One cool Jerusalem morning last month, I met Aryeh, the head of operations at the Meir Panim Free Restaurant near the city’s Central Bus Station. As part of Meir Panim’s efforts to ease the burden of poverty for many of Israel’s impoverished residents, this particular Free Restaurant – one of seven across Israel – serves approximately 250 meals daily.
Before Aryeh begins directing me and the rest of the volunteers, he gives me a tour. There’s a large industrial kitchen, plus a storage area for food. He shows me the collection of clothing that people have dropped off for him to distribute.
I’ve volunteered at other soup kitchens in Jerusalem and in the US, but something’s different here at Meir Panim. The dining area is set up in an attractive and homey manner, and there are decorations on the walls. This soup kitchen is not traditional – rather it is more like a restaurant.
Throughout the course of the day, volunteers peel, chop and prepare vegetables, set tables, and put the finishing touches on the day’s meal. I’m intrigued by a young family speaking Dutch. Israel is definitely a melting pot of cultures, with residents and visitors coming from all corners of the globe. I meet Abigail, who came to Israel for a three-week vacation with her husband and two children. While in Jerusalem, the family decided to volunteer. Through Twitter, Abigail found Meir Panim.
“We came as a way to meet the people of Israel, and teach our children to be giving,” she said, “We wanted to give to those in need.” Her husband, Michael, and 11-year-old son, Gregor, routinely volunteer at a local soup kitchen in their home city of Gouda. Michael said the experience at Meir Panim is much different than in Holland, where people must pay a small fee in order to receive meals. In just a few days, Gregor has connected with some of the diners and is greeting them with high-fives and big smiles.
As we finish preparing the meal, Aryeh opens the front door and lets diners in. They are a mix of Israeli society –young and old, religious and non-religious, people sitting with others and people who choose to sit alone. As we serve the meals, which are complete with bread, soup, chicken, vegetables and fresh fruit, a few women speak with me. I ask them about their families, as they ask me about mine.
Eighty-five-year-old Ruth tells me that Meir Panim is “something extra,” because they provide her with a warm lunch every day. Widowed, Ruth said she fell into a depression after her husband passed away four years ago. Now, Meir Panim helps her stay active, social, fed and satisfied with her life. “They take care of us and are kind,” she said. “This institution is doing a huge mitzvah taking care of us – the people of Jerusalem who have no family or work to sustain them.”
Many of the diners are Holocaust survivors, Aryeh told me. Menachem, a soft-spoken man, tells me he remembers going to school in Poland. With a smile, he laughs about how incredible it is that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren study in yeshivot in Israel, especially after he lived through the Shoah.
“We know that there is a great need for poverty assistance in Israel and we do our best to provide food and other services,” Aryeh told me. Nearly 20 percent of Israeli families are living in poverty, according to the National Insurance Institute’s latest report. It revealed that a staggering 1.8 million people, including 860,900 children, live below the poverty line. Since 2000, Meir Panim has been responding to this urgent demand in a variety of ways.
Annually, the organization serves at least 300,000 free meals out of restaurant-style soup kitchens, which also prepare meals-on-wheels for delivery to an additional 125,000 people. Meir Panim also targets children in impoverished areas, offering hot lunches, after-school clubs and summer day camps. All programs give dignity, respect and relief to many of the country’s neediest residents.
Looking to better serve Israel’s impoverished population, the organization is constructing the Mortimer Zuckerman & Abigail Zuckerman Israel Nutrition Center in Southern Israel. This center will prepare and distribute up to 30,000 meals daily. Once completed, it will be Israel’s largest food production facility, feeding thousands of people in need and creating hundreds of new jobs for local residents. Meals at this 50,000 square-foot facility will be prepared by a renowned Israeli catering company, which will provide high-quality, healthy and balanced meals.
There are various ways to help Meir Panim’s efforts. If you live in Israel or are planning a trip to Israel, you can coordinate to volunteer at a Meir Panim Free Restaurants by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate to Meir Panim, click here!
See Jamie's visit in this video below:
Photos provided by Meir Panim