"We have slaves to help," Jerry Rabinowitz, the Friday co-captain of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, announces. "We Jews know something about slaves."
The "slaves" this morning are my sons Gabe, 13, and Jeremy, 11, who have a day off school. They are fulfilling part of a community service requirement from Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. They are also fulfilling the Jewish commandment to feed the hungry.
Jerry, who has been there at 6 a.m. every Friday for the past 15 years, gives my sons a tour of the pantry, located in a small building belonging to First Christian Church of North Hollywood. The foods to be distributed are already packed, double brown paper bags filled with pasta, beans, rice, applesauce, canned fruit, canned vegetables and cereal. A Ziploc bag of frozen chicken legs, precooked, is added to each order.Jerry explains the procedure, "When a client comes, hand him one of the bags," he says. "And ask if he'd like extra bread and a sack of vegetables."
The bread is donated by Ralphs, Vons and Brown's Bakery. Volunteers from the Encino B'nai B'rith pick it up seven days a week. The vegetables come from the wholesale produce mart downtown.
"One young man travels downtown twice a week, at 5 a.m., to bring back surplus vegetables for us," Jerry explains. "Another lady brings us three 40-pound boxes of bananas every Friday, which she buys herself."
"Here," he says to the boys, "put two of these bananas in every bag, till we run out. And if you do a good job, we'll increase your salary by 20 percent after the first hour."
"I wish that would happen with my allowance," Gabe answers.
But there are no salaries or raises at the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry. It is run strictly by volunteers, about 150 of them, from seven churches and two synagogues in the East San Fernando Valley. The pantry falls under the auspices of the Valley Interfaith Council, part of a coalition of 19 food pantries spread across the Valley.
"There is a big poverty problem in the San Fernando Valley," says Eileen Parker, assistant director of community support services for the Valley Interfaith Council. "The homeless and unemployed are only a small percentage of the people we serve. Most are working poor, people trying to make ends meet on a minimum-wage job, sometimes two and three minimum-wage jobs. Or senior citizens or the disabled who are living on fixed incomes."
The North Hollywood Pantry hands out approximately 180 bags of food every Friday and 120 every Monday, which feed a total of 4,000 people each month. About 12 percent of those bags are distributed to the homeless and include only ready-to-eat items, plus extra drinks and personal hygiene items.
"The average person really needs what we give him," says Sarah Alexander, the other Friday co-captain, who's in charge of all the government paper work.
"We never say no. We are not judges," Jerry adds.
While the food is distributed at First Christian, it is warehoused, sorted and packed into bags in the basement of Temple Beth Hillel. There, primarily on Friday mornings, a group of 15 mostly retired men, ranging in age from 54 to 83 - who could be playing softball, tennis or golf - unload and stock about 25,000 pounds of nonperishable food per month, which translates to 600 to 1,000 cases of canned goods. Of this group, Jerry Rosenstock holds the longevity record of 14 years. "Life in these latter years has been good to my wife and me. We feel fortunate and would like to help people, especially children, hungry children." Ted Field, the newest recruit, is starting his fifth week. "The rabbi [Jim Kaufman] shamed me into it," he confesses.
The food comes from a variety of sources - the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the Yom Kippur food drive at the two synagogues, the Post Office food drive, and donations from nearby public and private schools, including Grant High School, Millikan Middle School, the Oakwood School, Campbell Hall and Laurence 2000. Additional food is purchased with monetary contributions.
After unloading and stocking the food, the men gather in the Temple's music room for coffee, sweet rolls and conversation. They begin with a prayer, which, this week, Fred Bender offers. "I want to thank God for this nice fellowship and for the opportunity to serve men and women. And for the health that enables us old-timers to work."
The group worries about each other's health and celebrates each other's simchas. Today is Stan Goldman's birthday, evidenced by a cake with two candles. "One for yesterday and one for tomorrow," Stan explains. They also solve the world's problems, assigning specific discussion leaders each week. Today, naturally, the topic is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Co-leader Harry Gibson begins: "This is a hot topic. Where do you start?" But they have no trouble, giving their opinions as they go around the table in order, in an impassioned and occasionally feisty pro-Israel discussion.
The food pantry's smooth operation also depends on other dedicated volunteers. Stella Kornberg and her group of helpers regularly pack the grocery bags. Volunteers from the churches cart the bags from the temple to the food pantry twice a week. One family supplies a truck and driver once a month for large pickups from the L.A. Regional Food Bank.
The North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry first opened its doors in March 1983, founded as an outgrowth of the Valley Interfaith Council's Task Force on Community Emergency Needs and in response to the 1982-83 recession. The five founding religious institutions include Adat Ari El, Temple Beth Hillel, First Christian Church, First Presbyterian Church and St. Michael's & All Angels Episcopal Church. Marge Luke, a founder and member of First Presbyterian, says, "We thought the recession of '82-'83 was a temporary thing and that people would figure out a better way to distribute canned goods." She pauses. "But the need never ended."
And never has her involvement. Her position is community contact, which she defines as "doing the things other people hate to do." She adds, "I'm 80 years old."
"Go outside to that van and carry in those grocery bags," Jerry Rabinowitz says to his "slaves" toward the end of their Friday morning shift. They get a physical workout lugging the additional 20- to 25-pound bags that have arrived from the temple.
"What happens if you run out of bags of food?" Jeremy asks.
"We go to the temple and pack more," Jerry answers. "And if the temple ever runs out, which it hasn't, I'd go to Ralphs and buy food."
His answer impresses my sons.
"My father had a candy store in Brooklyn, and we lived and ate in the rear," he explains. "I remember as a little child that most evenings my father would take a person off the street and bring him home to dinner. That person had to be fed before my father ate. That's why I do this."