2nd Day Rosh Hashanah, 5775
September 26, 2014
This morning we recited a passage praising God for making us Jewish. I love being Jewish. Although our tradition was not one that encouraged proselytizing in MY past, Reform Judaism has given me the permission to do just that – my way. I don’t hand out literature glorifying the virtues of being Jewish, but I DO Jewish. Our rabbi has a word for that which she used at our Groundbreaking ceremony: Na’a’seh, which means DOING.
I wish I could stand here and tell you that my motivation for introducing Mitzvah Meals was to do a mitzvah – it wasn’t. My motivation was derived from reading articles in the news almost daily about church members feeding the needy in organized food distributions on a regular basis. I came to the realization that two things were missing from these organized food programs: the absence of the participation of Jewish organizations and the fact that most other programs only operated Monday thru Saturday since Sunday was their Sabbath.
We were, of course, gathering food for our annual food drives and the Mitzvah Day programs, and a small group from our Religious School served at Sunday Nights Together once a month, but nothing else was ongoing throughout the year. I found this disturbing. I asked myself, “Where are the Jews?”
While I realize that the highest form of tzedakah is anonymity, I also know that sometimes a little recognition goes a long way. I knew that I wanted to create a program that would make us known for more than big picture philanthropy such as hospitals, universities and Israel. While serving lunch at Orange County Rescue Mission one Sunday, one of the residents, on finding out I was from Temple Beth Sholom, told me that she didn’t know Jews did this. When my manicurist, who is Catholic, said the same thing, I knew that I wanted to do something: Get the Jews involved in personally feeding the homeless on a regular basis.
There are many instructions in the Torah regarding helping the poor. Leviticus 19.9 tells us to leave the unripened gleanings for the poor. 19:10 tells us to leave imperfect clusters of the vineyard for the poor. Deuteronomy 15.7 tells us not to refrain from maintaining a poor man and giving him what he needs and Deuteronomy 10:19 tells us to love the stranger. There are other similar passages but while I don’t pretend to be an expert on Torah, the only passage I’ve read that even hints at reward for the helper says we’ll be rewarded in the hereafter. Well, I can’t wait for that. I’m an immediate gratification kind of gal.
Enter Mitzvah Meals and all of the rewards it brings. We were having our trial run of Mitzvah Meals in August, serving only at Southwest Community Center. Many of our volunteers were working every Sunday including a dad and his daughter. When I told him it wasn’t necessary for the two of them to work every week, his response was to thank ME for the opportunity to bond with his daughter. Even today as I write this it brings me to tears and fills my heart. By the way, although the daughter is now in college, they still work Mitzvah Meals together every month.
One Saturday morning in February, we were awakened with a phone call: There was a fire at the Temple. We hurriedly dressed and drove to the Temple and the sight that awaited us was devastating. The Temple kitchen, site of so many happy memories and so many wonderful meals was completely destroyed. The new refrigerator and freezer, the new commercial stoves and ovens, the new stainless steel preparation tables that so many generous congregants had paid for were all gone. As the initial shock began to diminish, we realized that the next day was Sunday. How do we feed the needy tomorrow? Does our fire today mean that they don’t eat tomorrow? Hollis O’Brien, my right hand, Irv, my husband and left hand and Gloria Seuss, head honcho at Mary’s Kitchen in Santa Ana put our heads together and formulated a plan. Volunteers from Mary’s Kitchen loaded boxes of meat, vegetables and fruit and filled Hollis’ vehicle to the brim. Then it was off to Panache, Hollis’ catering business in Brea. Our volunteers for the next day were notified about the fire and told about our new home away from home. We didn’t skip a beat. Sunday, the Panache kitchen hummed, the food was prepared and served as scheduled and continues to do so every Sunday.
Mitzvah Meals has benefited others in many ways. After our fire, I was shopping at Kohls to replace the pajamas, robes and slippers for our Adopt-a-Social Worker program that had been damaged in the fire. Noticing my cart filled to the brim, a woman approached me and timidly asked what I planned to do with all the stuff. I told her about our program and she was very impressed. She proceeded to ask me if I knew of any volunteer opportunities she could be involved in. What a question! She is not a Temple Beth Sholom member, she is not Jewish, but she volunteers every month.
The story doesn’t end there. A woman’s husband had passed away and not being affiliated with a synagogue, she contacted Rabbi Cohen. I know I don’t have to tell you how gracious and helpful our dear Rabbi was. In appreciation for the Rabbi’s help, she wanted to do something for the temple. To quote a famous journalist, “And now, for the rest of the story.” She too volunteers every month on the same Sunday as my Kohl’s friend. They have been working together for several months. I recently received an email telling me that thanks to Mitzvah meals, she now has a new, very good friend. They meet once a week for dinner and a movie.
A few months ago I noticed a new name signed up for Mitzvah Meals. It was so familiar, but she was not on our temple roster and I couldn’t imagine how I knew her name. I finally called her to solve the mystery. She was one of my students in my New Beginnings class several years ago. The class was geared to people considering conversion and interfaith families. She doesn’t fill either of those categories, but admires the Jewish people for what we do. She and her husband volunteer twice monthly serving at Southwest Community Center.
Our religious school and preschool are instilling the joy of giving to the students. For several years, 1st grade teacher, Sharon Finkle, has purchased food with the tzedakah from the students. The children are so aware of Mitzvah Meals that one little boy insisted his grandmother visit our Mitzvah Meals pantry to view all of the food they had donated. They know the green machine in the parking lot is the Mitzvah Meals pickup van and they urge their parents to bake for the annual bake sale so they can purchase more food for Mitzvah Meals.
Recently there was an article in the Fullerton edition of the Orange County Register by a renowned cookbook author. She compared what we do every Sunday to a TV show called, “Chopped”. We turn hundreds of pounds of donated food into tasty, nutritious meals for our community’s disadvantaged. She was blown away by the magnitude of what we do to feed 300 people every week. There are so many other lovely and gratifying stories to tell, but I think you get my point.
Five years ago, when my committee of 10 met over a period of 6 months to devise a plan for Mitzvah Meals, little did I suspect how far reaching it would become. We now provide lunch for Casa Teresa and Isaiah House every Sunday and dinner for Southwest Community Center and Sunday Nights Together at the First Presbyterian Church in Orange. We “pay forward” whatever we can’t use to Western Service Workers and Wise Place. We have high school and college students doing community service and B’nai Mitzvah students fulfilling their Mitzvah obligation.
My intention to have others see Jewish individuals reaching out to ALL in need in the community is coming to fruition. We’ve had volunteers from our Interfaith connection with the Pacifica Institute. The folks at Mary’s Kitchen, a Christian-based shelter, recognize me as the “temple lady”. The ‘twenty somethings’ from Moishe House have literally taken over the entire day several times and filled all of the spots. They thank ME for the opportunity and can’t wait to do it again. We’ve been joined by members of Temple Beth El for their Mitzvah Day, and this year their 6th grade class will help on three Sundays. At least 10 volunteers from Temple Beth Tikvah volunteer every second Sunday. Our new educator, Jody Kaufman, has added Mitzvah Meals to the 5th grade curriculum. A group from one of our temple members’ karate studio fulfilled their community service at Mitzvah Meals. Another group from one of our temple members’ office filled our kitchen last Christmas. We’ve had the Mitzvah Mavans from Federation, our Sisters from the Hood, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and my maj players.
This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of Mitzvah Meals 5th year. As we begin 5775, I invite you to give yourself a gift and DO Jewish. I guarantee you’ll be rewarded here on earth.