PROFILE

Angel of mercy who provides shelter for homeless of Tel Aviv

Geoff Kuhillow meets a woman-in-a-million who provides food and a haven for the homeless youngsters of Tel Aviv

IF she lived in Britain she could have been honoured by the Queen for her amazing work.

If she lived in America she might have been feted by the President at the White House.

But Batel Aranz lives in Israel. And despite the fact that she literally saves lives, she says the State treats her with utter contempt.

The petite, 36-year-old mother-of-three devotes her life to looking after Tel Aviv's homeless.

Her rambling, ramshackle wooden home provides shelter for 20 "street people". Some have been there a month or two; others have been there years.

They include the flotsam and jetsam of Israeli society - former prostitutes, ex-drug addicts, one-time criminals, some who have been in prison and others who have been sexually abused.

There are also shell-shocked boys suffering trauma after serving in the army.

But now the city fathers want to demolish Batel's self-supporting haven for the homeless - to make way for luxury developments on the edge of the posh Neve Zedek district.

And her 20 "house guests" - she calls them her "children" - would be put back on the street.

"I cannot - must not - let that happen," she insists articulately in near-perfect English.

"I dare not think what would happen to them if they went back on the streets. Some may not even survive."

The prospect of eviction from the shelter - called Beit Eli (house of my God) - is not Batel's only fear. For this angel of mercy is ill.

She has a condition called fibromyalgia, which causes pain in the muscles, tendons and joints and for which there is no simple cure.

"It affects me each day with terrible headaches and pain in my body," she says. "Sometimes I have trouble getting my arms to work.

"My doctor doesn't know how I'm still walking. But when you do good, God gives you powers. I forget about the pain.

"While I still have blood in my body, I will help my 'children'."

Their ages range from 16 to 25. Batel - attractive with long dark hair and a tattooed left arm - is a former "wild child" herself, having once lived rough on the streets.

She says: "I live very frugally. I have no material benefits. Yet I am the happiest woman in the world.

"The joy on the faces of my 'children' is everything to me."

Batel, a religious woman who prays every day and studies twice a week with two rabbis in a synagogue, goes on: "I have a gift from God.

"I see people with problems - often caused by heroin or vice - but I see only good.

"I trust and respect them and tell them, 'This is your home for as long as you want it'."

But throughout our chat, anxious Batel keeps returning to her biggest dread - her "children" being turfed onto the streets. And, more than likely, to fall back into their old habits.

"In my opinion, we live in a very greedy city," she says. "Many of its Jews who have money do not want to know Jews who have nothing.

"The municipality wants to provide luxurious hotels and villas on the humble site where we live. They don't care if the 'children' end up on the streets again and have suggested no alternative place for them to live.

"They want to knock down our house and sell the site to rich developers. If, God forbid, that happens, I daren't think what would happen to my 'children'.

"Some of the girls have been sexually abused by fathers or uncles. I've heard these kids crying in the night as they re-live those horrors.

"Without Beit Eli, they could be forced back to terrible people like that."

Batel was only 12 when she left home because she could not get on with her mother Mazel.

At first, she moved in with her father Dino, who was estranged from Mazel. But she fell out with his new lady and left after six months.

She spent time as a wild child in Eilat, living in caves, before the army gave her the chance to get her life back on track.

Batel later married, but it did not last. Now she is the single mother of Naor, 15, Shira, eight, and six-year-old Noa.

Her ex-husband, though, is still her best friend and visits Beit Eli twice a week to see the children.

Batel uses every shekel of her alimony to ensure her own children and her 20 "adopted" ones don't starve.

But her fridge is often empty and Beit Eli is forced to rely on sporadic handouts of rice, vegetables and anything else it can beg.

Batel insists that any food that comes into her house must be kosher. "Even when the 'children' are hungry I will not accept anything that is not kosher," she says.

"We have no government funding and we have many bills to pay. My own money is long gone. I had to pawn my car and have even used up my kids' savings.

"We are now desperate. But miracles do happen - I'm sure of it."

She breaks into a huge smile and adds: "The 'children' have a roof over their heads and lots and lots of love. God wouldn't let that be taken away.

"I love God so much. In fact, I'm crazy about Him. I know He will send us some help."

Just then, her dad Dino joins us in the rundown courtyard. He opened a shanty house more than 30 years ago next to his own home, taking in street children like Batel.

Now the youthful 75-year-old is her greatest helper.

"Every morning I have coffee waiting for all the children when they wake up," he says.

"I help them to be strong inside and give them confidence to face the world again.

"After coffee and our little talks, they go out into the city to try to find work.

"It's hard, very hard, but sometimes they get lucky."

Then, brimming with admiration and feeling not a little humble, it was time for me to leave.

I pushed into Batel's hand the only money I had with me - a 50-shekel note, worth a little more than 8.

She hugged and kissed me as a tear welled up in her eye.

"Thank you, thank you," she gushed. "Now my 'children' will have milk in the morning."

Batel welcomes visitors to the peaceful little haven at 28 Rehov Ilan, which can be found directly behind the Dan Panorama Hotel, through the public car park.

Donations to Beit Eli can be made to leti9@walla.com

 
© 2012 Jewish Telegraph

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