JERUSALEM (JTA) — On a quiet, little-known street in one of Jerusalem's poorer neighborhoods, the line on Friday mornings begins to form as early as 6 A.M. outside the home of Rabbanit Bracha Kapach.
They come from all over Jerusalem, particularly in the weeks before Passover: men down on their luck, elderly women with meager pensions, street urchins living from fix to fix, mothers with too many mouths to feed.
Kapach treats them all the same. She hands them challahs or clothing or cash, wishes them a "Shabbat shalom," and sends them on their way.
This is how Kapach, a diminutive Yemenite octogenarian known all over Israel for her good works, has become a lifeline for some of Jerusalem's neediest, delivering hope in the form of food packages and small kindnesses.
Kapach says it's not charity; it's her responsibility.
"How can a person sit at his Pesach table and not have helped someone else for the holiday?" Kapach says. "If I help God's children, He'll help me."
From her modest living room in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot, Kapach runs a busy operation that regularly provides food, clothing and myriad assistance to some 1,400 indigent families in Jerusalem every year, to the tune of about $180,000 annually.
Before Passover, she shifts from challahs to matzohs and provides food packages containing meat, oil, wine, sugar, instant coffee, dates, tea and nuts. When she can, she gives some of the needier cases a little extra cash.
Large families with eight, nine, and even 15 children knock on Kapach's door. Young men who have been cast out of their families because of drug problems or an abusive parent, mothers who cannot afford weddings for their daughters, prostitutes trying to break out of the cycle of vice and desperation, providers who have lost their jobs-they all come to Kapach for help.
Kapach doesn't just offer handouts on her doorstep. She manages a used clothing center, runs a summer day camp for needy youths, organizes Bar Mitzvahs for orphans, and throws together weddings for couples who cannot afford them. In one recent case, Kapach saw to it that a destitute couple got a wedding complete with flowers, candles, volunteer musicians and a sit-down dinner using leftover hotel food, homemade fill-ins and rolls contributed by a local bakery.
Somehow, Kapach seems uniquely able to make do with whatever she is able to scrape together.
But the last year has been very difficult, she says. In the wake of last summer's war in Lebanon, many of Kapach's regular donors redirected their money to Israel's north rather than to her charity, she says, and she's short on cash.
This year, the weeks before Passover found Kapach wringing her hands with worry.
"We haven't paid off our debts from last year and now Pesach is coming," she says. "It frustrates me that I give less. They come, and I send them away. What can I do? God have mercy on me."
Fiscal challenges have not stopped Kapach. But it has forced her organization, Segulat Naomi, to borrow money from supporters and banks, sinking her into debt and reducing the number of people she is able to help.
"This holiday we'll only distribute 4,000 Pesach packages, not our usual 6,000, because we don't have enough money," she says. "This year has been very hard. I hope God sends me some donors so I can repay some loans. I'm very ashamed about it."
Kapach may be generous, but she's no pushover. When junkies she knows come to her door, she gives, but no more than $5 or so.
"They cry, 'It's not enough,' and I tell them, 'It's enough for a fix,' and I laugh. I'm not afraid of them," she says with a smile. "When they bug me for more, I say, 'Wait around a bit. The police will be by.'"
Kapach's energy appears boundless. When asked her age, she demurs. "What good will it do to tell? People will say, 'She's so old and yet she's still active.' I don't need this."
"I'm an old woman," she offers.
Born in Yemen's capital city of Sanaa to a prestigious Jewish family, Kapach got married at age 11-to her first cousin-and had her first child at 14. She had two more children before she made aliyah with her husband, in 1943.
Kapach's late husband, Rabbi Yosef Kapach, was a scholar and extraordinary person in his own right. The rabbi's research and commentary on Maimonides won him the venerated Israel Prize in 1969, and his wife's charitable work won her the Israel Prize three decades later, in 1999. The Kapachs remain the only married couple ever to have both won the Israel Prize.
Kapach says she doesn't deserve the credit for the dozens of prizes and plaques that adorn her kitchen wall.
"It's all on the merit of God-He helps and He gives," she says. "My work expanded so nicely. It's all from God."
Kapach's charity began gradually, when she started helping her neighbors in Nahlaot some 42 years ago. She washed the floors and prepared hot meals for an elderly woman too infirm to care for herself. She helped rebuild the home of a family whose house was destroyed by a fire the husband had started to keep himself warm during a Jerusalem snowstorm. She rented a room for a gang of street boys on drugs, paving the way for their eventual return to society and embrace of Judaism.
When people asked her who sent her, Kapach invariably proffered the same answer: "God."
Little by little, more and more people began coming to Kapach. She helped everyone from the neighborhood's crazy shmatta lady with the cockroach-infested house to the Israel Defense Forces, for which she knitted soldiers' caps. Kapach's famous embroideries earned her an international reputation.
Seven years after her husband's death at the age of 82, Kapach is still going strong. But she says her work is just a fraction of what's needed.
"Jerusalem is one of the hardest places in the country. It's poorer than anywhere else," she says. "There are so many here that I just can't help. The state of poverty has gotten worse and worse. You know how many people come just to ask for bread and milk? It's a very grave situation."
Even as her organization's debts grow, Kapach says she'll carry on. There's simply no other way.
"We continue to give, and whatever will be, will be," she says.
To support Rabbanit Kapach's work, tax-deductible contributions can be made out to "PEF Israel Endowment Fund" - make sure to write "Keren Segulat Naomi" in the subject line -- and mailed to PEF-Israel Endowments, Inc., 317 Madison Ave., Suite 607, NY, NY 10017. Contributions via this fund require a $25 minimum.