Robert Housman wanted to be a philanthropist, but lacked what is perhaps the most necessary means to be one: money. “I’ve always wanted to do things that would make society a better place,” said Housman. He may have done just that when he founded Yad Chessed in 1989, a non-profit organization that helps Jewish families and individuals in need across Massachusetts. The name of the organization is Hebrew for a hand of loving kindness.
“It was a little overwhelming at first,” said Housman, of Brookline. He was supposed to be working a full-time job as a computer programmer when he started the organization. He began getting dozens of phone calls from other agencies he worked with on behalf of clients, mostly from Jewish Family & Children’s Service, an organization that cares for individuals and families by providing human service and health care programs. “Sometimes it felt like all the social workers at Jewish Family & Children’s Service were referring people to me,” said Housman.
He mailed out letters of appeal to members of the Jewish community and received money in the mail and started giving it away. For the first years of Yad Chessed, Housman was largely running the organization out of his home by himself, with the exception of a few volunteers. “The question was, ‘How much can I expand Yad Chessed?’” he asked. There were two problems according to Housman.
The first was that most people didn’t realize the dire need for help within the Jewish community. “One of the things that we had to do was educate the Jewish community that we really should do something to help people,” said Housman. The second problem was time. Because he had a full-time job, he didn’t have enough flexibility in his schedule to inform the Jewish community other than by word of mouth.
Through Jewish Family & Children’s Services, local rabbis, and talks he led at synagogues and religious schools, he spread the word about those in need of help in the Jewish community. Housman also hired Yad Chessed’s first social worker nine-and-a-half years ago when the business grew too large to run on his own, and an executive director, which would eventually allow him to retire. The current executive director of Yad Chessed, Suzi Schuller, is among the eight employees working at Yad Chessed now.
“He’s a very good person who really filled a great need in the Jewish community,” said Schuller. A social worker by training who has worked in the Jewish community for over 20 years and has a background in the anti-poverty initiative, she was an excellent fit for the job when she applied a year-and-a-half ago. “It was more than a job for me, it was so meaningful,” said Schuller. Yad Chessed’s mission, according to Schuller, is to help relieve financial distress of Jewish families and individuals and to help them work towards being stable. “It’s just a wonderful feeling every day to know the social workers here are truly doing that work,” said Schuller.
Not long after Housman first founded Yad Chessed, a young mother called him in distress. With her newborn baby at home, she had just run out of oil and the house was getting cold in the midst of winter. “I heard the panic in her voice when she called,” recalled Housman. He called an oil company and Yad Chessed paid for the service to go to this woman’s house to get her heat working again. “It was so fulfilling for me,” said Housman.
He related another anecdote in which a woman contacted him and said she had enough money for food or heat, but not both. She had to make a choice, so she decided to eat less. “That was terrible that someone had to make a choice like that,” said Housman. Yad Chessed began giving her monthly food certificates so she could have food and heat. “Some of the situations that people live in are unbelievable,” said Housman.
An important lesson Housman has learned over the years of building Yad Chessed is that one person can make a difference. “It’s unbelievably fulfilling for me to see the difference that Yad Chessed has made in people’s lives,” said Housman. 73% of their clients have less than $2,000 a month in income. From helping the homeless, to those who have a home but struggle to put food on the table, Yad Chessed has made a difference for many people in the Jewish community, according to Housman.
Housman’s Jewish values come into play with his work at Yad Chessed. “Certainly if you talk about Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, I think we are really doing something to make the world a better place,” said Housman. A religious and practicing Jew, he believes his work has a significant correlation with his Jewish identity.
When Housman was a teenager, a rabbi at his congregation told him something that particularly resonated with him. “The humblest moment in a person’s life is when one compares what one wanted to do with one’s life with what one actually did,” said the rabbi. In 2016, Yad Chessed impacted more than 800 families, which included 1,200 adults and 400 children. Having created Yad Chessed, and since retired, Housman feels he’s done something very significant that he never imagined he’d do. “I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to do something that I feel has really made a difference,” said Housman.