Meals with Dignity

Carmei Ha’ir tackles poverty, redefines the traditional soup kitchen and offers quality.

Soup kitchen 150 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Soup kitchen 150
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The men begin arriving at the doors of the Carmei Ha’ir restaurant in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda neighborhood just before noon. As the open restaurant gets ready for business, they make their way inside to the tables already set up with pitchers of water and wicker baskets of fresh pita bread. Volunteer waiters bring plates of food to the patrons.
Today the menu includes creamy onion soup flecked with mushrooms, beet salad, pasta, a beef-filled sambusa dumpling and a rice dumpling stuffed with humus.
Behind the counter other workers, who are themselves doing public service work in lieu of serving time in prison, have been cooking since 8 a.m. preparing the daily lunch.
“This is the best place to come for a meal,” 39-year-old Barak shouts out as he spots a journalist. Barak says he is not working at the moment, but would like to start soon.
“Oren always accepts me with open arms. He has an open heart.”
Oren – who prefers not to give his last name – is the mild-mannered, salt-andpepper- haired manager of Carmei Ha’ir open restaurant – they shun the term “soup kitchen” because of its negative connotations. The Carmei Ha’ir network, founded eight years ago by Rabbi Yehuda Azrad, Yitzhak Levitan and Momi Ben-Zeruel, also includes a clothes warehouse that distributes new donated clothing, blankets and heaters.
In theory, the restaurant also was to have paying patrons who would pay however much they could for the meal. Both paying and non-paying patrons would sit next to each other eating the same meal and nobody would know who was paying and who was not, in order to protect the dignity of those who were unable to pay. That was the theory, anyway.
They even brought in big-name cook Moshe Basson, who was the first chef of the well-known local restaurant Eucalyptus. Until then most of the soup kitchens were located in Orthodox neighborhoods, notes Oren, who four years ago retired from his paying job – which he prefers not to reveal – and began working as a full-time volunteer at Carmei Ha’ir, as the manager and cook.
“At first it worked according to our model, with local businessmen coming to eat and pay for their meal here. But it didn’t hold on for very long and those who could afford to pay did not come here, so we weren’t able to keep up with the quality of food,” acknowledges Oren. “A soup kitchen is a type of thing like poverty, or a handicap that people don’t like to deal with face to face. They know it exists, but if you dare put up a shelter to rehabilitate drug addicts in their neighborhood, they will fight it tooth and nail. People feel more comfortable dealing with society’s social ills via the Internet, sending out alerts on Facebook and responding in talkbacks.”
At one of the tables close to the counter sits elderly Itzik, a recent widower who asked that his real name not be used. Itzik, who in conversation proves himself to be erudite and knowledgeable but declines to give any personal information, says he comes to Carmei Ha’ir several times a week now that his wife has died and he has no one to cook for him. Today he is sharing his table with a younger man with a black kippa on his head.
“This is like being at a regular restaurant,” he says. “We can come here without having to deal with any bureaucracy, but this is only half a solution.During the summer there were the social protests, but Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] has put a bit of cold water on it now. This is something the government should be taking up.”
Two modestly dressed women, one middle-aged and the other slightly younger, come in and sit down at a table at the other end of the room. They eat their meal quietly, chatting softly, and then leave. An elderly woman with curly snowwhite hair finishes her lunch, clutches her newspaper in one hand and returns her plate to the counter. A middle-aged man walks in and sits down at a table, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head.
Carmei Ha’ir gives out some 350 to 380 hot meals a day, including Shabbat and holidays, says Oren. Some packages are sent to those who are homebound and to families who can’t make it to the restaurant because of the children’s school hours. They also prepare sandwiches for children to take to school, and provide a clothes warehouse that provides new, manufacturer-donated clothes to those in need. They are hoping to be able to get funding from the Jerusalem Foundation to renovate three apartments on top of their restaurant into a temporary shelter for homeless people.
Many people have fallen into a cycle of poverty, says Rabbi Azrad, due to unexpected medical expenses or loss of a job where they were unable to keep up with their financial responsibilities. Once in, he says, it is much more difficult to get out of the cycle of poverty. Carmei Ha’ir attempts to provide a financial net while allowing people to maintain their dignity until they get back on their feet, hopefully preventing them from getting into the poverty mind-set, which is then difficult to break. “There are those who say that people living in poverty should just go get work, but they don’t realize that there are people who because of their situation can’t do that,” says Azrad.
In fact, notes Shoshanna Jaskoll, Carmei Ha’ir resource development coordinator, there has been an increase of people who are unable to keep up with the growing expenses and costs of living in Israel and have begun to turn to Carmei Ha’ir for help. “These are people who have always worked, or who have been laid off, or who can’t find work now,” she says.
Other than some funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Carmei Ha’ir’s programs are supported solely through individual donations. “I know we won’t fix all the problems of poverty in Israel… [but] we can help in small ways,” Oren says.
If, in the beginning, mostly the elderly would come to the restaurant, today there are a lot more younger people as well, says Oren.
“With the increase in the general poverty level, people seem to be less embarrassed about coming here,” he says. “Our dream is that instead of Carmei Ha’ir the Israeli government would step in to help the needy, but they won’t do it. All our organization does is fill a space where the government has escaped its duties.”