about 40 percent women here. This is totally
unprecedented in soup kitchens, where often
women feel too ashamed to go," Levkowitz said.
There are tens of thousands of hungry people in
Israel, but not everyone who comes to the soup
kitchen is necessarily starving, Levkowitz said.
"Many people are either mentality ill, or have no
one who might prepare them a hot lunch," he said.
Meir Panim, a non-profit inspired and run by
will be hit hardest. With a progressive salary cut
Jews, has grown tremendously — largely,
ranging from 6 percent for low-wage earners to 12
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
due to increasing demand,
percent for higher earners, no one will be spared.
Levkowitz said. Meir Panim soup kitchens now feed
The plan also reportedly includes mass layoffs,
some 2,500 Israeli adults and 800 students a day in
tens of thousands of public sector employees
o bad is Israel's economic situation that some
five national centers. While the organization receives
could lose their jobs in coming years. Netanyahu has
children in the Negev town of Sderot wel-
only 6 percent of its funding from the government,
particularly targeted the Education Ministry, reduc-
comed the Kassam rockets Hamas fired at
85 percent of Meir Panim's recipients are referred to
ing the number of administrators and teachers and
the town as if they were much-needed rain.
its soup kitchens by state social workers.
combining positions and authorities. The cuts also
"It's actually a good thing the rockets hit here,"
Funds come from donations, Levkowitz said.
will reduce social security and child , benefits, while
said a smiling Shiran Avraham, 17, surrounded by a
"People will call and say they want to sponsor five or
raising the pension age to 67.
half-dozen giggling teenage girls. "No one would
10 or 100 meals. Others say they have a bed, or a
Even before the cuts are approved, the country
pay any attention to this place without them, and
fridge, or an oven, even sewing machines to give
faces a social services gap that some people are try-
we certainly would not have gotten the benefits of a
away," he said.
ing to fill.
city on the 'front line.'"
During lunch hour March
Avraham's statements came just days before
17, the day before Purim, the
Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Israelis
scene was both amusing and
this week that a $6 billion deficit has left state cof-
surreal. Orthodox men,
fers empty. To combat Israel's economic woes,
joined by Israeli Arab volun-
Netanyahu unveiled a new austerity plan that prom-
teers, acted like stereotypical
ises to be as painful as it is drastic.
Jewish mothers, bouncing
Last week, a rocket missed, by about 30 feet, the
from table to table cajoling
Ulpana Girl's School that Avraham attends in
"clients" to eat more and con-
Sderot, a city that suffers both from constant bar-
stantly ladling additional food
rages of Kassam rockets and chronic unemployment
onto people's plates.
"Take this," one of the Arab
Avraham was unfazed, like most people in town.
workers said, shoving a loaf of
She said her family — like most Sderot residents —
bread into the arms of a
needs the added benefits allotted. to residents of
homeless man already laden
cities the government considers on the "front line."
with leftovers. "But I don't
The benefits include lowered income and property
need it," the man replied,
taxes and increased budgets for infrastructure, social -
clutching his take-away soup.
services and education.
"Just take it, its good for
So important are the benefits in these times of cri-
you," the volunteer responded.
sis that Mayor Eli Moyel proudly considers his suc-
Unlike most of Israel's for-
cess in securing the benefits just last week as the
profit businesses, Meir Panim
centerpiece of his tenure as mayor.
is growing. By the end of the
As Israel braced itself this week for the U.S.-led
year, it is slated to open an
war against Iraq, residents were more concerned
additional four branches in
about their sagging pocketbooks than about don-
Israel's poorer cities, part of
An Israeli woman talking on a cell phone turns to look at a man begging in
ning gas masks or finding plastic sheeting to seal
an effort to better serve
the street near the central bus station in Jerusalem.
"periphery cities" like Sderot.
A poll released by the Israel Forever Foundation
In addition to food, the
indicated that nearly twice as many Israelis — 20
organization provides legal counsel and medical
"You see," said Moshe Levkowitz, director general
percent — are concerned about the economic situa-
services twice a week.
of Meir Panim, Israel's only chain of soup kitchens,
tion than about a possible Iraqi attack (11 percent).
"the State of Israel has no system of soup kitchens."
Each one, he explains, is independent and ad hoc.
In Israel, an economy more scary than the prospect of Iraqi missiles.
To remedy Israel's economic implosion, Netanyahu's
plan is designed to cut fat from the national budget.
If cuts already passed in December 2002 are includ-
ed, Israel's per annum budget will be sliced by about
$4 billion dollars, or 8 percent.
Every ministry but the Defense Ministry will lose
2-3 percent of its budget. The protracted war with
the Palestinians, plus breakneck preparations for a
possible attack from Iraq, have sent the defense budg-
et soaring while knocking the economy into recession.
According to Netanyahu's plan, the public sector
LeVkowitz takes pride in his organization for "not
only filling their bellies with food, but their hearts
with pride." Meir Panim, named after founder
David Kochmeister's son Meir, who died of a rare
pancreatic disorder at age 13, operates in the fashion
of a home-style restaurant. By keeping its premises
clean and "restaurant-like," it aims to remove any
feelings of shame from accepting donated food.
"Because of a policy that requires respect, we get
But there are many Israelis who fall through the
cracks and find themselves unable to take aid even
from groups like Meir Panim. "We represent those
people," said Mark Elazar, one of the 30 or so resi-
dents of a trash-filled camp called "Bread Square" in
The new residents of Bread Square — officially
Tel Aviv's swank Ha'medina Square — are a ragtag
group of the chronically ill, former addicts and
simply the very poor with nowhere else to go.
BREAD LINES on page 32