Mouths to feed

The nation's largest network of soup kitchens has 'all but canceled.'

poor hungry people 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
poor hungry people 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last Pessah, Meir Panim, the country's largest network of "soup kitchens," distributed boxes of Seder meals to 24,000 people. It also gave out NIS 250 grocery coupons to 6,700 people. This Pessah, only a few hundred people will get those coupons. And the number of those who will receive Seder meals-in-a-box? Zero. "Our Pessah campaign has been all but canceled," says Dudi Zilberschlag, founder of Meir Panim and the leading fund-raiser and power-broker in Israel's haredi world, while multitasking with aides in his office at Jerusalem's Bikur Holim Hospital. In late 2007, his donors, who include the wealthiest Jews here and abroad, began reducing their contributions, but since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt last September and it became clear that the world was in the grip of something much worse than an ordinary, cyclical recession, these contributions have simply dried up. "The big Israeli corporations are out of the game," says Zilberschlag, in his 50s, a gentle-spoken man who takes hard times philosophically. He mentions a couple of super-rich Israelis, saying that they used to give him about $100,000 each before Pessah. "This time - nothing," he says. In the last year, Meir Panim has closed five of its 17 soup kitchens, while Koah Latet, its affiliated charity for clothing and household goods, has closed down two of 14 branches. The organization's NIS 50 million budget has been cut by 30 percent; 41 of its 134 employees have been let go. "We used to give hot meals to 700 kids in our after-school programs, now we're feeding maybe 200. We used to deliver 900 meals to the homes of old, sick, handicapped people who couldn't come in - we've stopped those deliveries completely," says Zilbershlag. "We're basically down to the core of what we do - the restaurants [i.e. soup kitchens]. We're still feeding 6,000 people, we don't turn anyone away, but we can't give them meat every day anymore, so we give them more carbohydrates." Meir Panim was founded eight years ago, shortly after the second intifada began, the economy nosedived and the government, strapped for cash, began slashing away at financial assistance to poor people. As the welfare state dwindled, private charity picked up the slack, until now there are more than 120 soup kitchens around the country. FOR THE last eight years, the directors of these charities have always cried poverty, saying their donations weren't keeping up with the needs of the poor people they served. They were telling the truth, but it could be assumed that they were laying it on a little thick because that's what fund-raisers do. Now, however, Zilberschlag and the others aren't exaggerating. The big chill is here. People everywhere feel that the ground is moving under their feet, and no one knows how long this is going to last or where it's going to leave them. In such a state of mind, one of the first things they cut back on is charitable giving. In a country like Israel, where the government has tacitly transferred much of the responsibility for care of the poor to private charities, this is a calamity. Some 200,000 families are kept afloat by private charities, and however hard it was before for these charities to hold them up, now they are simply sinking. The plant closures and layoffs are throwing more people on the mercy of private charities, and while the newly-unemployed aren't showing up in large numbers yet, they're expected to if the economy continues to spiral downward - which is also widely expected. Eran Weintraub, head of Latet, the umbrella organization for the country's food charities, told The Jerusalem Post's Ruth Eglash last week that if this shortfall between the rising numbers of needy and the dwindling level of donations continues to widen, by the end of this year "the poverty situation will just become unmanageable." The lifeline for the poor is unraveling. Gevalt has become an understatement. At Meir Panim's soup kitchen near the main entrance to Jerusalem, about a dozen old people, along with one man who looks to be in his late 30s, are eating a lunch of kugel, pasta, soup, burekas, a roll, a tangerine and fruit drink. In the office behind the kitchen, Nicole Miron is in her first month as manager, working as an unpaid volunteer. She worked for Koah Latet for several years until she got laid off four months ago; now she collects unemployment benefits and donates her time to the soup kitchen. Its clientele has grown to 300. "We used to get only old people, Holocaust survivors, but now we're getting younger people with families who lost their jobs, who can't pay their mortgage, who got divorced," says Miron. While we're talking, three elderly people come to the doorway, one after the other, to ask very politely about when they will be getting their Pessah coupons. "Come in next Monday," she tells them sympathetically. The lunch is prepared and served by volunteers, many of whom, Miron says, also depend on the soup kitchen for their main meal of the day. I wait outside for the one young person who was eating lunch there and, after being promised anonymity, he tells me in fluent, Russian-accented Hebrew that he's been eating lunch there for about a month. "It helps. I work part-time as a housekeeper, and my salary isn't even worth discussing." He says he lost his full-time job when his employer, in economic straits, made cutbacks in the staff. What did he use to do? "I'm a social worker." Where did he work? "At the Joint [Distribution Committee]." ON REHOV Maccabim in Dimona, it's just after 11 a.m. and about a dozen people are waiting at the entrance to the local Meir Panim soup kitchen for lunch to start. Most of them are old, but there is one man in his 20s who has the unkempt, pale look of someone who hasn't had a pressing reason to get out of bed in the morning for a long time, and there is another man in his 20s or 30s who, every now and then, can be seen talking quietly to himself. A pile of donated clothes lies at the door for whoever's in need. Dimona is a well-kept but poor, badly frayed town covered with three-story beige tenements from the 1960s and '70s. Old, worn-out people sit staring on benches in front of the buildings. The town blends in with the light-brown hills and desert surrounding it. We were there on the first warm day of the season, after a long period of rain. The sky was clear and beautiful, but there was also that bright desert stillness that hangs over these chronically poor Negev towns that seems to stop time. Being in Dimona is like being in a different country, in the Israel of 30 years ago. Inside, plans are being made for the Seder night. This is a tradition at this soup kitchen, and this year about 140 people - half of them Meir Panim regulars, the