Gabi Nachmani, founder and director of the Tenufa Bakehila—Building Hope nonprofit, knows what it’s like to stare at a mold-speckled ceiling as the electricity blinks out from the dampness in a rundown home.
At eight years of age and soon after his father died, Nachmani became the “fixer” of his small, two-bedroom home in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, where he and his two siblings lived with their mother and grandmother. The drip, drip of rain coming through the kitchen ceiling beat a steady rhythm into the pail positioned in the middle of the kitchen table. At least once a day during the winter, he or his sister had to empty it to keep it from overflowing.
As Nachmani became better at fixing things, he and his brother started helping neighbors.
“We had many Holocaust survivors in the neighborhood,” he recalls. “When I ran into them in the street, I would ask if they had anything that I could help them with. It seemed there was always something—plastering, fixing faucets, caulking, and I never asked for payment. They would ‘pay’ me with a glass of juice or a cookie and I was happy to help.”
When he attended the Hebrew University, he formed a group of volunteers that would go to the Nachlaot neighborhood on Fridays to help the elderly and the needy with renovations.
After he graduated, he started a contracting business. He would fix up public housing units, always going the extra mile to do things not covered by the sparse government contract but which needed to be done. He would replace a kitchen or get rid of mold. His business covered the extras.
“People deserve to live in dignity and safety, especially children,” says Nachmani, recalling his youth of despair. “I want children to live in a decent home so they can brush their teeth in a sink that isn’t broken.
“I want grandmothers to host their grandchildren in their homes. One grandfather we helped never hosted people because he was so ashamed of how he lived. That should never happen. Only after we fixed his apartment did his grandchildren visit,” Nachmani says.
After he married Tina, an American, Nachmani lived in Denver for two years. There he saw housing problems similar to those in Israel. While the state should be fixing government-owned housing, and landlords should fix renter’s homes, he explains, people who own their homes frequently fall between the cracks, especially when they are poor. The place gets more and more rundown as the years go by.
The Nachmanis moved back to Jerusalem in 1993 and Gabi put up a note on his lobby bulletin board offering to help fix things and to help teach residents how to fix up their apartments. He saw a big demand for home repairs and that the Israeli government doesn’t have a program to help needy homeowners, so he decided to raise funds to expand his efforts.
Nachmani joined Livnot U’Lehibanot (“To Build and Be Built”), a volunteer-based educational and experiential program, and helped it create its Community Service Project, a division to renovate and rebuild homes for needy families. There he taught volunteers how to fix up synagogues and homes in disrepair. He ran the Livnot Campus in Jerusalem for 15 years, until it closed.
A different model
Nachmani began fundraising for the service apart from the educational program, and decided to create Tenufa Bakehila, with a different business model.
Instead of using a volunteer base, which he says isn’t efficient enough to do all the work he wanted to do, the new model includes in-house repair staff and social workers to work with poor homeowners to determine their needs and help them upgrade their homes.
Municipalities began to refer homeowners to Tenufa Bakehila through municipal social workers who noticed peeling paint, water damage, broken fixtures and appliances and dangerous living conditions.
“It’s not like the TV shows where they do home makeovers,” explains Sarah Bechor, resource director at Tenufa Bakehila. “So many of these homes are so tragic. People don’t have water, fixtures or bathtubs. They are starting from below the baseline. Just to bring them up to baseline is tremendous.
“We have a limited budget and we aren’t trying to make people’s homes the prettiest in the neighborhood. We are focused on safety, accessibility and providing people with dignity. If we can, we will uplift a child by painting his or her room in color or putting a picture on the wall. But we have a standard to spread the money to as many homes as possible,” she says.
She recalls a visually impaired Holocaust survivor who had trouble moving around in his dim apartment. He needed strong LEDs. The organization redid all the lighting.
“We renovate according to each person’s needs,” explains Bechor. “If there is a certain situation—electricity, water, mold—and something comes up and our expert workmen aren’t able to handle it, we have a list of volunteers who we can call. All our workers are full-time contractors.”
No food and other hazards
The Tenufa Bakehila construction staff work in close collaboration with their in-house social worker, according to Bechor.
