Meir Panim translated from the Hebrew means “brightening faces.” And that is certainly what Meir Panim, one of Israel’s largest charity networks, is dedicated to doing. Meir Panim has branches in Jerusalem, Or Akiva, Tzfat, Tiberias and Dimona. The organization operates a variety of projects that include challah for Shabbat, grocery shopping cards, meals for children, The Power of Giving (which collects, adapts and distributes second-hand furniture and equipment to people in need), youth clubs, free restaurants and food packages. Meir Panim’s mission overall is to break the cycle of poverty in Israel with dignity and respect.
This year, Meir Panim launched a new pilot program, “The Young Chef Training Program,” in partnership with the Maytal Teen Center. Recognizing that the way teens spend their free time, especially teens living below the poverty line, is pivotal to their growth and development, this program allows these teens to build crucial skills for future success. Throughout the year, participants in the program learn the ins and outs of the culinary arts. They learn to create delicious food and display it in a restaurant-quality fashion.
Twenty teens participated in the program’s inaugural 24 sessions. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing multiple closures and the terrorism Israel experienced this year, the teens consistently returned to the program, eager to learn more. Incredible chef instructors, in addition to the program staff from the Maytal Center and Meir Panim, led the teens through the course, providing a tremendous amount of love, care and patience in training them in the culinary arts.
“Taking it from a dream to the reality of implementation with the support of the incredible Mandel Foundation in spite of the delays, pauses and interruptions due to COVID and the May war in Israel, provided us so much hope for the future and our ability to break the cycle of poverty. We felt like if we could make this program happen through a pandemic and a war, we can do anything and we were so grateful for each session one week at a time,” said Mimi Rozmaryn, Meir Panim’s director of global development.
The “Young Chef” pilot program in Meir Panim’s Dimona branch has recently enjoyed its finale and has already been deemed a success. Meir Panim plans on running another session with local teens next winter, also in the Dimona branch, and hopefully expanding to another branch as well.
“We want to make sure we grow the program in a way that is sustainable, both with our financial and human resources. We have great partners in the Maytal Teen Center in Dimona who work with these at-risk teens all year round and were able to select and present this to the right kids for this opportunity. Our priority in expanding is to find the right partner who can help connect us with the teens who this will make a difference for and serve as their support and guidance before, during and after the workshop’s duration,” Rozmaryn said.
The at-risk teen graduates of this program have many positive stories about using their newfound skills to cook delicious treats at home for their families. One young man shared that he has started preparing meals at home and that before this course he thought of cooking as “sorcery.” He shared that now he has learned enough to be able to help out his family—and even impress them! Another of the teen participants has already started a summer job at a local restaurant, something that they never would have thought possible a year ago. Another teen, in their army matriculation process, is pursuing a path in the kitchen, which not only will build on their experience in the “Young Chefs” program, but also serve as a development of skills and continued foundation toward a career post army. Through Meir Panim’s new pilot program these young chefs have learned essential skills that will help them break their cycle of poverty and succeed in life.
Rozmaryn noted, “For the teens, this was a great outlet and refuge for them in particular because of the challenges of the year they faced. Despite the fear and isolation, they had this unique experience and opportunity to look forward to and look back on.”
The entire Meir Panim family shared, “We are incredibly proud of our young chefs. We cannot wait to see what the future holds for these young adults.”
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. Susan has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.