Soup kitchens nourish souls

Uzi Gamliel says he experienced a miracle. Injured in two separate terrorist bombings at Mahane Yehuda market, he lived to tell the tale. But the battery of operations he had to undergo left him unable to work. Although he's had a variety of jobs over the past 30 years, he doesn't have enough money to live on. Divorced with no children, he lives a hand-to-mouth existence in Jerusalem.

"It's not easy," he says with a sigh.

But the not-for-profit organization Hazon Yeshaya aims to give Gamliel — along with others who struggle on the fringes of society — a bit of a break.

Rav Abraham Israel is the founder and dynamo behind Hazon Yeshaya, which runs four busy soup kitchens in Jerusalem.

Serving 650 hot kosher meals a day, Hazon Yeshaya caters to a population that has virtually nowhere else to turn. As what may well be the largest soup kitchen in the country, Hazon Yeshaya has a big job to do 365 days a year.

"Hunger does not take a holiday," stresses Israel.

Serving the elderly, the impoverished, the infirm, the disabled in body and spirit, each of the four centers has a regular retinue of registered recipients.

"For many of these people," says Israel, "this is the only food they have all day."

Hazon Yeshaya is open to Jews of all ages, streams, and backgrounds. To be eligible to receive a daily hot meal, they must submit civil and/or medical documentation to prove they do not have the means to provide for themselves. A file is then kept on each.

The meals are served once a day at lunchtime. Except for the center in Katamon, where there is a small dining room, the three other centers — in Mea Shearim, Gilo and Kiryat Yovel — dish out the daily meals into each recipient's reusable plastic container which is provided by Hazon Yeshaya.

"When it comes to Shabbat and the chagim, we provide our recipients with all the food they will require for the holidays. We give out the packages before the onset of the chag so that every family or individual can enjoy a traditional festive meal," explains Israel.

A full-course meal costs the centers $2.50, but to achieve that price there is a constant struggle with the food vendors. "We try to get what we can for free or at least for the lowest price. We haggle over every item and then, when the bill is tallied, we try to knock the total down a little more," admits Israel.

In fact, he points out, "feeding people a hot meal every day is the hardest thing to do. We could cut our costs by 80 percent if we just gave them the ingredients. But then they would need to do the cooking, not to mention have a refrigerator and a stove," he explains. Quoting from the Talmud, Israel says: "If you do an act of chesed, you should do it all the way."

Providing 18,000 meals a month is no easy feat. But thanks to the help of hundreds of volunteers, each task becomes an act of chesed. "If it wasn't for them, we'd be lost," says Israel.

Dealing with literally tons of produce a month, the cook, Tamir Israeli, prepares the meals at the distribution center in Mea Shearim, at 65 Rashi St.

He comes in every morning at 6:30 and cooks until 11:30. Lunch is served on the dot between 12:15 and 1:30 p.m. Everything must be ready on time, says Israeli. "You don't play with people's stomachs."

Israeli himself stands at the door ladling out the savory sustenance. With a smile on his face and a large spoon in his hand, the chief cook addresses his clientele with such endearing terms as motek and hamudi.

After lunch, Israel helps the volunteers peel and prepare the vegetables for the next day, generally staying until 6 in the evening.

A daily meal consists of a generous portion of meat or chicken; cooked vegetables; pasta, rice, or couscous; as well as soup, bread, salad and sometimes a fruit. The menus vary daily and are then repeated the following week. Special meals are also prepared for those who cannot have salt or spices.

To diminish the feeling of being given a handout, Hazon Yeshaya offers recipients the opportunity to get involved. Some deliver meals to those who are too ill or too frail to collect the food themselves. Others help in the kitchen by peeling vegetables, cleaning up, preparing the meal packages, or setting and clearing the tables (in Katamon).

On any given afternoon, the range of people who come to receive their meals at Hazon Yeshaya is wide and varied.

Daniel Shovit is married and has five children. One has epilepsy; another is partially paralyzed.

"I don't receive enough money from Bituach Leumi, so I came here and found help," he says. "My wife is a woman of valor. But I can't work. I have emotional problems," he states. "But," he adds cheerfully, "my skill is that I can put people in a good mood."

In fact, that is another important aspect of Hazon Yeshaya. These soup kitchens not only nourish the body but also nurture the soul.

"Many of these people are lonely and have no families," says Israel. "We offer them an opportunity to come out and meet with other people, to socialize. They make friends here and no longer feel alone."

In addition to providing meals for the 650 registered recipients every day, Hazon Yeshaya prepares 200 children's meals twice a week.

The children are the products of broken or drug-abused homes. A volunteer not only takes the meals to these children but also sits with each of them as they eat. Otherwise, she says, the parents would most likely eat the food themselves.

"We would like to be able to take on more recipients," says volunteer Eli Darshan. "It is very hard for us to turn hungry people away."

He says the organization also wants a large center where people can sit down to eat. But these things cost money.

"We receive no funds from the government," says Israel. "Everything we have comes from private donations. And all donations are tax deductible."

Formerly a successful businessman in New York, Israel spends about six months a year traveling to various parts of the world to solicit funds for his life's passion.

But he doesn't sample the food in his soup kitchens. "I never even had a drink of water there. I don't want to take one bite of food away from these people."