Vered Slonim-Nevo: Our motives are not religious, but to help the poor and help the poor help themselves. It all started with a television documentary. A few years ago, an Israeli television channel broadcast a program about L’Sova, an organization founded by prominent attorneys Sharona and Gilad Harish that operates a Tel Aviv soup kitchen.

L’Sova feeds hundreds of people a day, no questions asked. They include new immigrants from the CIS, homeless vagrants, drug addicts, alcoholics and veteran Israelis down on their luck. Foreign workers also find their way to
L’Sova when money is short and hunger overtakes them. This was one documentary that made an impact.

“After we saw the program we decided to meet Gilad, because we knew that Beersheva also needed such a restaurant,” recalls Vered Slonim-Nevo, head of the Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, located in Beersheva, the largest city in Israel’s south.

Slonim-Nevo and her friend Yael Sonin, a
senior embryologist at Soroka Hospital, live in Omer, the prosperous community just outside Beersheva, where Sonin is a member of the municipal council. When they met Harish in Tel Aviv he encouraged them to start an operation in Beersheva similar to L’Sova, and he promised to back them.

Slonim-Nevo and Sonin took up the challenge. “Within a week we’d found a place, but we had no money. Harish trusted us and gave us a loan to pay the rent,” says Slonim-Nevo But the neglected building they’d rented in the
middle of Beersheva’s Old City was a wreck. The two gathered together friends from Omer, and managed to collect enough money to renovate the
building. Local contractors joined other volunteers. Four years ago the Be’er-Sova Restaurant for the Needy opened its doors. (The name of the first soup kitchen in Beersheva is a word play on the name Beersheva, and translates as “the Well of Fullness.) Initially, Be’er-Sova supplied about 50 meals a day, mainly to drug addicts and the homeless. But soon people
were being referred by welfare agencies, and the restaurant could not keep up with the demand.

Today Be’er-Sova prepares about 500 hot meals daily – half are served on the premises, the others are taken in special containers to four local kindergartens attended by particularly needy children. Be’er-Sova also prepares 360 sandwiches a day for disadvantaged school children at a “sandwich center,” supplies monthly food parcels to 75 impoverished
Ethiopian families in Beersheva, and sandwich-making supplies to a nearby Beduin elementary school for 250 sandwiches. It still cannot keep up with the demand.

According to a recently released report on poverty in the country by the Israeli humanitarian organization “Latet”, the demand for food assistance in Israel rose 46 percent in 2003, compared to the previous year’s rise of
37 percent. In some areas the leap was even higher. According to the report, Israel’s steep economic downturn in the last few years has meant
that more and more people in the country have been forced to ask for help to feed themselves and their families. A new group appearing this year on the food recipients’ list consists of former middle-class individuals, who now make up 11 percent of the needy.

None of this was news to the volunteers of Be’er-Sova. “We know that close to 20% of the population in Beersheva is on welfare in one form or another. So we assumed, even five years ago, that there would be many hungry people,” explains Slonim-Nevo. “There were also social welfare agencies that told us that pupils were coming to school with no food. We thought
that if they could do this in Tel Aviv, we could also do it in Beersheva.”

In the early days Slonim-Nevo and Sonin would cruise food wholesalers in the Beersheva open market on Friday afternoons, carrying whatever products they were given to the restaurant in their private cars. But soon donations from Israel and abroad allowed Be’er-Sova to purchase food. Donations in the form of equipment and foodstuffs began pouring in. Local agricultural
settlements turned up with vanloads of fruit and vegetables; local bakeries started bringing bread every day, and manufacturers donated equipment, including all the material to renovate the building, air-conditioning and
kitchen equipment.

Anyone who comes to the restaurant is served a meal with no questions asked. The meals, which are balanced and tasty, are prepared under the
supervision of a professional chef. The restaurant-style dining area is small but spotless and nicely decorated. There are no unpleasant smells one often associates with soup kitchens.

The volunteers who clean and cook and wash dishes are an eclectic mix. The mainstay volunteers are elderly Russian immigrants who are needy themselves, and regard Be’er-Sova as a kind of home. They are given travel expenses and some food to take home. Another four or five unpaid staffers have been ordered by the court to do community service, and are supervised
by the prison service. There are also “daily volunteers,” most of whom have full-time jobs, but come in for a few hours a week to help out.

A special relationship has been built up between a small Beduin Community near Hura and Be’er-Sova. In a unique project here, Be’er-Sova provides the “raw materials” for making sandwiches to the local school, whose staffers
and parents prepare the sandwiches for the pupils, most of whom are very deprived. This empowerment approach, which directly involves the
community in the preparation of the food, has proved so successful, that Be’er-Sova hopes to apply it to the Jewish schools in Beersheva.

Vered Slonim-Nevo, who received the 2002 President’s Prize for Volunteerism, in particular for her initiative in founding Be’er-Sova, has had a 30-year career in social work. In addition to Be’er-Sova, she has been
involved in a number of projects in the south. One is “Light At the End of the Tunnel,” a project with the welfare agencies in the development town of Yeroham, in which a group of unemployed families were given help to form a
cooperative catering business, which has become quite successful. She worked with bereaved mothers of soldiers, and today is the advisor on
women’s status to the president of BGU.

She and her husband, Yanni Nevo, are political activists in other spheres. They helped establish The Negev Forum for Coexistence, which works for equal rights for Arab citizens, and encourages inter-ethnic tolerance and dialogue.

Slonim-Nevo believes Be’er-Sova is unique in being universal and non-religious. “I’ve seen soup kitchens abroad and in Israel, but generally
they are associated with churches or in religious centers in Israel,” she says. “We have religious volunteers, but there’s no politics and no religion in Be’er-Sova. Our motives are not religious, but to help the poor and help the poor help themselves. But the needs are so great and growing all the time because of the deteriorating economic situation.”

“The wheel is turning,” she muses. “We never know when we or our children or grandchildren will need help, so it is nice to know there are services like Be’er-Sova in the community.”