Former middle-class families going hungry in Milan, Italy, is painfully more prevalent than Rabbi Yigal Hazan originally thought.

“Italy in the past few years is going through an ongoing recession,” says Hazan, administrator of Merkos Schools, the Chabad-Lubavitch day school in the city, and also rabbi of the Beit Menachem synagogue. “Historically, it is a very difficult moment in the country, and we see this in our daily management of the school.”

He says that when the school began to slash its budget, it decided to use money towards the opening of a new kitchen for something more immediate. With the facilities and staff already in place to feed schoolchildren, it made sense that the current kitchen, which was not operating at full capacity all hours of the day, could also be utilized to provide a meal for those who might otherwise skip one. The meal will be prepared there, and then delivered.

Dignitaries, community leaders and lay leaders from throughout the community gathered at a June 17 gala dinner—by kosher caterer Achille Boroli and sponsored by event architect Angelo Garini—to launch a joint effort to help feed the hungry.

“Soup kitchens are seeing businessmen who cannot make ends meet, sitting in their suits eating a meal that because of the recession they could not afford,” says Hazan.

Having seen this firsthand, the rabbi didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to needy individuals or their families. So, instead of them coming to the kitchen to eat, the kitchen will come to them.

“It is never exciting to ask for food,” he says. “We want people to feel comfortable receiving it without feeling guilty.”

Fresh Food Delivered Daily

Together with the Union of Jewish Communities of Italy, Chabad devised a plan to avoid adding discomfort to food recipients, including consideration of the program’s name itself.

“We are calling it the Friendship Kitchen,” says the rabbi. “Fresh food will be delivered daily to those who need it most.”

The kitchen will be aimed at members of the Jewish community, but it will also serve non-Jews in need.

“The spirited atmosphere, the tasty food this evening” and the benefits that they contrast “should make us even further reflect on why we are here—to help people who suffer from hunger,” says Daniela Mevorah, a former commissioner of social services of the Union of Jewish Communities of Milan who is involved in the kitchen’s planning.

Ada Lucia De Cesaris, deputy mayor of Milan, addressed the crowd.
Ada Lucia De Cesaris, deputy mayor of Milan, addressed the crowd.

Hazan notes that the city of Milan—with a population of more than 1.3 million people—delivers food to the homebound elderly, offering different types of fare. It will now also be able to provide kosher food packages from the Friendship Kitchen, the first kosher soup kitchen in Italy.

“This project is the result of those who are keen to make others feel good, even during hard times,” says Walker Meghnagi, president of the Union of Jewish Communities of Milan, who thanked Hazan for bringing the larger community together for this cause. “To give comfort and assistance to others makes us a stronger and better society.”

Learning From Chabad Worldwide

The Friendship Kitchen is in touch with two other Chabad social kitchens—the Big Kitchen at the headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch in Sydney, Australia, and the Chabad soup kitchen in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The new Italian operation will derive ideas from them about implementing a cost-friendly and sensitive atmosphere to ease everyone involved.

“I was at the kitchen last week,” says Ada Lucia De Cesaris, deputy mayor of Milan. “I was struck by the spirit and the joy, the love for the children. The kitchen, starting from today, will be important not just for those children—it will be for everyone, for the entire city.”

Merkos Schools principal Rivkah Leah Hazan says “it is particularly appropriate and necessary to think about those who suffer more than we do, and do everything possible to help them.” Her husband, Rabbi Avrohom Hazan, directs the educational institution.

She told the crowd that a communal partnership can make a real difference in the lives of others: “To give food is to give love.”

With additional reporting from Milan by Francesca Matalon