The arrival of Pesach marks the culmination of weeks of preparation — and intense concern about food. People worry, plan, cook, bake, fry, and freeze to ensure that their families will be well-served during the week-long festival.
But what about less fortunate people, those who worry about what to eat not only on Pesach, but on every day throughout the year?
In Israel, according to the National Insurance Institute’s 2011 poverty report, 1,774,800 people are living below the poverty line, struggling to feed themselves and their children.
Meir Panim — which literally means “lighting up faces” — was founded in 2000 to provide relief to some of Jerusalem’s most disadvantaged population. What started off as just one soup kitchen rapidly developed into one of Israel’s leading relief organizations. Today Meir Panim operates over 30 food and social service centers throughout the country, including nine free restaurants, helping 5,000 people daily.
Meir Panim strives to serve its clients while allowing them to maintain their dignity. The soup kitchens are called “restaurants,” and the “guests” are served by volunteer “waiters.” This contrasts sharply to the classic image of the soup kitchen, with people lining up, bowls in hand, meekly accepting their portion.
The “guests” seem to appreciate the approach.
Varda and Stella are both fifth-generation Jerusalemites in their late 70s. They met at the Jerusalem Meir Panim Free Restaurant six months ago and have become fast friends. Varda lives with her 102-year-old mother, who is too frail to walk to the restaurant herself, so Varda brings back food for her every day. Aryeh the manager, she said, “always laughs and jokes with us and makes us feel so welcome. I always go home feeling full and happy.”
Stella, who has lived alone since her husband died, said she has no idea what she would do without Meir Panim. “I love coming here,” she said. “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.”
Vivi is a 19-year-old seminary student from Baltimore who volunteers as a “waitress” in the Jerusalem Free Restaurant. “I was walking by one day and saw the sign,” she said. “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.”
Each of Meir Panim’s restaurants is run autonomously. Ilanit has developed the restaurant she manages in Ohr Akiva in the North into a center offering a variety of services to the city’s neediest, including food, after-school clubs, summer camps, and holiday activities. She has even created an “event management” facility, which organizes weddings, britot mila, and other celebrations for those who need the assistance. “The best part about my work is seeing the smiles on people’s faces,” Ilanit said. “It’s worth everything. We’ve become one big family who love each other and would do anything for each other.
“Meir Panim strives to provide its services in a way that makes every single person feel worthy and dignified,” Ilanit said. “From the amount of people we help and the positive feedback we receive, I think it’s quite clear we’re succeeding.”