Arriving alone to a Meir Panim restaurant-style soup kitchen in Jerusalem ahead of the Jewish holidays, Sophia* quietly walked in and sat down at a dining table. Within seconds, a Meir Panim volunteer came to bring her water and a hot meal – meat with stewed vegetables, chickpeas and potatoes.
In the midst of the high holidays in Israel, Meir Panim, an organization established to alleviate and diminish the harmful effects of poverty on thousands of Israelis, ensures that Israel’s needy has access to celebratory and dignified meals.
Ahead of Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, the organization’s restaurant-style soup kitchens throughout Israel are open for anyone in need to visit and enjoy a hot meal for free.
At first, Sophia did not want to be interviewed – but after hiding her identity behind a hat and sunglasses, she opened up – first talking about the food that Meir Panim serves – and then about her own story.
“It’s good food,” she said. “They do their best in order to give to us balanced meals – they take into account that we need iron- almost always there is meat,” she said.
“I immigrated to Israel from France 15 years ago,” Sophia added.
Her eyes teared up as she explained, “You need to take into account that sometimes people have to go to a soup kitchen because they pass through difficult times and when the situation is better and they can support themselves financially, they don’t come anymore.”
She continued, “There are ups and downs and when there are downs, you come here – you come to a soup kitchen.”
Sophia spoke about being treated with dignity at Meir Panim, explaining that respect may even be more important than hot food, because “if they aren’t respectful, even people who need food will choose not to go [to a soup kitchen].”
“During the holidays, if we just pray and don’t do anything to help those in need, our prayers are empty,” she said.
Sophia sent her gratitude to the many generous people who give to Meir Panim. “I thank everybody – Jews, Christians – I tell you hello and I thank you again because I know the other people are also in difficult situations and we send a big, big thank you.”
Indeed, many Israelis living under the poverty line rely on Meir Panim’s hot lunches, as well as the organization’s pre-packaged food boxes and grocery store gift cards for when the soup kitchen is closed on holidays and the Sabbath.
According to Mimi Rozmaryn, Director of Global Development for Meir Panim, “People who are lacking feel it even stronger during the holidays, as everything is out of routine and other people are celebrating,” Rozmaryn explained. “We want to help them partake in the celebratory feeling of the holidays and feel a part of the Jewish people,” she explained.
Inside the food boxes are challah for the holidays, rice, pasta, canned goods, grape juice, flour, sugar, oil, canned beans, bags of lentils and cooked foods and meats. An additional fresh fruit and vegetables box is packaged and offered through Leket, Israel’s national food bank.
According to Rozmaryn, for those who cannot come to the soup kitchen, some Meir Panim branches are able to deliver Meals-on-Wheels.
The gift cards, ranging in value from 200-1000 NIS ($55-$280) depending on the number of people in the family, can be used in supermarkets to buy perishables not included in the food boxes.
Thus, during the holidays, Meir Panim works to ensure that everyone can participate with celebration and dignity “like they are guests around our virtual table,” said Rozmaryn. “Meir Panim clients are always thanking us, telling us that they don’t know what they would do without our help,” she said, adding, “My wish for the new year is for Meir Panim to be out of business – for there to be no need for us anymore. I hope that our clients find the safety net and employment they need.”
Rozmaryn voiced her hope that donors are able to increase their gifts this year. In fact, the organization is presently running a crowdfunding campaign where every donation is doubled by an anonymous donor. Donations will help the people who need it most, elderly and lonely Holocaust survivors as well as struggling families. People are always needed as volunteers in Meir Panim’s centers – “so they can see, touch and feel the lives they are helping with their gift.”
*names have been changed to protect identities
This holiday season, provide someone in need with a hot meal, food box and grocery card. To donate to Meir Panim, click here.