Reluctant to pass up an extra pair of hands, kitchen manager Chaim assigns me to potato peeling almost as soon as I arrive at the often-understaffed Jerusalem branch of food and furniture distribution charity Meir Panim in Romema. The charity, voluntary assistance coordinator Adi Delaskowitz informed me when I called to offer my services for the day, is the largest of its kind in the country. "The economic reforms of recent years have meant that the number of people living below the poverty line has risen," she explained. The situation, she continued, is compounded in the run-up to the High Holy Days, when the demand for food, furniture, appliances and volunteers is at its greatest. Chaim is one such volunteer. An aspiring chef, he is a participant in the government-run Wisconsin program, which requires participants to undertake voluntary work (with a view toward making them more employable) in exchange for unemployment benefits. He's recently completed a lengthy jail sentence for drug-related crimes, he informs me as we inspect the larder stacked to capacity with supplies to satisfy the "upcoming High Holy Day onslaught." He's a reformed character now, he assures me in a vain attempt to entice me to have coffee with him after the shift. His charms prove more successful with the lunchtime crowd who begin descending on the center around noon, choosing either to pick up their meals or eat in the simple dining room. He jokes with the regulars, teasing them about their impatience or fussy eating habits, and appears to revel in his role as captain of the ship, chiding those who approach the counter instead of waiting to be served by the "waiters," in accordance with Meir Panim policy. The rule, Delaskowitz explained, was implemented to enable diners to enjoy "the restaurant experience of being waited on," but having witnessed the raucousness of some of these diners, I imagine it was partly an attempt to avoid pandemonium. Many of the regulars don't have any qualms about wheedling seconds and thirds, or loudly beckoning volunteers if the meals aren't to their liking. They quickly cotton on to my newness, and I find myself reprimanded by other waiters for having conceded to requests for bigger portions or extra helpings. Aside from this rowdy contingent there are a number of notably subdued diners, some of whom appear self conscious. Michal, a well-put together divorcee, stands out because she looks younger than the average diner - the majority appear to be 60-plus, one of the groups worst affected by the recent economic reforms, according to Delaskowitz. She tells me she is a 45-year-old unemployed mother of three visiting for the first time. "I used to walk past but was too embarrassed to come in," she admits, "but today I finally decided to." "It says something," she continues, "about where you've arrived when you're no longer ashamed to rely on handouts to eat, and what a country's come to when such a situation exists." Sara, a sullen-looking sixty-something, echoes these sentiments. She tells of being thrown out on the streets after the government-subsidized apartment block she'd lived in for 36 years was purchased by a private owner. After two homeless years she's finally been granted a place at a women's hostel. "What I went through, and am still going through, leaves me feeling betrayed by the state," she declares. "It's shocking that were it not for the kindness of the people here, I wouldn't be able to enjoy a proper meal." After lunch I make my way to a nearby warehouse, home to donated furniture and appliances awaiting selection by would-be recipients. Manager Nicole Moran greets me eagerly. She's a matriarchal figure seemingly in her element bustling about this large, airy space directing volunteers. She bemoans the pre-Rosh Hashana deluge and its resulting staff shortage, and talks excitedly about her work. "This is my home," she enthuses, "I'm here before opening time, after hours, whenever I receive a call that there's someone in need of something I'll open up immediately." Moran, it seems, is not the only one who feels at home here. Potential recipients, she tells me, often linger for a coffee and a shmooze, gaining as much, she asserts proudly, "from the emotional support as the material assistance." And then there are "the boys," as Moran affectionately refers to them - petty criminals in their teens to early 20s serving community service sentences. "When they come here they're angry and resentful," she says, "but within a short time you see the difference; they begin to enjoy it." Rafi, 16, enlists my help unloading boxes of new shoes donated by leading footwear company Aldo. He tells me his heart has grown as a result of his experiences at the warehouse, and says he'd like to continue volunteering after his sentence (for a minor Internet-related offense) is up. "Nicole makes it fun," he enthuses, smiling shyly when I ask what he likes about her. "Everything," he replies. What most strikes me, as I reflect on my experiences later on, is the extent to which the day's exploits have left me with the warm and fuzzies. I make a mental note to return as soon as I have the chance, knowing even as I do that the odds of my following through are slim. This gives me a newfound appreciation for those with greater resolve than myself when it comes to this worthy cause.

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