Had I not been tipped off, I would have thought it was a regular restaurant. Beautifully decorated, with burgundy and white drapes, matching table covers, comfortable chairs with upholstered seats, bright watercolors adorning the walls, and upscale ceramic floor tiles, Carmei Ha'Ir (http://carmeihair.org.il/en/) vies with any restaurant in the market district of Jerusalem for tasty food and tasteful ambience. Only the omission of a bill presented at the end of the meal and the large wooden box near the exit, into which patrons may or may not drop their contribution (which often is a thank you scribbled on a napkin), hint to the truth: Carmei Ha'Ir is a soup kitchen.
For a decade Yehuda Azrad, Itzik Levitan, Momi Ben Zruel, Harel Horowitz and David Germiza dreamed of creating a soup kitchen "where everyone who enters would receive honor, not just food."
Even the name embodies their commitment to preserving the dignity of their indigent patrons. They wanted a name which would not smack of charity. Ze'ev Yekutiel, a restaurant consultant and caterer who volunteered the know-how for establishing the restaurant, came up with "Carmei Ha'Ir." In Hebrew, it means simply, "the vineyards of the city," but the inner circle of supporters knows that the word "Carmei" is also an acronym for a line in the prayer of hospitality: "All the hungry will eat from Him."
The establishment of Carmei Ha'Ir could not have come at a more desperate time for Israeli society. With the onslaught of the Oslo War three and half years ago, Israel's two main industries, tourism and hi-tech, both crashed, causing tens of thousands of companies to go out of business and leaving over 11% of the population unemployed (double the U.S. figure). Government budget cuts, intended to keep the economy from collapsing, slashed child allowances, social security benefits, and grants to single mothers. The result: One-third of Israeli children, or 618,000 children, live below the poverty line and tens of thousands of Israelis -- children, the elderly, and new immigrants -- go to bed hungry.
No one knows who are "paying customers" and who aren't.
When Carmei Ha'Ir opened its doors in March, between 40 to 80 people availed themselves of its free lunch service. Now the "open restaurant" serves 500 portions a day. For many of the patrons, it is the only meal they eat in 24 hours served by the well renowned Chef, Moshe Basson. Volunteer waitresses scurry to serve soup and entree choices of meat, chicken, or fish, accompanied by heaping portions of couscous, rice, or pasta plus vegetables. The food, prepared by an expert chef, is tasty enough to draw a smattering of patrons who can -- and do -- afford to pay for their meal in the big wooden box at the exit. No one knows who are "paying customers" and who aren't.
As in any restaurant, the patrons sometimes complain: They want dark meat, not light, or the juice served isn't cold enough. While the volunteer staff scrambles to satisfy everyone's preferences, the founders smile. That their clientele feel like respected patrons rather than charity cases is the fulfillment of their dream.
Committed to a high aesthetic standard for the establishment, the founders brought the drapes, the watercolor prints, the large aquarium, and decorative items like the antique candelabra from his own home.
"I see people changing," the founders remark. "In the beginning, they came here bedraggled and unkempt. Once they saw that they were eating in a classy restaurant, they started wearing clean clothes, they got a haircut, or started wearing make-up. Their sense of their own personal dignity skyrocketed."
The founders know the story of each of the regular patrons. "That's Sulika," he says, pointing to an elderly Moroccan woman wearing a green snood. "I've known her for 15 years. All her life she held a regular job, in an office -- an established, middle-class family. The first time she came in here, I was surprised to see her. I asked her what brought her here. She replied that she has five orphans at home and couldn't feed them. She's an old woman, so I couldn't understand what she was talking about."
Then Sulika's story unfolded. Her 27-year-old son-in-law had died of cancer, leaving five young children. Sulika's daughter became so depressed that she couldn't function. She moved her family into Sulika's two-room apartment. Most mornings, she never gets out of bed. Sulika, herself a widow, uses her meager pension and the children's social security benefits to pay for the rent, the children's tuition (education in Israel is compulsory but not free), the children's clothes and schoolbooks, and bus fare. Nothing is left for food. She had run up a 2,000 shekel (=$485) bill at the local grocery store, which now refused to give her any further credit. She was so relieved to find Carmei Ha'Ir. She comes for lunch every day and takes home packaged hot meals for her daughter, the five children, and her crippled son, who also lives with her. For their other meal of the day, they eat the sandwiches that Carmei Ha'Ir packages daily for 400 needy schoolchildren.
