At the Meir Panim restaurant-style soup kitchen in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, expected roles of “givers” and “takers” are reversed: those who at first come to receive food and assistance from the organization often end up on the other side of the counter, helping those who helped them. Here, the givers become the takers and the takers become the givers from moment to moment.
The name of the southern city is derived from a biblical reference in Joshua 15:21-22: “Now the cities at the extremity of the tribe of the sons of Judah toward the border of Edom in the south were Kabzeel and Eder and Jagur, and Kinah and Dimona”. The town is one of the most impoverished communities in Israel. With a population of about 34,000 residents, there is an approximate unemployment rate of 10%.
Known for its low-cost housing due to its desert location, many new immigrants from India and Russia have settled here, as well as a group known as the Black Hebrews. As quality jobs are in limited supply, especially for the elderly or uneducated, there is a great need for social services.
This is where Meir Panim shines. At their soup kitchen, a fresh, nutritious lunch is served beginning at 11:30 and prepared food packages are provided for the needy and homebound. However, the action at this home-away-from-home begins much earlier in the morning. The operation runs like a well-oiled machine, each participant well-practiced in his job for the day.
Shimon drives up in his “Dimona Bakery” truck. He delivers 500 individual loaves of bread daily at no cost to the soup kitchen, and has been doing so for the past 12 years. He is warmly greeted by Nissim, who has run the “Meir Panim Free Restaurant” since its opening in 2007. Nissim’s 12-year-old son Ziv volunteers alongside his father every holiday and during his summer vacation, keeping the warm feelings towards staff and patrons all in the family.
Avraham Abu, an elderly man who has difficulty walking, has been coming to eat at Meir Panim twice a week for the past seven years. “I know Nissim worries about me. I have no one else who thinks about me like people do here. Thank God for Meir Panim,” he shared.
Walking around the building as people prepare the day’s meal, one is struck by the team effort it takes to keep patrons well fed. An elderly Ukrainian man, Gregory Bazali, and a woman who immigrated from Russia are busy peeling and cutting fresh vegetables. Helping them is a 24-year-old local Bedouin man, Yunis, who first helps prepare the food and then brings meals back to his village.
“I come here three times a week to help prepare the food. I am also an electrician so when there are electrical problems, I volunteer my services,” Yunis explained to Breaking Israel News. “Since Meir Panim openly helps everyone who needs, I am also inspired to give to others.”
Bazali chimed in, “It’s fun for me to come here, not only to eat but to help. It puts a smile on people’s faces and helps them to feel good. I didn’t realize how many people need help in Dimona until I started volunteering and eating here. Now I appreciate this place even more.”
As the patrons enter the “free restaurant”, they each put a shekel (about $0.30) into a cup. This token payment for a generous meal is evidence of Meir Panim’s ultimate goal to “help with dignity”. Patrons of Meir Panim give a little and get a lot. Clearly, Meir Panim is an inspiration for those who get as well as those who give.