Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) are renowned for their fierce fighting and skill at defending the Holy Land. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that the army mandates that its recruits also work to fight the enemies within Israel, namely poverty, hunger and loneliness.
Meir Panim, a charity organization which provides both immediate and long-term relief to the impoverished, young and old, in Israel, has been working alongside the IDF almost since its inception ten years ago. Nissim Elmakayes, the Director of the Meir Panim Dimona branch in southern Israel, approached his neighbor, a commander in the IDF, to ask if he could get a few strong soldiers to help with carrying heavy loads and other needs at the free restaurant-style soup kitchen.
“The soldiers who helped were so moved by the work of Meir Panim that they began volunteering on a regular basis,” explained Elmakayes. “The more soldiers helped and told their friends about the great work of Meir Panim, the more soldiers wanted to be included.”
This led to the Israeli army officially recognizing the benefits to soldiers and society at large when they volunteer at Meir Panim. “It was clear that soldiers developed a greater social resp onsibility towards isolated and marginalized people through this work,” shared Goldie Sternbuch, Director of Overseas Relations for Meir Panim.
Today, as part of their training, soldiers from every battalion now give their time and energy to helping wherever Meir Panim needs a hand. “Both male and female soldiers from non-combat and logistical staff to high ranking officials all volunteer at Meir Panim,” beamed Sternbuch.
Soldiers do all manner of work for Israel’s most needy. Their jobs might be anything from peeling and chopping vegetables, serving restaurant patrons and delivering food packages to people’s homes, to moving heavy loads, renovating houses, working as counselors at Meir Panim’s subsidized summer camps, and more.
“The children are thrilled to share time with soldiers,” noted Elmakayes. “Many of the children do not have positive role models in their lives. Having a relationship with a soldier helps to foster a hopeful future in these children.”
Meir Panim’s unwavering commitment t o the people of Israel not only involves relief to the poor and hope for children-at-risk. They also give back to the IDF, which has helped them so much over the years.
In 2014, Operation Protective Edge was an unexpected war with an urgent call up. Israeli society at large mobilized to do all they could to assist the Israeli army.
“Relationships work both ways,” reflected Elmakayes. “From the outbreak of the operation, we, at Meir Panim, knew that we had to help the soldiers in every way we could. As the representative for Meir Panim in the south and with our close ties to the army, we helped to fill in the gaps for what the soldiers needed.”
Arriving to the front lines on the Gaza border, Meir Panim set up a makeshift “dining room”. They provided enormous amounts of hot meals to the soldiers.
“We also donated much-needed clothing, socks, shaving cream, deodorant and more. We even arranged for musicians to calm the troops during their rests from fighting,” Elmakayes said. “Meir Panim is not only the go-to organization during times of crisis for the impoverished and lonely, we are also a team player with the Israeli army.”