On Shabbat, Carmei Ha'Ir serves a special Shabbat luncheon to approximately 120 patrons. "We make it really nice for them," the founders enthuse, "with white table cloths, and flowers on the table, and Shabbat food with ten different salads."
Sulika lives too far away to walk to Carmei Ha'Ir on Shabbat, so one Friday Yair offered to give her raw Shabbat food -- fish and chicken -- for her to cook at home. Sulika declined. She explained that the gas company had turned off her gas because of failure to pay her 300 shekel (=$75) bill.
Carmei Ha'Ir is to self-esteem what sunshine is to flowers.
Carmei Ha'Ir is to self-esteem what sunshine is to flowers. One of the paid workers is a 24-year-old deaf mute. Before starting at Carmei Ha'Ir, he was withdrawn and depressed. Now, he rushes proudly around performing various managerial functions assigned to him by our staff. "Here he's alive," our founders comment, beaming.
IN HIS IMAGE
Valuing other people's dignity is a core value in Judaism. Ethics of the Fathers proclaims: "One who humiliates his fellow in public has no share in the World to Come" (3:11). In fact, the sages asserted that someone who embarrasses another person in public is akin to a murderer.
The Biblical heroine Tamar was ready to face execution rather than embarrass her father-in-law Yehudah. Based on this incident, the Talmud declares: "Better that one let himself be thrown into a fiery furnace than put his neighbor to shame." (Sotah 10b) The sages of the Middle Ages debated whether, based on this dictum, a Jew is obligated to forfeit his life rather than transgress the prohibition against embarrassing someone -- just as a Jew is obligated to forfeit his life rather than transgress the cardinal sins of murder, adultery, and idolatry. The halachic conclusion is that a Jew is not thus obligated, but, whereas preserving life takes precedence over almost all other commandments, a Jew who submits to death rather than embarrass someone is praiseworthy.
Even a wanton criminal must be treated with a minimum degree of honor, because every human being is "created in the image of God." Thus, the Torah mandates that when a person is convicted and executed for a capital crime and his body is hung on a tree, the corpse must be cut down and properly buried before sunset of the same day. To allow the body to be displayed longer is to insult the King in whose image this person was created.
TAPPING INTO THE BOUNTY
Customers line up outside Carmei Ha'Ir well before the doors are thrown open at noon. Then a rush of people fill the four-person tables. Most of the patrons eat quickly and leave, making room for shift after shift. By 2:30 the crowd has thinned out. Two men who enter and sit down at that late hour are told that the food has run out. Yair signals to a volunteer to tell them to wait, and he absconds through the front entrance. A few minutes later, he is back, carrying several portions of stuffed peppers and stuffed zucchini.
Where did this food materialize from? Our founders smile and reply, "We have good neighbors." He means the nearby restaurants, who are happy to contribute whenever Carmei Ha'Ir runs out of food. Then he relates a story about the restaurant next door which amazes even him.
This large restaurant, Shipudei HaGefen, was empty from the beginning of the Oslo War. With terror attacks keeping people out of downtown Jerusalem, tourist groups virtually extinct, and rising unemployment rendering lunch out a dispensable luxury, the 120 seats at Shipudei HaGefen were vacant for most of three and a half years.
When construction began on Carmei Ha'Ir, Tzion Anavim, HaGefen's owner, became a generous supporter of the novel enterprise. He liberally advised them on how to set up a restaurant, provided the wine for the opening day Purim feast, and supplied food from HaGefen whenever the soup kitchen ran short.
Now, six months later, Shipudei HaGefen is experiencing such abundant blessing that Mr. Anavim can hardly handle his burgeoning volume of business. His tables are always full. Mr. Anavim attributes the sudden change in his fortunes to the help he proffers Carmei Ha'Ir. His inference is that because God loves Carmei Ha'Ir, He blesses anyone who helps it.
I agree. I arrived at noon on an empty stomach, spent three hours, with no time to eat a morsel, serving hungry people, and left feeling full.
Donations to Carmei Ha'Ir can be sent to P.O.B. 6084, Jerusalem 91060, Israel. Visit their site at http://carmeihair.org.il/en/