel at a lunch-and-learn event hosted by the Canadian Friends of the Jaffa Institute and held at Toronto’s Beth Sholom Synagogue.

How did you end up in Israel?

I’m originally from the Bronx. I made aliyah in 1972 after high school. Nine months after that, I was in the army. I served three years, then went to Tel Aviv University and then started working in social work. I worked in a residential treatment centre for adolescents who were psychotic or schizophrenic. I eventually got tired of the front-line work and decided I wanted to get into developing programs and funding sources for charities. I’ve been in this position for 20 years now.

What made you get tired of the front-line work?

I worked for years helping people in this way and it’s like someone taking a vacuum to your kishka and sucking out your soul. It drains you. It’s very tiring. I was working in a unit with these 18 boys and I thought, “What if I could find funding and develop a program to help them more?” It made me realize I don’t have to be the one doing the therapy – I could effectively help even more people by developing programs and finding funding for them.

How has the Jaffa Institute evolved since you first started working there?

I came to Jaffa in the early 1990s. It was a small organization then. What we’ve accomplished since is expanding the funds we have coming in from all over, including Israel. And we’ve expanded projects and programs to assist more people. We’ve grown from an annual operating budget of about $500,000 to somewhere between $8 million to $10 million. It took time and we had ups and downs due to things like the Bernie Madoff scandal and the market crash in 2008, but we knew how to cut back and stay afloat.

What’s the Jaffa Institute’s primary focus?

The focus is children who are high risk. Children who are from single-parent families, families that are low-income, or abusive, or where there are addictions issues. We make sure the kids get a proper education and get through school. They come to our centres for hot meals and homework assistance. They’re there until 6 or 7 p.m. every day and we give them the tools to deal with issues they face at home, or guide them so they avoid having to drop out of school.

We have a full therapeutic clinic of psychologists, social workers, etc., who deal with the kids’ issues, as needed. We also have summer programs like a two-month summer camp, and programs during hol ha-moed Pesach and Sukkot. These kids often don’t have anything to do during breaks from school, so we give them something.

What areas do you serve?

Originally, we just served Jaffa, but we’ve expanded into south Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, Holon, Yehud and Beit Shemesh – all low-income, vulnerable areas. We have about 18 facilities.

Do you only serve Jewish kids?

Mostly Jewish. Though in certain neighbourhoods in Jaffa, there could be some Arab kids.

Do you serve the asylum-seeker community in south Tel Aviv?

We do. We have programs for the children of foreign workers, with over 100 kids in it.

Where do you get your funding?

Fifty per cent comes from Israel, with 20 per cent from the government and 30 per cent from donors. In 1998, we started a campaign to teach Israelis what social investing is. Back then, people would say, “What do I get out of donating to your charity?” I said, “If you help these kids, you’ll make sure they become productive citizens. You’ll make sure they won’t fall into crime, go to jail or become a burden, but instead that they finish high school, go to the army and go to university. Giving money now is cheaper than to pay for a lifetime of rehabilitation and welfare.” And after a while, I think Israelis started to understand that.

We do an annual fundraising event in Israel and, this year, we raised between two million and three million shekels. We get a lot of support from companies, which donate to us and send volunteers to help with things like packing food for distribution. We give out 700 packages every two weeks, as part of our regular programming. And during Pesach, we give out about 4,500 food packages.

The other half of our funding comes from around the world – from North America, the U.K., Belgium, Holland, France – though I’m not sure how much longer our organization will last in France, due to anti-Semitism.


What do you want the Canadian Jewish community to know about the work the Jaffa Institute does?

I want them to know that we’re like an open house – they can come to us, or contact us any time. We’d love to show them what we do. We have over 40 programs. In addition to helping children, we have programs to help women who are on welfare to get into the workforce, and we distribute food packages to Holocaust survivors.

How important is Diaspora support to your operation?

I always say, we can help heal the wounds of these families, but we can’t do it alone. We need partners in the world who support us, both emotionally and financially. We need partners who understand that the programs we run are sorely needed to change the face of poverty and the future of Israel.

It’s so important that the kids growing up in these communities also dream. And if they’re not dreaming, they’re not going to get anywhere. We give them the tools to understand what their neighbourhood is, and that, while it can be limiting, they have the support from us to break through that wall and succeed in life. We don’t help 100 per cent of these kids, but I’d say a good 95 per cent of the kids we help become successful. They break through, they go to the army, university, get married. We see the results in the professions they go into, or in their asking us for scholarships for higher education. We give out about 350 scholarships each year for them to get higher education.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.