Pesach is around the corner, and with it comes the culmination of weeks of intense preparation. And perhaps what we’re most concerned about is the food. What will we eat for eight days? Do we have enough? We worry, plan, cook, bake, fry and freeze in order to ensure that our stomachs won’t be left to rumble at any point during the week-long festivity. But have you ever stopped to think about what other, less fortunate people go through? People who are not just worrying about what to eat on Pesach, but on every single day throughout the year?
Israel’s Poverty Statistics:
In Israel, according to the National Insurance Institute’s 2011 poverty report, there are 1,774,800 living below the poverty line. What this means is that almost two million people are struggling to survive on a daily basis. They are struggling to feed themselves and they are struggling to feed their children.
Meir Panim’s Response:
Meir Panim, which literally means “lighting up (peoples’) faces,” was founded in the year 2000 in order to provide relief to some of Jerusalem’s most disadvantaged population. What started off as a small, unambitious enterprise consisting of just one soup kitchen, rapidly developed into one of Israel’s leading relief organizations which today operates over thirty food and social service centers throughout the country. These include nine free restaurants, servicing five thousand needy people daily.
Varda & Stella:
Varda and Stella are both fifth generation Jerusalemites in their late seventies. They met at the Jerusalem Meir Panim Free Restaurant six months ago and became fast friends. Varda lives with her one hundred and two year old mother, who is too frail to walk to the restaurant herself, so Varda brings food back for her every day. Stella has lived alone since her husband died and has no idea what she’d do without Meir Panim. “I love coming here,” she says. “There is always a comfortable, friendly atmosphere and I never feel like people are taking pity on me. I feel like a guest in a restaurant, where the chef and the waiters know me and make me feel at home.” In fact, that is exactly the feeling that Meir Panim strives to instill in its recipients. The soup kitchens are called “restaurants,” and the “guests” are served by volunteer “waiters.” This contrasts sharply to the image of the classic soup kitchen, with people lining up, bowls in hand, almost begging for a minimal portion of food. Varda smiles and adds, “Aryeh (the manager) always laughs and jokes with us and makes us feel so welcome. I always go home feeling full and happy.”
Vivi is from Baltimore, Maryland, and is a 19-year-old seminary student who volunteers as a “waitress” in the Jerusalem Free Restaurant. “I was walking by one day and saw the sign”, she says. “My curiosity got the better of me so I stepped inside to see what was going on. After volunteering once, I was hooked! Seeing all these people and how appreciative they are makes me really appreciate what I have. It’s such a warm environment and I’ve developed some really special relationships.” In fact, just as she says this, one of the guests calls out her name and Vivi bounds over, serving tray in hand, smiling and ready to help.
Each of Meir Panim’s nine free restaurants is run autonomously with its own individual twist. Ilanit has been the manager of the one in Ohr Akiva (a city in the north of Israel) for the last seven years. But the branch in Ohr Akiva is more than just a restaurant. Ilanit has developed it into a whole center offering a variety of services to the city’s most needy people. The center offers food, after-school clubs, summer camps, holiday activities and even an “event management” facility, which organizes weddings, brit milahs and other simchas for those who need it. “The best part about my work is seeing the smiles on peoples’ faces,” Ilanit comments. “It’s worth everything. We’ve become one big family who love each other and would do anything for each other. It’s a powerful feeling — one that’s hard to put into words.”
Special Pesach Initiatives:
Meir Panim recognizes that Pesach is a particularly hard time for many families and individuals. This year, as the organization has done in the past, food packages and food shopping cards will be distributed to 5,000 people across Israel. And again, the idea of dignity is at the forefront of Meir Panim’s efforts. The food card is designed to look like a credit card and is worth a specific value of money. A person can take it to the supermarket, choose whatever foods he/she wants, and then “pay” like a regular customer at the check-out counter. “Meir Panim strives to provide its services in a way that makes every single person feel worthy and dignified,” explains Ilanit. Then she smiles and adds, “From the amount of people we help and the positive feedback we receive, I think it’s quite clear we’re succeeding.”
Other services Meir Panim provides include: meals-on-wheels for the homebound; meals for children in schools; vocational training for the unemployed; youth clubs for at-risk children; and clothing, furniture and home appliances for the needy. For more information about Meir Panim, visit www.meirpanim.org.