“If a workman comes in and sees a 14-year-old sleeping every day and missing school, the word will go out to the social worker who will try and troubleshoot the problem. They might open the fridge and find no food or see hazardous things—exposed wires in the walls where small children crawl around or near a wall with tiles that are falling down. The construction team will fix what they can and pass on observations to help the social worker help the family with food vouchers, therapy and access to medical care.
“One worker noticed that one of the children in a home was coughing all the time. He figured out that there was mold in the house, addressed the mold and helped the child receive the care needed,” Bechor says.
Today, Tenufa Bakehila operates in 20 cities from Hatzor HaGlilit up north to Beersheva and Sderot in the Negev, with 26 repair people and growing. The crews are dispatched in teams of two with fully-stocked vehicles.
Tenufa Bakehila has repaired more than 7,000 people’s homes to date. The goal for 2023 is 700 homes.
Nachmani met with MK Meir Cohen, a former minister of labor, social affairs and social services, and asked for an estimate of how many homes of Israelis living below the poverty level need fixing. Cohen told him that at least 50,000 families below the poverty line own homes in disrepair. The state won’t fix them because it isn’t responsible for fixing private homes.
Shefi Oshorovitz, a licensed contractor with broad experience in building projects, is Tenufa Bakehila’s national work foreman. He visits the worksites and assigns the teams. He describes most of the visits as difficult.
Trafficked to the U.S.
A recent visit took him to the apartment of a widow. Originally from Columbia, she was trafficked to the U.S. and lived a life filled with drugs and violence. She eventually met her husband and moved to Israel, but he died.
Her Tel Aviv apartment had no kitchen, no closets, seven cats and several dogs. The smell was noxious, according to Oshorovitz. The widow was so happy that someone had come to help her that she cried. They are building her a kitchen and some closets. The social worker will help her organize her possessions and get her cleaning help.
Another recent call was to a tiny home built in the 1920s. When Oshorovitz visited he saw a woman in bed. The social worker explained that the woman has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and cannot move or talk. She can move her eyes and when she tries hard, she is able to manage a small smile. She communicates using her eyes and a computer screen. Her only request was to have a window near her bed so she could see outside from her bed.
As Oshorovitz asked her caregivers about the building plan, the woman communicated through her screen that there is a beam every 60 centimeters. He was astounded.
“I realized that I was communicating directly with this amazing woman’s brain,” he recalls.
He made sure to complete the job in one day, installing the window. “It occurred to me that thanks to Tenufa Bakehila, people who were living in darkness now have light.”
Nachmani remembers being asked by the municipality in Jerusalem to help a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. The man was sleeping in a pile of garbage and had lost a leg. He could barely get up and was unable to throw out the garbage.
Hundreds of cola bottles and papers were strewn throughout the apartment, and it smelled so bad they had to come in with masks. He never let anyone into his home. The welfare department found out about him when a neighbor walked by the apartment and thought there had to be a dead body inside.
“We came in,” recalls Nachmani, who frequently visits work sites along with Oshorovitz and his teams. “The kitchen wasn’t functioning. The faucet was dripping water into a bucket under the sink. The shower wasn’t working. There was no hot water. The man was ‘showering’ with baby wipes. The toilet seat was broken. It was no way for a person to live.”
The apartment needed more than just basic repairs. It needed a solar water heater, air-conditioner, new windows and a new shower, tiles, an entire bathroom. Tenufa Bakehila put out the word on social media for donations and brought in volunteer professionals. Thanks to the donations, they provided him with a new mattress, curtains, a table, chairs, an oven, basics that a human needs.
“I remember seeing this man walk into his place in astonishment,” Nachmani recalls. “He thought he had the wrong house. We went to visit him 10 months later. He got up and went to the new fridge and said, ‘I would like to give you something to drink.’ He was serving us. The same man who was in bed all day—in total despair—was taking care of us. It puts you on such a high when we see the difference.
“I have a dream,” explains Nachmani. “My dream is Israel with no housing poverty. We expanded to two new cities last year and hope to expand to at least two new cities each year.”