Charedi welfare boss: ‘We deal with families in crisis — day and night’


The wall clock has stopped in Michelle Ciffer’s office at the Hershel Weiss children’s and families centre, located in the heart of Manchester’s Charedi community. She has long been meaning to buy replacement batteries but it is way down her list of priorities in a job where there is never enough time.

“I’ve pulled all nighters to get things done but that’s third sector reality,” she explains. “We deal with families in crisis day and night. We are now helping a woman left destitute by her husband.”

Things are even busier around Pesach at the Salford centre, which Mrs Ciffer says caters for 630 families, or 2,500 people, equating to a quarter of Manchester’s strictly Orthodox population.

She is interrupted constantly by calls to her mobile phone, predominantly concerning festival supplies for families in financial need. “The message has got out more,” she observes.

“A gentleman who has six children came to our door and said in Hebrew: ‘I hear you give out food for Pesach.’” Through a benefactor’s donation, money has gone out to households requiring extra cleaning help.

“People come in and tell us: ‘We can’t afford clothes, we can’t afford food.’ Housing is another issue as more and more Charedim need to find somewhere affordable near a shul. It’s not just the people on benefits who are struggling. It’s the working poor.”

One of many heart-rending stories she relates concerns a man in employment who sought help because he could not afford to buy furniture.

“He gets up at 2am and works in a factory until midday. His wife has mental and physical health issues. They have three teenage kids and they can’t afford to live. He had to borrow money to buy tefillin for his son’s barmitzvah.

“When I think someone couldn’t come to me with a worse story, someone does.”

The centre is experiencing an unprecedented level of demand. It is now assisting a growing number of single parents, which she attributes partly to “shidduchim problems” and more strictly Orthodox wives or husbands being prepared to leave an unhappy marriage.

Separate support sessions have been held for single male and female parents. “Seventeen came to the session for women and a lot of them ended up in tears,” Mrs Ciffer recounts.

“Spousal abuse is the biggest and most hidden problem we have to deal with,” she adds. “A lot of women will see it as ‘this is my way of life’. You only hear about it after they divorce.”

The centre enjoys good relations with local police and Mrs Ciffer spreads the word that, particularly in cases of wife or child abuse, people should go to them directly, rather than to a rabbi or doctor.

Other activities include the popular children’s drop-in, whose hours have been extended pre-Pesach to offer respite to busy mums.

It also runs art classes, hosts an NHS baby clinic, offers English courses — “a big problem is that many men cannot write in English, which they need to fill out forms” — and provides benefits information and advice. For the many households without internet, a Hershel Weiss service is assisted benefit applications which are scanned over to the council.

Once again this year, she is expecting 1,000 people to take advantage of heavily, and in some cases, completely subsidised summer trips for families without cars who cannot afford a holiday.

All this, and much more, is accomplished on a budget of just £190,000. She is proud that in a difficult financial climate, Salford City Council has committed funding to the centre up to 2022. “It’s recognition that we are meeting our targets — and that we are very cheap.” However, Salford’s £93,000 annual contribution has remained static and even Mrs Ciffer’s powers of persuasion have to date failed to get the council to increase it.

Support is also received from organisations including BBC Children in Need, Gift, Jews’ Temporary Shelter, and Jewish Child’s Day. “Other charities can see we are making a difference.”

And it helps that “Manchester is the chesed capital of the world. There are individuals who are truly incredible. The more Orthodox they are, the quieter they are about it [their generosity].”


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