When Americans think about Israel, what generally comes to mind is the Western Wall, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict andthe Iranian nuclear threat. What many people are not aware of is that 1.8 million Israelis live below the poverty line — 860,000 of whom are children.
Nonprofit organization Meir Panim is working not only to feed hungry Israelis, but also to do it in dignified ways. At the same time, it is taking steps to break the poverty cycle through creative programming.
“There is — just like in America — a tremendous divide in the well-off and the not well-off,” said Deborah Brown, project director at American Friends of Meir Panim, the organization’s American counterpart. “There is a large segment of the population, almost 25 percent, that is living below the poverty line, and people are shocked when they find out.”
Leslie Goldberg, Maryland regional director for American Friends of Meir Panim, said immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia and other countries aren’t always given the help they need when they move to Israel, contributing to the country’s poverty rate.
“They just don’t have the financial resources, and they often live in impoverished communities,” she said.
To raise awareness and money for the organization, American Friends of Meir Panim is holding three events in Baltimore, the first of which is Vocaltrition on Sunday, Nov. 10. The name is a mash-up of vocal — the concert will feature Jewish and cantorial music — and nutrition, for the multimillion-dollar nutrition center under construction in Israel.
The 100,000-square-foot Mortimer Zuckerman and Abigail Zuckerman Israel Nutrition Center will be the largest food production center in Israel and will be able to prepare 30,000 meals a day for Meir Panim’s free restaurants, Meals on Wheels and after-school programs. It will also employ 200 people.
Cantor Emanuel Perlman of Chizuk Amuno first put a concert together for Meir Panim in 2004 with the help of several other Baltimore-area cantors, including Beth Tfiloh’s Avi Albrecht, who will also be performing at Vocaltrition.
“We wanted to raise three-quarters-of-a-million dollars, and that’s exactly what we did with area cantors,” Perlman said.
He first heard about Meir Panim, which helps Jews and non-Jews alike, from Albrecht and was appalled at the figures he heard. Having worked in many charitable capacities over the years, Perlman had to get involved.
“We are living in a time where you can’t wait for somebody else to do it. … That’s not the way [of the] cantors,” he said. “We are messengers for God, so I guess now we are feeding people.”
The concert also features Temple Oheb Shalom’s Cantor Emeritus Melvin Luterman and special guest cantor, Yitzchok Meir Helfgot. Two other “American Idol”-style events in December and March will also raise money for Meir Panim.
Meir Panim advocates emphasize that the organization doesn’t just feed hungry Israelis, it feeds them with dignity.
Instead of soup kitchens, Meir Panim holds “free restaurants” for its clients.
“People can sit down and be served like a mentsch and not stand in line with a plate waiting for bread,” Brown said.
Through Israel’s welfare department, the organization distributes food cards to clients, which can be used to buy groceries. Again, to maintain dignity for the clients, the cards look and work just like regular debit cards. Clients cannot buy alcohol or tobacco with the cards.
The organization also gives vocational training and runs after-school programs. The children are given one-on-one tutoring, computer classes, other enrichment activities and a meal before they head home. Parents are engaged by coming to some of the kids’ activities and are also taught home budgeting, parenting skills and language skills, if they need them.
“We’re really trying to not just meet the immediate need, which is food and hunger, but [we are trying to] put them in a position where they won’t need this in the future,” Brown said. “They could go on to break themselves out of the cycle of poverty, and they won’t need the free meal tomorrow and their children won’t need that free meal.”
Roth echoed Brown’s sentiment.
“Meir Panim’s goal actually is to get out of business,” he said. “But our mission is, as long as there’s a hungry person in Israel, we will feed them.”
For more information and tickets to Vocaltrition, visit helfgotconcert.com. Meir Panim will be collecting donations of travel-size toiletries at the concert. For information on the Voices concerts, which include a female-exclusive event, visit voicecompetition.com.
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter