How Bank Leumi Once Saved My Life
In good times and bad, financially speaking, Miriam Gavriel and Bank Leumi, Yokneam Elit, are in my heart, if not always on my mind.
The year was 1997 and I was 46 years old. A single mother with two teenage daughters, I had finally, after many years, reached financial security. I was treating sex trauma survivors and their families in a clinic I set up in a room in my home, and I had steady work teaching sex education in continuing education programmes for school staff in Arab villages in northern Israel. Based on the fact that I could count on earning over 30,000 NIS per year teaching sex ed, I bought my dream house in Yokneam Elit, the mortgage manageable because of this money.
It was a newly built conjoined two-floor apartment with a large backyard on a street that ended in a park with a path down into the forest behind our house, the perfect place for walking our dogs. I spent long hours designing and building the yard — it sloped down toward the fence at the end and when driving to and from teaching in an Arab village in the Galilee, I would stop and pick up rocks at the side of the road, beautiful red rocks with holes and notches in them; these became the borders of the terraced sections that I built to make a garden filled with fruit trees and flowers. I even constructed a cactus garden in the middle of the yard where there was no shade. I bought rail ties and had them cut to a size I could manage and from these I built steps alongside the terraced gardens leading down to what was now a flat lower area that I grassed for a play area.
Six months after I moved in, the Ministry of Education decided to cease supporting most in-school continuing education programmes. I was suddenly out of the 30,000 NIS I was counting on. Soon after my last deposit from the Ministry, the bills started adding up. I tried to increase the hours in my clinical practice but it takes time to accomplish. Furthermore, my teaching was a necessary break from the very difficult clinical materials my clients brought with them. But that is a separate issue.
At some point, I was not able to keep up. I went deep into overdraft. In Israel at that time, most people lived on overdraft. In fact, bank accounts usually went from zero funds to whatever-their-budget-could-handle and back to zero when salaries were paid. I was not overly stressed when I was slightly in overdraft once I got used to it. Besides, banks did not (and still do not) pay any interest when your bank account has funds in it so there was no incentive to be much over zero.
But now, I was not able to get back to zero and each month I sunk further and further into overdraft until my bank — Bank Hapoalim — froze my account and did not allow me to do anything. They had not called me in to advise me how to manage the situation when it started getting out of control and the only way I found out what was going on was when I tried to deposit a $10,000 cheque that would have given me peace and quiet for a little while. The bank informed me that they would not deposit my cheque because my account was frozen.
Yes! You read that correctly.
The bank refused to deposit a $10,000 cheque.
A few years earlier, my mother had given me and my brother her share in a rental building and my earnings came to about $10,000 a year. My father owned half the building and took care of all the administration. The cheque had come just in time, but the bank refused to accept it. It did not matter how much I cried and begged — they just would not deposit it. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why not. I had been a customer of Bank Hapoalim since 1976. Until that point, I had no reason to doubt the professionalism of their service. It was not as if I was asking to take money out of a frozen account — I was trying to put money in!
Desperate, I went into the Bank Leumi branch that was just across the courtyard in the commercial center serving Yokneam Elit at that time. I found myself sitting across a desk from Miriam Gavriel. I told her my story and asked her what I could do. Miriam went into the bank manager’s office and closed the door behind her. The walls of the office were glass and I saw the manager glance over at me periodically, with a serious look on his face.
Miriam came back to me and told me she was opening an account for me and depositing the cheque. In addition, the bank gave me a line of credit that meant that I would pay less on my overdraft than I had been paying at Bank Hapoalim. She gave me a loan at a rate usually reserved for account holders with better credit than I had at that moment. And she told me to consult with her whenever I felt the need to do so.
I could breathe again.
Of course, after I submitted the paperwork to close my account at Hapoalim, I got multiple calls from the bank manager at the branch in Haifa where my account was; he tried to entice me out of closing the account. He said he would not close the account until I came in to see him. I went in. I told him what had happened at the branch in Yokneam and how Leumi treated me without me having any history with that bank. Account closed.
Throughout the years, Miriam was always there to help me. She gave me the lowest fees on loans and other services that she could (after getting permission from whoever the manager was at the time). She was my ally. She cared about my financial security. She always had time to look things over and make sure I was managing my money the best way possible. She taught me a lot.
Miriam retired four years ago. I transferred my loyalty to one of the staff who had worked closely with Miriam and who knew me well. I considered her an ally too. Then a few months ago, she left the bank, probably got a promotion somewhere else. I now know none of the banking staff personally; the manager does not know me. In any case, when you phone the bank these days, you get a call center and not your own bank where you can speak with someone whose voice you recognize.
There is no reason now to stay at the Yokneam branch since it is not close to my home and when I need to go in, I do my banking through a branch that is a short drive or bus-ride away.
But I am having another slump. And when I went to the new branch to see about moving my account there, the clerk told me to come back after I will have come out of the slump, when my account is more stable and no longer in overdraft.
There is no Miriam in today’s banking system. She fought for me before she even knew me. She told me way back then that she could see I am a serious hard-working person who is facing a temporary difficult situation and that she trusts that I will use her help wisely and pull myself up again. Miriam Gavriel saved my life. I have no idea what would have happened to me had she not been there to catch me on the way down and give me a boost up out of the pit.
There is no Miriam in today’s banking system because the banking system has become automated, modern and impersonal. I know that Miriam, herself, would not have let the computer system tell her what to do if she wanted to do something it told her was not allowed. But Miriam was old-school. She was stubborn. She cared.
I know I will eventually move to the new branch nearby my home. And I will probably make friends with the clerk who will handle my account. We will ask about how the kids are doing and wish each other happy holidays and inquire about how vacations were. But I do not anticipate that she will fight for me like Miriam did. She will be pleasant and helpful, but not an ally. We have lost something of the Israel I came home to in 1976. While I enjoy the conveniences of modern Israel (and of course the air conditioners we did not have back then), I miss the old Israel. I will tell you more about it sometime.
Missing Miriam, I looked her up on the Internet and found her husband’s mobile number. When she came onto the line, her voice filled me with nostalgia for my old ally. I will take up her offer to visit her and over coffee I am sure to be back in the old Israel, the personal Israel, the crazy Israel that I love so much.