(note: I wrote this back in 2003, as indicated by the post date, and am placing it now (2007) on the blog for posterity. Many of the numbers have changed since that time)
Some people have dubbed me a “gastronomic Zionist” – having traveled 8,000 miles for a decent meal. I am currently in the middle of a 10-week sojourn in Israel, principally for my family to have a living experience here, to support the Israeli economy and spirit in this time of need, and of course to enjoy some fine kosher cuisine.
Food professionals, and discerning connoisseurs will not speak simply of food, but rather of a “dining experience”, which consists of so much more than the actual meal consumed. The ambiance of the eating establishment, the menu, the presentation of the food, the accompanying wine, all contribute toward the sum total of the meal.
Today’s “lunch experience” was different. It began in the offices of Hazon Yeshaya in the Mekor Baruch neighbourhood of Jerusalem. We met the founder of the soup kitchen, a truly driven man, Avraham Israel. Avraham was born in Egypt and grew up there, as well as in France. He lived through difficult times, and at various stages in his childhood, his meals were supplied by a soup kitchen. He later moved to the US and established a successful shoe import business. The business grew to a point where he decided that he had made enough money to live, so he sold out, moved to Israel, and established Hazon Yeshaya, named after his father, around 6 years ago. He now had kitchens in Jerusalem and Rishon LeTzion (near Tel Aviv), and produces a staggering 4,000 hot meals per day., 365 days a year. He explains to us that this has been his dream and due to the terrible times that Israel is going through, he can’t process the applications fast enough.
The numbers are stunning; I press Avraham for some financials. The annual budget for the organization is $US 3 million, but their total overhead runs at just 8% of this (this includes staff, rent, utilities, and fundraising costs). They have over 100 volunteers, but just 6 paid staff, but Avraham, the founder and full-time director is not one of them. The paid staff are two head chefs for each of the kitchens, a manager, and a couple of admininistration people, and a recently appointed marketing assistant. I do some quick calculations – they produce a meal for around 8 shekels – less than $2 US. Avraham’s key role is fundraising – he spends six months of the year traveling the world raising money.
He introduces us to a key staff member, who validates every person who wishes to obtain meals from the soup kitchen. She comes in and shows us an example of her work: she interviews each applicant, visits them in their home, and checks all the necessary documents that prove they are genuinely in need. It is a rigorous process, and somewhat unpleasant for both parties, but necessary to ensure that the system is not undermined by fraud. Avraham tells me that she works late many nights, has 11 children of her own, and does her work entirely as a volunteer.
We move on and check out one of the kitchens, which is five minutes walk from the office. There is lots of very large commercial equipment – a full height hot box with about 20 shelves of shnitzels, a massive stainless steel “thing” with more cooked rice than I have ever seen in one place at one time. In an adjacent room, a handful of people are peeling vegetables – preparing for tomorrow.
Next stop is the day care centre. Day care? I thought this was a soup kitchen. But to Avraham, day care is an obvious extension. In Israel, education is free to all children from age 6, but day care for ages 3-5 is not. So he starts a centre to cater for the children of families receiving food. Not only does this give the children two meals per day, and free day care of a high standard, but it gives the parents the chance to get out of the house and try to find work. He also houses a warehouse of clothing and shoes for children in need.
The organization runs out of eleven rented locations in Jerusalem, including the actual food distribution centres. There are a handful more in Rishon LeTzion. They also do deliveries for those who are unable to get out themselves. We now walk to the newest extension – Avraham has just bought a building. It is a massive place, and he plans to pull it down, and build a multi-level centre that includes a much larger kitchen, a consolidated day care (with plenty of space both inside and out for the children), and also a hostel for “Chayalim Bodedim” – soldiers from abroad who need a home away from home while they are completing their army service. The total project cost: around $US 6 million.
Finally, we get in our car and drive to one of the food distribution centres in the poor neighborhood of Katamonim, for “lunch”. We get there and the meal service is nearly complete. I look around at the “guests” – there are quite a few elderly folk, but also plenty of middle aged and young people. The demographic is a mix – some orthodox, some secular. More recently, they have received many applications from families who were able to make ends meet, but have recently lost their jobs due to the difficult economic situation, and now cannot afford to feed their families.
Avraham invites us to go behind the counter and serve, which we do. There are lines of people for chicken soup, and for the main course, which consists of chicken, rice, and beans. Before long my wife and I are dishing it out like professionals, and our kids are handing out bread and fruit. It was so dignified. Everyone says thank you, but we thank them back for the privilege of serving them – my wife has tears in her eyes.
The food look and smells tasty – but I dare not even try it: this food is “hekdesh” – consecrated. It has been donated by others to feed people in need, and certainly not to feed me.
After everyone has received their meal, there is still food remaining, but a new line forms and we are now filling containers with whatever food is left over for the recipients to take home, either for their families, or to eat later that day. A few minutes later the pots are empty. An elderly man gets up to help wash up so he feels he is doing something to reciprocate.
This is truly a lunch experience like no other. The ambiance is warm and inviting, the menu is pragmatic, and the wine list is non-existent. But the food and service has a magical ingredient you will not find in restaurants: love of a fellow Jew, and the desire to reach out and help those less fortunate than ourselves. I leave the venue physically hungry, but emotionally and spiritually truly satiated.