Meir Panim: Helping those the system fails

Meir Panim feeds Israel's hungry children, families and Holocaust survivors. Some 1.7m Israelis - equivalent to 22% of the population - live below the poverty line.


When Anna moved to Israel in the 1957, it was a dream fulfilled. Born in a concentration camp, she was determined to give her family the opportunities she never had as a child growing up in the former Soviet Union and Poland.

“Israel was the only place I knew I could live as a Jew,” she says. The mother-of-three worked in finance and later set up a club for children whose parents worked long hours. She also developed a passion for martial arts, teaching judo and krav maga.

Today, Anna feels let down by the Israeli welfare system. Sitting in her cold apartment in Or Akiva, by the coast, the 77-year-old says she does not know what she would do without the help of Meir Panim. The Israeli charity endeavours to support 1.7 million Israelis — 22 per cent of the population — who are affected by poverty.

“The welfare system in Israel does not care about me,” Anna reflects. “They do not see people in need. They see ‘cases’. They have forgotten their people.

“Something has to be done. It is not just about me, or other Holocaust survivors, or other elderly people who helped build this country and deserve a minimum amount of respect and dignity. It is about people at any age, the families and the children who need help.

“We have to talk about what is happening. We have to spread the word.”

Two years ago, Anna underwent back surgery. Although a welfare system representative came to see her, no immediate support resulted.

“There was no one to help me get dressed or go to the bathroom. If it was not for my friends [or Meir Panim], I do not know what I would have done.

“After two-and-a-half months I got a call from the woman in welfare. She asked if I could get dressed by myself. I told her: ‘Now, I do not need you.’”

Anna also relays stories of others the system has failed. “I have a friend who is 83. She faints all the time. The welfare workers visited her at home but said she looked fine because she had make-up on. They wait until you have no dignity left until they help you.”

According to Meir Panim, some survivors have returned to Germany for a better lifestyle. Others seek support from non-profit organisations but many suffer in silence.

Ilanit Chafuta, who manages Meir Panim’s branch in Or Akiva, comes over to give Anna a hug. She says they have developed a “mother and daughter” relationship, adding: “This is not work, this is my life. The third sector [non-profit sector] does too much but we do not have a choice. The reality forces us to work.”

Known as the “Angel of Or Akiva” among locals, Ms Chafuta — who was raised in a foster home —has worked with the poorest in society for more than two decades. She has watched the situation gradually deteriorate and lays the blame at the door of the government. “People need love, they need human contact — not just food. They need the whole package,” she says.

There are piles of children’s clothes in a room at the local Meir Panim centre (children account for more than a third of those in poverty). Some take a shower before a meal of schnitzel, rice and salad. For many there is no food in their homes. A mother sits outside, smoking a cigarette and checking her smartphone, while her six children, fathered by four men, enjoy a meal and draw pictures with donated colouring pens.

Ms Chafuta believes children can escape a cycle of poverty through a combination of “lots of love, food, warmth, furniture at home, an education. If a child is cold or hungry they cannot study. If we support them, they can finish their bagrut [exams] or complete their national service.”

She points to pictures on her office wall of soldiers once cared for by the charity. “See,” she smiles. “Now I am bursting with pride.”

Poverty can lead to crime. “First they are hungry so they steal a sandwich. Then they steal something else.”

In a bid to improve links with law enforcement, Ms Chafuta has built up relations with local officers. A policeman who volunteers at Meir Panim with colleagues is greeted warmly by children at the centre. He says there have been times when he has had to arrest the parent of one of the children — and seen the child the next day at Meir Panim.

Ms Chafuta says a police presence is important in changing pereceptions. On Purim, a boy dressed up as a policeman joined an officer delivering mishloach manot (gifts). “Now he wants to be a policeman.”

Informal education is key to the charity’s ethos. In Sderot, a year-long partnership with the local municipality is encouraging social integration.

Glasgow-born Daniel Berkeley, manager of the Sderot youth department, notes that the tie-up has brought fresh investment into the youth centre. He points to a kitchen, couch area and X-Box games console — a luxury here. Indicating the Gaza border, which overlooks the premises, Mr Berkeley explains that youth activity is especially important in an area which has been under rocket attack for years. “You need to think about what effect that has on community life, on family life.

“A lot of parents just encourage their children to stay home because of that. This shelter is here to give these kids a safe place to come.”

Seeing the benefits, he has formulated plans for two more centres in the area.

Few places appear as poor as Dimona, in the Negev. The area is run-down and there are few transport links. So it is no surprise to learn it houses Meir Panim’s largest centre.

At 9am on a Thursday, elderly people — many of them Holocaust survivors — are gathering outside the kitchen two hours before its opens. Most have old plastic or wheelie bags with them. There is little conversation.

They watch soldiers — volunteers from nearby army bases — carry boxes to the dining room laden with fresh vegetables, challahs and fruit and nuts to mark Tu Bishvat.

Tables are laid with decorative cloth and flowers. There is an absence of knives as there have been “incidents” in the past.

Outside the dining room, there are arguments in Russian or Moroccan over queue places.

Some people stand in the takeaway line, piling their bags and tupperware with chicken, rice, potatoes and salad.

In the dining room, one neatly dressed man sits alone. He looks around and when he thinks no one is watching, tips nuts and fruit into his bag.

A woman guards her challah, pulling round a chair and using it as a makeshift walking-stick.

Across the road, the Likud Mayor, Benny Biton, insists there is not a poverty issue in the city, despite Meir Panim claiming to serve 550 meals a day.

Mr Biton suggests survivors are compelled to hoard food because of the hunger they experienced during the Holocaust. He is “happy Meir Panim exists”, but goes on to contend that the state would fill the breach if it did not.

Questioned about an OECD poverty report, which warned that Israel “needs to address productivity, inequality and poverty if it wants to improve well-being and reduce socio-economic divides”, he cites “Charedim and Israeli Arabs” as the problem.

Meir Panim needs £5.6 million to fund its annual budget.

It last year delivered more than 97,000 food packages, 480,000 hot meals, 15,000 challahs for Shabbat and 67,000 school dinners. A £12 million nutrition centre is set to open in June in Kiryat Gat.

Gaby Blauer set up Meir Panim’s UK fundraising branch, Manna, eight years ago. He notes a reluctance to acknowledge poverty as a major issue in Israel.

“People say there is no such thing,” he observes. “They think of the ‘start-up nation’ and nice beaches. But it is not the full picture.”

The situation of survivors still upsets him. “The last place on earth a Holocaust survivor should be in need is in Israel. But it is a reality.

“It is important not to forget that there are more than 45,000 Holocaust survivors in need.

“You go into their houses and for me as an Israeli it is shocking. It shouldn’t be like this. The elderly, and among them a lot of Holocaust survivors, should be a priority. These people suffered and they built our country. They need our help.”


Manna is holding a Parliamentary reception on February 27. For details, go to its website,


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