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January 6, 2010

Rabbi Yona Landau: Delivering Kindnesses, Discreetly

http://www.jewishjournal.com/mensches/article/rabbi_yona_landau_delivering_kindnesses_discreetly_20100106

Rabbi Yona Landau is sitting in his insurance office in the Beverly-La Brea area, not selling insurance. Landau and one of his two employees spend nearly all of their time running Touch of Kindness, a social service agency Landau helped found in 1977.

When Landau first moved to Los Angeles from Lakewood, N.J., he and a group of others met in a garage to pack and deliver weekly groceries for about six families. By 1980, the others had left, and Landau inherited Tomchei Shabbos (Hebrew for Supporters of Shabbat), which had grown to serve 60 families. He moved into a small storefront with shelves and top-loading freezers. Today, Touch of Kindness, which encompasses Tomchei Shabbos and several other concerns, is a $2.2 million organization helping around 1,500 families.

The weekly food delivery, which operates out of a 16,000 square-foot warehouse on La Brea Avenue, is the heart of the program. About 100 volunteers package and deliver 6,000 pounds (double on holidays) of chickens, eggs, milk, challah, grape juice, fresh produce and other groceries to more than 200 families each Thursday evening.

Landau, 55, runs the organization, doing all the fundraising, keeping the budget and investigating each new applicant the community rabbis and social workers send to him. He relies heavily on Steve Berger, a bond trader, to run the operations — purchasing the food or inventorying donated items, coordinating the volunteer drivers and packers. The only paid staff at Touch of Kindness is a few custodians who maintain the warehouse.

Touch of Kindness also distributes diapers, keeps a rotating stock of wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses, and redistributes used furniture and appliances. A handful of women travel to Montreal twice a year to pick up manufacturers’ closeouts and sell brand new clothes well below cost at an invitation-only sale.

Landau, who was a day school teacher for 14 years, knows his community well. He has families who are not on Tomchei’s lists, but who appreciate leftover challahs or produce from the weekly delivery. He has a list of large families with working mothers whom he likes to treat to dinner when caterers call him with a bounty of untouched leftovers, which neighborhood girls help him pack up in smaller containers.

And volunteers deliver Tomchei’s packages with utter discretion. Most of the food is delivered to doorsteps in unmarked boxes, with codes in place of the recipient’s name. Some families prefer to pick up their packages from the warehouse, while others pick it up from Landau’s front porch, late at night. For some, Landau sets up a tab at local kosher groceries.

“We try to help people without making them feel needy,” Landau said.

His clients’ dignity is so paramount to Landau that he generally shuns publicity, never holding a banquet, and agreeing to this interview only in hopes of garnering more support for the organization, which recently had to move from a donor-owned warehouse and is renting its current space until it can buy a building.

In addition, Landau is also the main fundraiser for Kollel Yechiel Yehuda, a Chasidic yeshiva, where he himself studies every morning. He maintains a few apartments for people to stay in when they come through Los Angeles on missions to collect charity. And he has a favorite accomplishment.

“If I can find someone a job, I’m flying high,” he said.

His wife, Tzirl, makes sure their Shabbos table is always full of appreciative guests, though the Landau’s own six children have moved out.

“You just see the need out there, and you see the pain, and you just make that a priority,” Landau said.

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A touch of kindness

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