By Daniela Berkowitz
Recent statistics find that poverty and loneliness plague Israel’s 192,000 Holocaust survivors, a population that is dwindling and in dire need of support.
One in four Holocaust survivors lives below the poverty line, and one in three lives alone, according to data released in January from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel. About 70% of survivors require aid to pay for basics like food, medication, and clothing. The foundation reports that 10,000 Holocaust survivors have no living family and countless survivors say that they are not in contact with any relatives. Two-thirds of survivors are over age 80, and 40% are over age 86.
The internationally recognized date for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, falls on Monday, April 28 (the 27th of Nissan).
Of the several charities in Israel aiding Holocaust survivors, Meir Panim provides respect and relief to many of the country’s neediest residents. The organization serves all people, regardless of ethnicity or religious background, through food and social-service programs. “It’s refreshing that we are able help Israelis from all walks of life,” said David Roth, president of American Friends of Meir Panim. “We know that there is a great need for poverty assistance across many sectors of Israeli society, so we try to target as many of those in need as possible.” While Meir Panim does not have specific data on the people who receive its services, the organization does provide aid to countless Holocaust survivors throughout the country.
Dozens of Holocaust survivors participate annually in Meir Panim’s unique “Kulam B’Seder” Passover campaign. The project links up hosts offering a seat at a Passover Seder to guests in need. Project coordinator Shalom Cohen said that over the past several years, most inquiries have come from people who feel lonely around the holiday and find it difficult to celebrate the holiday without family or friends on whom to lean. Dozens of Holocaust survivors participate each year.
“This is a sensational program that has an overwhelmingly positive response. Last year, we received nearly 10,000 inquiries and paired 2,000 guests and hosts for Passover,” Cohen said, adding that the outcome was slightly larger this year. “Each request gets VIP treatment. If someone calls and requests an Iraqi meal, we find him an Iraqi family. If someone has children aged 4 and 7, we look for hosts with children around the same age. People sometimes want to visit a new neighborhood, so we search to find the right place for them. Whatever guests or hosts request, we try to meet their needs.”
Cohen oversees the ten coordinators who manage the Kulam B’Seder hotline in the months before Passover. The staff asks several questions about hosts and guests to gather information to make appropriate “shidduchim” (matches). Hosts are encouraged to invite their guests to meet the family before the Seder so that they feel more comfortable.
“When there is a place in the heart, there is a place at the table, enough food and a complete ability to help others,” said Osnat Beny, who hosted 25 guests at her home last Passover through Kulam B’Seder. “That Passover was very moving. We had so many guests sitting around our long table, which was filled with festive foods and surrounded by laughter. It was so special, and everyone enjoyed it.”
There was a feeling of togetherness and family, Beny described. One of the guests, she said, specifically stood out. He was the security guard stationed outside her children’s school. “For years, the parents at the school donated food and clothing for him, because we knew he was not so well-off. It was so special for us to take him in for the Seder, for Shabbat, and for the last couple of days of Passover. He warmed up to our family so well and was wowed by our food and the company,” she said.
Many participants recalled being amazed at how the convergence of different perspectives yielded a profound sense of unity and togetherness. “We have countless stories of people who continue the relationship and the connection beyond Passover,” Cohen said. “This program fosters deep connections between strangers in a way that is unimaginable.”
Asher, a Jerusalem resident who lost his parents at Auschwitz, spends his days begging for money at one of the city’s busiest intersections. Daily, he earns between 50 and 60 shekels from the small change people donate, he estimated. For Passover and Rosh Hashanah, Asher is one of the 2,000 people who receive prepaid food cards from Meir Panim. The organization works with social workers across Israel to hand-deliver prepaid cards filled with 250 shekels to needy individuals and families who can use them at major Israeli supermarket chains to purchase food and household items. The cards are made with revolutionary technology that tracks purchases, blocking their use for alcohol or cigarettes, but still granting recipients the flexibility to customize their purchases.
“These food cards change the way many of Israel’s neediest families celebrate the holidays,” said Roth. “These cards give our impoverished neighbors a chance to buy the products they want and need, giving them the dignity to make their celebrations special and joyful.”
Upon receiving a food card from Meir Panim, Asher said, “This is going to save my holiday. I’m going to use this to buy myself one chicken, some fruit and vegetables. If I’m able to, I’d like to buy something new for my apartment.”
In addition to the special holiday programs, year-round Meir Panim branches across Israel serve at least 300,000 free meals out of restaurant-style soup kitchens, which also prepare meals-on-wheels for delivery to an additional 125,000 people.
Aryeh Goldstein, the head of operations at the Meir Panim Free Restaurant in Jerusalem, said that many of the people his branch services are Holocaust survivors. While Meir Panim does not ask questions of its guests or keep records, some people open up and share their life stories.
A regular at Meir Panim’s Free Restaurant in Jerusalem, the soft-spoken Menachem retells his childhood memories of school in Poland. With a smile, he laughs about how incredible it is that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are studying in schools in Israel, especially after he survived the terrible conditions of the Holocaust.
“Meir Panim gives me great assistance and support,” he said quietly. “They try to take care of us through food and other services. Meir Panim is such a blessing.” v
For more information about Meir Panim’s special outreach and relief efforts, please visit meirpanim.org.