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. It was so.”
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.