This article appeared in the October 31, 2008 Jewish Advocate.


Giving from the heart in tough times


By Susie Davidson

Special to the Advocate


Our wallets are tighter, but our hearts are as big as ever. We want to help, but it's getting harder to keep the bills paid and our families fed. Luckily, there are ways to help those causes that tug at our souls, without spending a penny.

Start with food, the quintessentially Jewish way to show your love. There's still time to clean out those cupboards and fill those paper bags for the synagogue High Holiday food drives. Y2K passed, and we don't get devastating hurricanes up here. You'll never eat those ramens since you read the sodium count. Those cans of soup are growing dust bunnies. Fill the bag and help your synagogue make a great contribution to the community.

For those with a garden, consider donating those excess zucchinis and tomatoes to your local food bank. Recipients are ecstatic to get fresh produce, a really healthful gift. While we're at it, many community gardens need volunteers to weed, rake and sow. Why not put some gloves on, and till the earth for a good cause? After harvest season, you can volunteer at the bank.

In Brookline, volunteers tend the Community Garden for the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry. “In addition to serving a growing need in our community, the Pantry fulfills the need to be of service in those of us who volunteer,” said Jim Margolis, who stocks the shelves, schedules volunteers, writes grant proposals and conducts fundraising (with a recent increase in recipients, over half their food must now be purchased). He also coordinates food drives such as the May town letter carrier household pickup, and others with schools and faith communities. “There are many opportunities, and the Pantry is almost always in need of additional volunteers,” said Margolis.

“Some directly serve our customers when they come to fill one or two shopping bags with free food,” he explained. “Others pick up food at the Greater Boston Food Bank or local supermarkets.” One family has volunteered for years to stock the Pantry freezer every two weeks. 

The Jewish Family and Children’s Service Family Table collects donated food, personal care and household items from 48 synagogue and Day Schools sites once a month, said coordinator Margie Nesson. She said requests, normally from about 400 families per month, are increasing at the area’s only Kosher food pantry. “Each site collects specific foods,” she said. 200 volunteers per month, including many teenagers, collect, pack, sort and deliver.

Rabbis, religious school directors and social workers help identify recipients, who include the unemployed, people experiencing catastrophic events, domestic violence victims and elderly living on fixed incomes, said Nesson, who forecasted more need due to the current economic crisis. One-third of recipients come into the Waltham office, and two-thirds receive deliveries. “Kosher foods tend to be more expensive,” she said, citing special holiday efforts such as a special Rosh HaShanah packet with Kosher chicken, matzah ball soup, apples and honey, gefilte fish and horseradish, challah and candles (given each month), and an upcoming Turkey Tzedakah drive to raise money for Thanksgiving meals for each family. “We also give out fresh produce each month through our Nutrition and Hunger Program Initiative,” she said.

Family Table practices Maimonides’ charitable tenet of helping others become self-sufficient, conducting nutrition sessions and giving out recipes for food preparation.

Speaking of the revered philosopher, Maimonides School students themselves staff Gittel’s Kitchen, the region’s only Kosher soup kitchen, at B’nai Moshe in Brighton. Milk Street Café has always graciously donated the soup, said Coordinator and Maimonides School Director of Alumni and Community Relations Mike Rosenberg. “But the kitchen is open to donations from all kosher caterers and restaurants as well,” he said.

Nourishing companionship as well is the Holocaust survivor visitation program run by Holocaust descendents group Generations After, in conjunction with JF&CS. “It has great meaning and value to a Holocaust senior at this stage of life when someone spends time with them,” said Lillian Fox, GA Vice President of Programming. “Listening and taking interest allows the Senior to recount events from their life that feel so meaningful and important,” she said.

Language-oriented opportunity seekers can also join the group of Jewish organizations that make up the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which is supported by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay. Hundreds of volunteers each year tutor, donate books and assist educational efforts.

JF&CS also coordinates volunteer-aided programs such as First Friends, who assist new immigrants with language and cultural skills; Visiting Moms, who guide new parents; Bet Tzedek, which refers legal services for low-income Jewish clients; the Community Health Access Program (CHAP), which helps with medical care or health insurance needs; Long-term Care Ombudsmen, who visit and advocate for nursing home residents; and the Chaverim Shel Shalom program for adults with mental illnesses.

Check town web sites for other volunteering opportunities for the elderly, such as cleaning yards, playing an instrument or doing their errands.