A growing number of once proud, working-class Israeli families are being transformed into the “working poor,” as they’ve failed to keep up with increased taxes as well as rising food and gas prices. Without the assistance of outreach social service organizations such as Meir Panim, the Mirilashvili family might have endured more than one Rosh Hashanah on the streets of Israel. Instead, they are not only regaining their independence but are giving back to the community too.
Sometimes, a chance encounter with someone special can change the course of a lifetime. Such was the meeting between Ilanit Hafuta, director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim in Northern Israel, and Ilan Mirilashvili, a resident of the city, who four years ago found himself in a dire financial and housing crisis. What began as a charitable gesture to help a family of six who had set up a makeshift ‘home’ in a tent outside the City Hall, has developed into a lifelong relationship, leading Ilan to join the cycle of giving in aiding Israel’s most needy people.
“Four years ago, we spent Rosh Hashanah in a tent on the grass outside the City Hall,” recounts 35 year-old Ilan. “We’d been made homeless after a long and drawn out financial and bureaucratic nightmare. I had four little children to feed, two of whom were sick, and my wife was eight months pregnant. I felt as though I’d been pushed up against a wall and had no choice but to ‘cry out’ for help. We sat in that tent for three weeks. I was working every night and would come back to the tent, exhausted, during the day. I was a broken man.”
“Toward the end of the three weeks, I was told there was a woman from an organization called Meir Panim who would be able to help us,” continues Ilan. “Ilanit came to our tent and sat with us patiently while I explained our situation. She then looked me in the eye and said ‘We have a long battle ahead. We’re going to do this together and I’m going to need your help.’ Using her strong connections with the local administrative system, she literally walked us through the entire bureaucratic process and one month later, we had a new home. And this apartment didn’t look the way it looks now,” he adds. “Ilanit organized a whole group of volunteers from Meir Panim to come and renovate it for us. Some volunteers brought furniture and others came to paint. It was all literally a miracle.”
The relationship between Ilan and Ilanit did not end with the acquisition of the apartment. “Ilanit has been like an older sister to me, guiding me and my family every step of the way. After we moved and as soon as things got back to routine, I started volunteering for Meir Panim. I’m a truck driver by profession and am therefore able to use my van to pick up food from companies, shops and bakeries and then deliver it to families in need. I have no other way of thanking Meir Panim besides giving back,” Ilan says with emotion. “The organization helps so many families with such a big and full heart and it made me want to do the same. I didn’t want to leave this loving family once things were okay for me—I only wanted to stay and help.”
In fact, two years ago, Ilan won the organization’s ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award for the energy and amount of hours he was putting in to his volunteering. “I learned from Ilanit and from Meir Panim just how important it is to help those who need it. One of the people I take food to, for example, is a widowed father who is bringing up his four daughters alone. Being able to provide a family like that with hot meals is a feeling that fills you up inside and gives you the strength to deal with your own troubles. My children have also become part of the cycle of giving, and it is the best education they could ever receive.”
Ilanit has been director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim for the last eight years. The charity, which operates a network of food and social service centers throughout Israel, is particularly active in Or Akiva. Activities include running after-school clubs and summer camps for kids, organizing weddings and other celebrations for needy families, providing food shopping cards to enable people to purchase their own groceries, distributing food packages for the Jewish holidays and a plethora of other formal and informal assistance. “Our goal is not only to meet the vital needs of the disadvantaged population, but to do so while preserving people’s dignity and enabling them to become self-sufficient,” shares Dudi Roth, President of American Friends of Meir Panim. “And it’s amazing to see how a cycle of social responsibility has developed. Almost all of the people we have helped give back in some way. Or Akiva is one big warm family and everyone has something to give. Everyone has a talent that someone else can benefit from. For example, Ilan’s wife Sam is a fantastic baker and she regularly bakes delicious cakes for the children who attend Meir Panim’s after-school clubs.”
Although it would be unrealistic to expect these families to suddenly be living picture-perfect lives, it is evident just what a strong and positive impact Meir Panim is having on so many of Israel’s neediest people. “I leave for work every morning at 6am and often don’t return until midnight and I’m still only earning very minimally,” admits Ilan. “The kids hardly see me, I work very hard, and it’s sometimes difficult to remain optimistic. But I thank G-d a million times over that Meir Panim has helped me regain my independence.” Ilanit adds, “There is a lot of pain with this work but there is also a lot of happiness. To help a family to be able to stand on their own two feet is the most rewarding thing.”
For more information about Meir Panim, please visit www.meirpanim.org.