other half Holocaust survivors and soldiers on their own - will be sitting down to dinner. There will be no skimping. "We hire a caterer, we have waiters - the best," says soup kitchen director Nissim Elmakayis. Except for the Seder, though, Meir Panim's operations in Dimona have been hit hard. "I'm getting half the salary I used to get, I go months without getting paid. Unfortunately, because of the economic situation, it's not the same organization it used to be," says Albert Ayash, the food manager, a retired chief cook at a desert IAF base. He used to cook for 2,500 very well-fed soldiers, now he cooks for 450 malnourished civilians. The clientele has increased by about 20% over the last year, says Elmakayis - a combination of laid-off employees, demobilized soldiers and working people whose debts overtook them. The organization used to deliver meals to 30 or 40 local families, but canceled this service when gas became too expensive. "We used to serve meat at every meal, but now we can't," says Ayash. The menu for the day is soup, hot dogs, rice, eggplant, a roll and an orange. Checking out the lunch room for Pessah preparations is Meir Hazan, head of the municipality's Youth and Education Department. To help make up the shortfall in donations - and, of course, as a character lesson - he says Dimona city schools asked each pupil to donate NIS 1 for charity. There was a much more intense door-to-door collection campaign by youth groups. Zilberschlag says that instead of depending on millionaires and billionaires to feed Meir Panim's clientele, he's concentrating more on Internet and direct mail campaigns to the rank-and-file of the Jewish people, here and abroad, looking for a large volume of "NIS 18 and NIS 36 donations." The city of Dimona, which supports Meir Panim's local charities, is doing essentially the same thing, says Hazan. There's been an ironic sort of trickle-down effect on places like Dimona, he says: "The Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, the Rashi-Sacta Foundation - all these major Jewish philanthropies have always provided a great deal of the funding for projects in the periphery. But their big donors have lost a lot of money, they're contributing less, so these philanthropies have less to give us." Still, the municipality's grassroots fund-raising has paid off: 1,500 local residents will be getting Pessah coupons worth hundreds of shekels each. But that's considerably fewer recipients than in years past. Says Hazan: "There's this beautiful Pessah tradition of kimha d'pis'ha [pre-Pessah charity] that we keep, and we always tried to give something, even a small donation, to all the elderly and poor in the city. But now we have to be much more selective - to concentrate our resources on the people who really cannot have the Pessah meal at all without getting substantial aid." THIS WEEK the government was expected to take steps toward "bailing out" private charities and social aid organizations. Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said: "The nonprofit sector is under serious threat of crashing completely and most of those who will be affected by this are the country's weakest and neediest populations who rely on their services." Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is blamed by the "poverty lobby" for having greatly exacerbated the problem when, as finance minister in 2003-5, he made unprecedented cuts to welfare. For him now to turn around and bail out these charities who've been picking up the slack left by his government - and others, too - would be an ironic reversal of direction. In recent years, one of the glaring symbols of Pessah here has been the long lines of poor people queuing up at food charities for hours, through the night, so they might get their Seder boxes before the supply runs out. Typically, the people are angry, they push, they shout, often they fight among themselves. It is an ugly scene - for the country, for the recipients. "We want to get away from that, from those pathetic scenes," says Zilberschlag, explaining another reason, besides being strapped for cash, that Meir Panim isn't giving out Seder boxes this year and is using the little money it has for the holiday on grocery coupons. "This way nobody has to know who's on relief, you hand your coupon to the supermarket clerk, nobody has to be shamed in public." SHAME IS a very important concern at Meir Panim. For this reason, the people who eat at the soup kitchens are required to pay a symbolic NIS 1 for their meal, so they are not completely shamed as beggars. Children are not allowed in at meal time for fear that they will be ashamed to see their parents taking charity, but also for fear that they will see this as natural and be instilled with the idea that it's acceptable to grow up to become a charity case. "Shoshana," who has been eating lunch at Meir Panim near the entrance to Jerusalem, for some eight months, agreed to be interviewed by phone only after being promised that neither her name nor any identifiable detail about her or her family would be published. "I'm not used to this, to getting help, especially for food. I was always independent. This is hard for me, I'm ashamed. But what can I do? I have children. We have to eat." A divorced mother in her 40s, she started coming to Meir Panim after she was laid off as a secretary at a large public sector office, where she had worked for many years. But even before she lost her job, her debts had gotten out of hand. Now, of course, she's unofficially bankrupt and can't get credit anywhere. "We've been served with eviction notices; they came to repossess our belongings; they want to cut off our water and electricity." She and her three children live on NIS 1,800 a month from the National Insurance Institute plus the piddling amount her ex-husband gives her in child support. I ask if she and her kids go hungry. "Yes," she says. "I've lost a lot of weight. I eat lunch every day at Meir Panim and I take home lunch in containers for my children. Sometimes the meal tides us over until lunch the next day. Sometimes they give me rolls so I can give the kids a roll with a little spread for breakfast. We don't have much for dinner. We don't have meat, or cheese - it's too expensive. Even fruit and vegetables - I consider them luxury items. "My son is a combat soldier, and when he's on furlough he's ashamed to eat from the containers I bring home. He doesn't tell any of the other soldiers the situation we're in," she says. "But it's not like I'm in a depression - this is our life now, I've gotten used to it. I don't think about it. Now that I describe it, it sounds sad, but usually I don't think about it, I don't look at it like this. And I try not to let it depress the younger children, to let them feel how deprived they are. When the mood at home is sad, I do something to lift their spirits. It doesn't cost much money. We make popcorn, we bake a cake. Just the smell of it makes them happy."