From the Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner explains how charitable Passover Seder meals have even been drastically slashed.
Last Pessah, Meir Panim, the country's largest network of "soup kitchens," distributed boxes of Seder meals to 24,000 people. It also gave out NIS 250 grocery coupons to 6,700 people. This Pessah, only a few hundred people will get those coupons. And the number of those who will receive Seder meals-in-a-box? Zero.
"Our Pessah campaign has been all but canceled," says Dudi Zilberschlag, founder of Meir Panim and the leading fund-raiser and power-broker in Israel's haredi world, while multitasking with aides in his office at Jerusalem's Bikur Holim Hospital. In late 2007, his donors, who include the wealthiest Jews here and abroad, began reducing their contributions, but since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt last September and it became clear that the world was in the grip of something much worse than an ordinary, cyclical recession, these contributions have simply dried up.
"The big Israeli corporations are out of the game," says Zilberschlag, in his 50s, a gentle-spoken man who takes hard times philosophically. He mentions a couple of super-rich Israelis, saying that they used to give him about $100,000 each before Pessah. "This time - nothing," he says.
In the last year, Meir Panim has closed five of its 17 soup kitchens, while Koah Latet, its affiliated charity for clothing and household goods, has closed down two of 14 branches. The organization's NIS 50 million budget has been cut by 30 percent; 41 of its 134 employees have been let go.
"We used to give hot meals to 700 kids in our after-school programs, now we're feeding maybe 200. We used to deliver 900 meals to the homes of old, sick, handicapped people who couldn't come in - we've stopped those deliveries completely," says Zilbershlag. "We're basically down to the core of what we do - the restaurants [i.e. soup kitchens]. We're still feeding 6,000 people, we don't turn anyone away, but we can't give them meat every day anymore, so we give them more carbohydrates."
Meir Panim was founded eight years ago, shortly after the second intifada began, the economy nosedived and the government, strapped for cash, began slashing away at financial assistance to poor people. As the welfare state dwindled, private charity picked up the slack, until now there are more than 120 soup kitchens around the country.