A Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

How you can help give the more than 1.5 million Israelis in poverty a truly happy New Year.

Harel Robinson ,

Some 1.7 million Israelis live in poverty
Some 1.7 million Israelis live in poverty
Flash 90

As we reflect upon the past year, we remember our struggles and our high points. For organizations like Meir Panim, Rosh Hashana is a natural time to make this assessment while looking forward to the next year. Sadly, the problem of poverty in Israel remains dire: more than 1.7 million Israelis – about 22% of Israel’s population – are living below the poverty line according to the 2013 National Insurance Institute’s annual report. One out of every three children, and more than 180,000 elderly, live in poverty. While the report found a 0.5% drop in the number of people living in poverty, 439,500 Israeli households still are living below the poverty line.

Throughout the year Meir Panim, an organization committed to relieving the strains of poverty across all sectors of Israeli society, offers an array of services to aid those most in need. When challenges arise, Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Since 2000 the organization has been responding to the poverty crisis in a variety of ways, serving all Israelis regardless of ethnicity or religious background, through food and social service programs.

The Jewish Holidays

In Israel, the Jewish holidays are of utmost importance, a time to celebrate and feast with family and friends. However, for many these are lonely and trying seasons, particularly for those who face financial or emotional hardships. For example, Meir Panim’s unique “Kulam B’Seder” campaign links up hosts offering a seat at a Passover Seder to a guest in need. Project coordinator Shalom Cohen reports that most inquiries come from people who feel lonely and find it difficult to celebrate the holiday without family or friends on whom to lean.

“This is a sensational program that has an overwhelmingly positive response. Last year, we received nearly 10,000 inquiries and paired more than 2,000 guests and hosts for Passover,” Cohen said.

“When there is a place in the heart, there is a place at the table,” said Osnat Beny, who hosted 25 guests at her home last Passover through Kulam B’Seder. “That Passover was very moving. We had so many guests sitting around our long table, which was filled with festive foods and surrounded by laughter.”

In another program, before Rosh Hashana and Passover, Meir Panim teams up with social workers across the country to distribute food shopping cards. Funded by Meir Panim, each debit card is pre-loaded with 250 shekels and is awarded to needy individuals and families who can use them at major Israeli supermarket chains to purchase food and household items. The cards are programmed with technology that tracks purchases, blocking their use for alcohol or cigarettes, but still granting recipients the flexibility to customize their purchases. Nearly 2,000 people receive these cards.

Asher, a Jerusalem resident who lost his parents at Auschwitz, spends his days begging for money at one of the city’s busiest intersections. Daily, he earns between 50 and 60 shekels from the small change people donate, he estimated. Upon receiving a food card from Meir Panim before Rosh Hashana, Asher said, “This is going to save my holiday. I’m going to use this to buy myself a chicken, some fruit and vegetables. If I’m able to, I’d like to buy something new for my apartment.”

In addition to the special holiday programs, Meir Panim branches across Israel annually serve approximately 350,000 free meals out of restaurant-style soup kitchens, which also prepare meals-on-wheels for delivery to an additional 190,000 people.

For the Children

Moreover, Meir Panim gives special attention to children in impoverished areas, offering hot lunches, after-school clubs and summer day camps. These programs serve as a safe haven and touch the lives of thousands of youth and their families.

This past summer, Meir Panim operated a highly subsidized day camp for young children of low-income families in Or Akiva. The camp caters to children who come from single-parent households, suffer from learning disabilities or come from broken homes, with most of the children falling into one or more of these categories. The Or Akiva branch is just one of several camps and after-school programs run by Meir Panim across Israel. At the Meir Panim after-school clubs, children enjoy enrichment activities, receive assistance with their schoolwork, counseling from professional social workers, and develop lasting friendships.

Or Akiva Program Director Shalom Suissa said that the program’s purpose is to give these children an experience that is not only fun and educational, but makes them feel “just as worthy” as any other child who is not dealing with the same difficulties as they are. At camp, children participate in exciting activities, from sports to arts and crafts, and go on at least one field trip a week — to the zoo, the local amusement park and museums. The children receive a nutritious breakfast and a hot lunch, which many would not receive otherwise. The camp also extends its activities from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. to allow parents to work a full day.

Yair, a 14-year-old boy from Or Akiva, spent much of his early childhood sifting through trashcans to find bottles he could exchange for cash to help his single mother pay the bills. He often went to school hungry, with no breakfast, and lacking basic school supplies. Despite his difficult situation, Yair says his life is not nearly as desperate today as it once was. A graduate of both the Meir Panim youth club and summer camps, Yair has received assistance and encouragement throughout the years from the organization, helping him to grow as a student and as a person. Last March, Yair was able to take part in a volunteer program to pass out free meals to needy families on Purim. The opportunity to realize that he was in a position to give as well as receive filled him with a sense of pride and purpose. Making the rounds in his local neighborhoods with a gigantic smile on his face, Yair spread joy and hope to all he met.

When War Hits

When rockets rained down on Israel from Gaza, Israelis around the country felt the state of emergency. This urgency translated into service and Meir Panim organized a massive distribution of much-needed food and supplies to the tens of thousands of soldiers defending Israel in Operation Protective Edge. The organization delivered more than 5,000 care packages to soldiers along the Gaza border. The packages included food, clothing, toiletries and other items needed by soldiers hastily called to action. Families across Israel donated home-baked desserts, giving them to Meir Panim volunteers to bring to the front lines and offering soldiers a taste of home during this difficult time. The organization also has delivered hot Shabbat meals to soldiers on military bases across Southern Israel and the Gaza border.

“There is no greater comfort in the world like personally receiving supplies or a home-baked treat in the middle of a warzone,” says Yonatan, a soldier coordinating the deliveries with Meir Panim. “We are fighting so that safety and quiet will be restored here in Israel. Knowing that organizations like Meir Panim and individuals from across Israel care about us so much gives us renewed strength to carry out our mission. I feel that all of Israel has become one family in this turbulent time.”

Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South that included toys and snacks to keep children entertained during the difficult, long summer days – often spent in a bomb shelter. In the Southern town of Dimona, Meir Panim’s Free Restaurant was forced to close due to the proximity of incoming rocket fire. Staff and volunteers cooked, packaged and delivered meals to the needy in their homes and in shelters. All of these efforts provided encouragement to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in crisis.

“Thousands of individual volunteers worked all day to give our soldiers and needy families in the South everything that they need in this time,” said Shmuel Levy, director of logistics of Meir Panim. “From hot Shabbat meals and socks for soldiers, to toys for children, so many Israelis from across the country stepped up to help, donate and give.”

Using precise and innovative strategies, Meir Panim has made a tremendous effort in relieving the burden for thousands of needy Israelis, young and old. As 5775 approaches, we can only pray that the need for such services diminishes.

To join with Meir Panim in fighting poverty in Israel, click here

Donations can be sent to 5316 New Utrecht Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11219, or by calling toll free 877-736-6283. All contributions are tax-deductible.