Orit Dahan and her family own the well-known downtown Jerusalem restaurant Piccolino, but what they do for lone soldiers is pretty much a secret.
“They are like my children – I want to help them; I wish I could do much more for them,” said restaurateur Dahan, as she hugged a young lone soldier from the US. “It’s a blessing to be able to do this.”
Every Friday, Dahan – together with the The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin – brings lone soldiers who are serving in the IDF to her restaurant for a hearty and hot meal free of charge, as her way of thanking them for their selfless service to the country. “When they come to thank us, I tell them no, we thank you – we thank you for protecting our country and taking care of us.”
Dahan’s warm smile is broad as the exhausted and worn-out soldiers arrived at the restaurant.
A lone soldier from London told The Jerusalem Post
that many times, including this past week, it’s Piccolino that gets him through the week.
“We were out in the field, it was pouring with rain,” he said. “We were sleeping out in the rain, eating out of cans – and all I could do was countdown: ‘three days to Piccolino, two days to Piccolino.’ Orit is a hero, what she does for us is immeasurable.
“Knowing that I can come here and I don’t have to go back to an empty apartment where there’s no food, no one to talk to and I have to go shopping or cook when I’m released for the weekend, and all I want to do is rest. Knowing I can get a delicious, hot meal here makes everything worth it – even on the hardest days.
“You probably think I’m crazy for looking forward to this so much but it means everything to me. She’s like my mom here – you can talk to her and chat with her – and she gives the best hugs,” he added.
A fellow lone soldier from the US chimed in: “It’s the closest thing to my mother’s cooking. It’s amazing, just amazing – there’s nothing better!”
On Fridays, many IDF soldiers are released from base for the weekend. The Israelis are welcomed home by their families “like kings” – with a hot meal waiting for them. But for many lone soldiers, this is not the case – they return home to “an empty and cold apartment with nothing to eat and no one to talk to,” and it’s for this reason that Dahan does what she does.
“We want them to feel like kings. We here at Piccolino are waiting for them like they are a prime minister – they deserve the best for what they do, they are our client of the week,” she said.
Her humility is so deeply entrenched that it took time to convince her to agree to an interview with the Post.
“I’m doing this [the interview] so it will encourage others to help lone soldiers too,” she said.
Dahan started this initiative 18 months ago when the restaurant was newly opened. “We have a weekly Friday buffet at the restaurant and it wasn’t so busy – we’d just opened. There weren’t a lot of people coming. We don’t publish anything anywhere – the restaurant is publicized from mouth to ear, through word of mouth... Then I said we have the buffet, why don’t we invite soldiers? There is food anyhow.”
She began reaching out to lone soldiers who had come to serve in Israel from all over the world. “I had one soldier who wasn’t from chutz la’aretz
(outside of Israel) who was religious and working with us. We asked him, ‘please bring soldiers.’ For a long time he didn’t bring soldiers and soldiers didn’t come because they didn’t believe – they didn’t understand what or why I wanted to give them this and do this for them,” she explained.
“Then one day, he came with about 10 soldiers. And I can tell you that from that day on the restaurant slowly started getting busier and busier and Friday’s became so much busier – and the [amount] of soldiers coming got bigger and bigger. It’s a blessing from Hashem.”
The process of bringing soldiers to the restaurant for a Friday meal was slow as it was hard to convince soldiers to come. “Some Friday’s there would be 20 or 30 soldiers and others there would be no soldiers.”
The Lone Soldier Center got on board soon after hearing about Dahan and Piccolino’s initiative. “They came and they asked, ‘are you for real?’ They didn’t know about us and I didn’t know about them. So they asked if they can be involved because they didn’t want to lose soldiers; The Lone Soldier Center is a place where [they] can talk about their problems and where there are soldiers who have finished the army who can advise them.”
Madrichim (advisors) from the Center come to Piccolino with the soldiers on a Friday to spend time with them, sharing a meal together and chatting with them about the previous weeks.
“They provide a [meal] voucher (which Piccolino supplies) to the chayalim [soldiers], which the soldiers bring with them. It’s just for them, to make them feel special and appreciated,” one of the madrichim explained.
Dahan said that it was important to do this because lone soldiers sacrifice so much to come here and serve the State of Israel. “What they bring to this country is like nothing to what I bring them – I feel like I don’t do enough.
“But what is beautiful about this place [Piccolino] is the people [the customers]. When they see the soldiers... I have two families already who want to adopt [lone] soldiers. The deputy mayor’s wife wanted to invite soldiers over for Rosh Hashana as well.”
She made it clear that unless customers ask about the soldiers, she doesn’t tell them what she does. “A lot of people get emotional – they cry. I had two girls who had bat mitzvas here and they bought presents for the soldier... When people see one person trying to do something good, it’s like dominoes – they want to help and more people want to help.”
The Post saw how lone soldiers – men and women of all ages from all over the world including France, South Africa, the US and UK – arrived at the restaurant, many hugging and chatting with Dahan for several minutes.
Many of the soldiers said that the experience of sitting down with fellow soldiers is cathartic.
“You come here and you sometimes don’t know the soldiers but you chat about the week and the hard stuff – and even though you don’t know each other, you connect with them. You can relate to each other and it’s like a brotherhood – and you get to do it over a delicious meal. It’s like creating our own little family,” said one soldier who would only identify himself as being from New York.
“It’s a special place – they [Piccolino] really just want to take care of you and it’s from the heart,” added a lone soldier from South Africa. “What she does is so kind and it helps a lot – it makes a big difference.”
Dahan’s message to fellow Israelis is a simple one: “Always see the other, see both sides of people. Don’t ask, just do things to help. It’s the small acts that make a big difference. I know that when Israeli’s see soldiers, they want to do what they can to help. But for lone soldiers, we need to take care of them even more. We must take care of and appreciate our soldiers always, not just during wartime.”