by Daniel Kaplan
as I approached the door I felt a little awkward walking in. On the surface it looked like a cute little café. The room was brightly lit and the floor was very clean. On the tables were flowers in small vases and pitchers of water. There were paintings on freshly painted walls. I also spotted an air-conditioner in one of the windows.
I soon learned that this was no ordinary restaurant. As I walked in I noticed that there were many people already seated at tables. There were approximately 10 tables with two or four seats each. I also observed several other people dressed in purple shirts behind the counter.
I asked to speak to Albert the manager of the “restaurant.” Albert greeted
us warmly and gave my sister, Yael, and me our assignments. I was assigned to wash the dirty trays. No, this was not my punishment for skipping out on the check; rather this was my volunteer assignment at the Meir Panim soup kitchen in Jerusalem located two blocks behind the central bus station.
Every summer for the past 10 years my family and I have gone on vacation to the small town of Ofra located 25 minutes northeast of Jerusalem. Every year we return to see our friends, go to camp and just hang out. Although neither of my parents is Israeli they have instilled in me a love for the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. This year I decided I wanted to do more than just hang out; I wanted to give back to the community.
At home I downloaded an extensive list of volunteer opportunities but after many phone calls to these organizations I found out that I was either too young or the opportunities were too far from where I was staying. After many phone calls and e-mails my mother (an adult’s influence always helps) was able to get in touch with a representative at Meir Panim. I had heard of this organization, I had even given them tzedakah but I had never worked there before.
Meir Panim was founded in 2000 by Rivka and David Zilbershlag in memory of their son Meir z”l who passed away at the young age of 13. The words Meir Panim mean to light up faces. Meir Panim’s mission is to light up the faces of those in need with hot, nourishing meals every day.
Thoughts went through my mind such as: do I really want to do this? Do I want to travel over an hour each way to do volunteer work?
By the time my first day arrived I decided that even if I didn’t enjoy it, it would be a worthwhile experience and I would still be contributing to the community. It was worth a shot.
So here I was relegated to the task of tray washing. Not the most glamorous of jobs, I thought to myself, but then I reminded myself that this was a mitzvah not a photo shoot.
I took a small rag and slid dirt off the tray. It was a dirty job but I was given a special volunteer shirt to put over my own. Although most people would think that washing would be quite boring it gave me a chance to see what Meir Panim is really about.
In between batches of dirty trays I peeked into the dining room where Yael was serving the customers. Meir Panim’s clientele came from all walks of life. There were senior citizens, middle-aged people, and even some young children. Most of them looked just like everybody else on the street. For the most part they wore clean, not ripped, clothing. There were haredi (fervently Orthodox) and secular Jews. Once when Yael and I walked in to the central bus station we noticed that someone we just saw at the soup kitchen was seated on a bench in the station like everybody else.
Some of the patrons ate alone while others sat in groups. More than 75 people came for lunch every day at this one location. Each one of these people was treated as if he or she was a paying customer at a restaurant. The patrons were served by young, cheerful waiters and waitresses like my sister Yael. Nobody stood in a cafeteria-style line waiting to be served. Each customer was treated with dignity.
Meir Panim has more than 15 soup kitchens as well as over 13 aid centers all over Israel. I soon realized that more important than my tray washing was what Meir Panim did for the community. Meir Panim provided a nutritious meal for people who did not have sufficient food at home. These people knew that they could rely on Meir Panim for at least one healthy meal each day. Some of the patrons even took food home in plastic bags so that they would have a healthy meal for the evening too.
The importance of Meir Panim soon became abundantly clear to me. I had never before realized how many people, especially Jerusalemites, do not have food in their homes. An article published Jan. 11, 2007, in the Israel Insider news magazine reported that “Every second child in Jerusalem is defined as poor, as opposed to every third child in the rest of the country.”
After my first experience volunteering at Meir Panim I wasn’t so excited about coming back and washing trays. Nonetheless, I decided I would come back because it was about more than washing trays; it was about giving back to the community.
The second time, I was assigned to prepare the food trays. I put all the cutlery and cold food (such as salad and fruit) on a tray and sent it to the next station for hot food.
Many people think that volunteering is only for famous people like movie stars who lend their support to causes in third world countries. Once in a while politicians lend their hand at volunteering in local causes too. While at Meir Panim I met many people from all over the world who came to give of their time. I met a boy who attends a yeshiva high school in New Jersey who told me that he volunteered at Meir Panim for more than half the summer. There were several families from the tri-state area who told me that they came to show their kids that vacation isn’t only about fun. I also met two girls from France who had come to do some charity work as part of their college exchange program. They all came for one cause: to help those in need.
While washing dirty food trays is certainly not a glamorous way to spend the day, the good feeling I got from contributing in some small measure toward the alleviation of other people’s suffering was certainly worth it. I am now exploring the possibility of volunteering at City Harvest in New York City.
My experiences at Meir Panim have certainly changed the way I perceive food ,especially Shabbat leftovers. I have gained a new appreciation for the food I have and for the comfort of knowing that I have many basic amenities that other children my age cannot take for granted. I realized if these poor families do not even have enough money to provide wholesome meals then they certainly do not have the resources for sports equipment and other luxuries that I am grateful to enjoy. n
Daniel Kaplan is a freshman at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.