In a show of support and appreciation, American Friends of Meir Panim Chairman Michael Fromm visited several Meir Panim relief centers that were instrumental in stepping up Meir Panim’s activities during the crisis with Gaza.
Michael, his wife Susan, and parents Barbara and Bernie Fromm worked alongside Meir Panim’s dedicated staff and volunteers, and thanked the committed individuals that not only continued Meir Panim’s important work under very difficult conditions, but went above and beyond.
The Fromm family’s first stop was Dimona, a southern Negev town whose unemployment rate exceeds 10%. Meir Panim operates a relief center in one of Dimona’s poorest neighborhoods that prepares and serves about 400 daily meals, including 150 hot lunches delivered to schools and youth clubs.
Nissim Elmekayes manages this facility with the help of a part-time cook and a volunteer staff. Almost 50% of his food supplies are donated … by producers, farmers, hotels, restaurants and non-profit organizations (i.e. Leket) that redistribute surplus foodstuffs throughout Israel.
Interestingly, Meir Panim’s relief centers are not called “soup kitchens” in Hebrew. Instead, they are called “free restaurants” because here, “patrons” sit at tables and are waited on by volunteer servers. When they finish eating, their dirty dishes (yes, actual dishes and cutlery) are cleared by volunteers.
According to Nissim, this small tweak in the traditional soup kitchen model helps preserve the dignity of people who are otherwise reminded they are poor every minute of every day … except, if he can help it, for the time they spend in his restaurant. In fact, many of his patrons volunteer to prepare food, deliver meals and clean the restaurant because they want to experience the satisfaction and pride of giving back.
Susan and Barbara were quickly recruited to stuff and fold bourekas, a pastry made with potatoes and phyllo dough. Bernie was assigned the role of dishwasher, while Michael was placed behind a counter to fill plates with spaghetti, meatballs and salad.
As people made their way to the tables, it quickly became evident to the Fromms that this was a daily routine. There were warm greetings from the volunteers, and lively banter among the patrons who obviously knew one another. After finishing their meals, almost everyone came to the “buffet” with containers to take food home … for relatives, children, or perhaps for that evening’s dinner. Michael was caught off guard when a woman stopped him and said, (loosely translated) “The kindness here warms my heart. Not only is the food delicious, but the human interaction, filled with dignity, makes this place special.” That was all he needed to hear.
On the way back to Tel Aviv, the Fromms stopped to tour the Israel Nutrition Center, a fifty thousand square foot institutional kitchen that is being developed by Meir Panim to mass produce meals for distribution throughout the country. Once complete, this state-of-the-art facility will be Israel’s largest food relief operation, producing up to 30,000 meals each day. Through fundraising efforts in the US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Australia – and Israel – Meir Panim has obtained $10 million of the $12 million total construction cost. More information on this historic relief project can be found at staging-meirpanimorg.kinsta.cloud.
The Fromm family also visited the Meir Panim distribution in Or Akiva, a city with a population far less affluent than its neighbor, the trendy port city of Caesarea. Here, Meir Panim’s branch is led by Ilanit Hafuta, a 5’2” dynamo of a woman who runs a food distribution operation, a job placement service, a vocational training program and in her spare time provides counseling to troubled adolescents. To say she is an asset to her community is an understatement.
Ilanit took the Fromms to the Ofek School, specializing in educating teens that are either orphaned or living in local “dormitories” (government-funded children’s homes). The principal of the school, Miriam Shabtai, has designed curricula to prepare students for both the college track and for jobs that do not require a college degree. She also works closely with the IDF on a pre-conscription program that instills discipline and includes a physical training regimen.
Because the budget is limited, the school relies on Ilanit to secure donations of school supplies, musical instruments, snacks, and other materials that are used to enhance the institution’s resources. It is clear that Meir Panim is an essential partner in the school’s mission to prepare at- risk youth to be productive members of Israeli society.
Wherever they went, the Fromms were moved by the warmth and feelings of gratitude towards Meir Panim. In turn, Meir Panim extends its sincerest thanks for the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers and the steadfast support of our donors.