The call jarred him. An elderly woman from Jaffa was on the other end, asking for a Friday night Shabbat meal.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation,” said Matan Asulin. “It was the first time I heard someone like that asking for food. But if you know someone who needs help, then you help.”
Asulin was a volunteer for a food aid organization at the time, but one that wasn’t equipped for requests such as this. So right after his shift, he went straight to the market, bought the makings of a proper Shabbat meal, and delivered it to the elderly woman’s door.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the incident became the genesis for what would soon become Heart to Plate — the organization founded by Asulin and close friend Ronnie Lee in 2020. Heart to Plate is a new Good People Fund grantee.
The two, who met while university students, determined that that one woman in Jaffa personified a broader void in communities throughout Israel. That is, elderly, isolated people whose emotional and physical well-being could be elevated by a community of care dedicated to bringing them home-cooked meals and some companionship along the way.
“It is more than food,” said Lee. “It may start there, but it goes on to a lot of other things. They know they are not alone in the world anymore. That is the most important thing.”
At its core, Heart to Plate works by creating a cadre of four volunteers dedicated to two isolated, elderly persons. Each Friday night and on holidays, volunteers — on a rotating basis — bring a home-cooked Shabbat meal and create a much anticipated experience of connection.
Heart to Plate began as a small pilot initiative bringing Rosh Hashanah meals and visits to five elderly people in 2020. In the short time since then, it has grown to serving more than 160 beneficiaries in five cities including Haifa, Kiryat Ata, Migdal HaEmek, Rehovot, and Yokneam.
Ask Asulin and Lee about an epiphany moment in the young life of the organization and they tell the story of Chana, an isolated, elderly woman who lives in a small, one-bedroom home in northern Israel with a son who is physically disabled.
“When I first met Chana and her son Lior, I was in shock at how alone they are, without family and living this way,” Lee said. “I said to myself, and to her, that they are not going to be alone anymore and that I am here. She has now become like another grandmother to me.
“This is a special story because I grew up with grandparents and they are very important to me. When Matan and I saw Chana and others like her who live like this, it was very hard and we said to ourselves, this is our mission, to help as many as we can. So we are.”
If there is any indication that Heart to Plate is a journey of passion and impact for them, look no further than the fact that they both quit their jobs — Asulin as a security officer at a senior housing complex, and Lee as an e-commerce specialist at a fashion company — and that they used their own resources to launch the organization. They worked with no compensation until just recently.
“We are not just creating community for our elderly and isolated neighbors, we are bringing them back into the community,” said Asulin. “We see the relationships between them and our volunteers growing stronger and stronger over time.”
Elderly beneficiaries are typically connected to Heart to Plate through social welfare agencies in cities and municipalities where the organization is active. Volunteers — there are about 400 now — come from word of mouth, social media outreach, and emerging partnerships with companies, schools and youth movements.
In fact, Asulin and Lee envision preparing a young generation of Heart to Plate volunteers for a lifetime of service and social consciousness. “It is important for us as a society to teach kids and youth how to help the weak in their communities,” Asulin said.
Looking to the future, this pair of visionaries sees Heart to Plate with a footprint beyond the five cities it is in now, and throughout Israel.
“We are not rushed to grow, but want to be exact and precise as we go forward. Eventually, every city will have a community to take care of our elderly in this way. This is our great hope,” Asulin said.
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Good People Fund