By Daniela Berkowitz
Charity in Or Akiva, a town in Northern Israel near Caesarea, goes beyond traditional packaged food deliveries, soup kitchens, and afterschool clubs for the needy. Ilanit Hafuta, director of Meir Panim’s Or Akiva branch, has a tremendous heart and endless commitment to help her neighbors. Hafuta runs a vast amount of the community’s charity operations.
Across Israel, the not-for-profit organization Meir Panim responds to the growing needs of the country’s 1.75 million impoverished residents through various food and social service programs. Since 2000, the organization annually has served at least 300,000 free meals out of a network of restaurant-style soup kitchens, which also prepare meals-on-wheels for delivery to an additional 125,000 people. Meir Panim also targets children in impoverished areas, offering hot lunches, afterschool clubs, and summer day camps. All programs provide dignity and relief to many of the country’s neediest residents.
These projects run strong in Or Akiva, with hundreds of people participating in the meal programs and the beloved afterschool programs daily. But Hafuta has not stopped there.
For Jewish holidays, she ensures that there is always something special. “Purim is a favorite for the children in our afterschool programs,” she says, explaining that she hands out free costumes every year so that the children whose parents cannot afford costumes can be included in the fun. “At the Meir Panim branch, we host a festive Purim seudah for families to celebrate the day,” Hafuta says. “We host a special Purim party, too, for the children.” Last year, the party joined with a school in London, where Skype hosted a simultaneous celebration for the kids.
“The most remarkable thing is taking our children from our afterschool clubs, who are usually on the receiving end, to hospitals and army bases on Purim,” Hafuta explains. “There, they give out mishloach manot to those who also are in need. This experience teaches that they can also give and not just receive. The children feel an incredible amount of pride and joy in this, and they learn the important value of giving.”
Beyond the holidays, every family goes through certain momentous lifecycle events. For bar mitzvahs and weddings, Meir Panim extends a hand to needy Or Akiva residents. “Our two-story Meir Panim building is transformed into a simcha and event hall,” Hafuta says. In the months prior to the bar mitzvah, a teacher will volunteer to train the boy in learning the Torah portion and the blessings for the Torah and tefillin. On the bar mitzvah date, the boy is called up to the Torah at Meir Panim. The occasion is marked with a celebratory meal with family and friends. For weddings, preparations are made with the help of the community of volunteers and the new couple is married in the event hall, complete with full celebrations.
Sometimes, there are less-joyous occasions and Meir Panim volunteers step in to help. “In the past several years, we have helped renovate some 30 homes of needy Or Akiva residents,” Hafuta says, explaining that many of the elderly, the ill, and single-parent families in her town live in disastrous conditions. Depending on the need and case, Hafuta organizes renovations, whether structural, electrical, or more expansive, and ensures that the homes can be functional for a healthy life. Hafuta and her volunteers recently renovated a decrepit apartment for a Holocaust survivor. “He had the biggest smile across his face after his apartment was fixed,” she recalls. A widower and father of four told Hafuta that she saved his life when Meir Panim remodeled an old two-bedroom apartment into a space for a family, with three rooms and a new bathroom and kitchen.
“Meir Panim brings a smile onto people’s faces—that is precisely our goal,” says Hafuta, who has built an operation that nourishes impoverished Israelis with food, shelter, fun and a big dose of Jewish tradition. “When someone finds the good in his or her heart to volunteer, they can make a tremendous difference in the lives of those in need. We have seen miracles.” v