For 13-year-old Odelia Safadel, serving lunch to Pico-Robertson’s poor and homeless puts things in perspective.
“Sometimes, I think to myself, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to eat. I want a new phone, I want this.’ But then when I come here, I see that these people — they are actually in desperate need,” she said, standing next to a buffet table filled with meatballs, rice and other filling dishes for the dozens of hungry people who came to B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s most recent tikkun olam — repairing the world — lunch.
At this particular meal, on a Wednesday afternoon, about 60 people filtered into two separate rooms at the Pico Boulevard Orthodox synagogue — Jews, non-Jews, blacks, Russians, mothers with babies, and people just looking for a meal and some spiritual inspiration from B’nai David’s rabbi, Yosef Kanefsky.
Odelia, a seventh-grader at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, was one of several girls who came to serve food to the lunch’s attendees.
The tikkun olam lunches, which are held seven times per year, were inspired by congregant David Nimmer. As Nimmer tells it, at a Sukkot lunch at least 10 years ago, a rabbinic intern at the synagogue was teaching attendees a text that covered the concept of a sukkat shalom, a welcoming sukkah.
“What do I, God, want of you [the Jewish people]?” Nimmer recalled learning. “To feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the poor.”
When he heard that, Nimmer knew that learning tzedakah was not enough. He had to give tzedakah.
“Let’s not just learn about it in this beautiful setting of Torah study,” he remembered saying. “Let’s implement it.”
And that’s precisely what Nimmer and Kanefsky did. The first version of the tikkun olam lunch was during Sukkot of that year. But it wasn’t a lunch; it was a breakfast. And unlike the recent lunch, 60 people didn’t come — only one did.
“The first lunch literally had one semi-homeless person,” Nimmer said. “And he wasn’t terribly homeless, either. He was a very high-functioning guy.”
But since that first meal, the tikkun olam lunch has grown rapidly, so rapidly that there are now two separate meals at each lunch, one for Russian speakers who populate the neighborhood and one for others. Every lunch, before and sometimes after the meal, Kanefsky hands out $15 gift cards for Ralphs grocery store to guests.
Hurrying between the upstairs lunch — for English speakers — and the downstairs lunch — for Russian speakers — Kanefsky described how B’nai David has created a home for those in need, even if it’s only for several hours per year.
“A sukkat shalom is a sukkah that everyone is welcome to come into, and everyone feels at home, and everyone feels part of the community.”
The Russian lunch, held in B’nai David’s large banquet hall, included a local resident stopping in to play guitar for the guests and an introduction by a representative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles explaining how people at the lunch can use the organization’s resources. Everything was translated into Russian by a volunteer, Gary Reznik.
One 76-year-old Russian woman said that she has been coming to the tikkun olam lunches for seven years. She described them as something “close to the heart,” whether she sat next to friends or just tikkun olam acquaintances.
“The food is great here, the music is great here, and the holiness of this place ...” her voice trailed off.
Upstairs, about 40 people were sitting around multiple tables, eating, chatting and singing “Sweet Home Alabama” as a B’nai David congregant led the song on guitar. When that tune ended, some of the participants — the non-Jewish ones, it turned out — began an alternate version of the same song: “Sweet Home Israel.”
“Sweet home Israel, Lord I’m coming home to you,” sang many of the guests. The most passionate singers, in fact, seemed to be devout Christians who belong to local churches. For 46-year-old Shana Gudger, this was her first lunch at B’nai David. After finishing her meal, she said that she felt good coming to a synagogue for some food and feeling welcomed. Her church, like her, is struggling financially.
“Honestly, we need to have this in our congregation,” Gudger said. “It was just good to come to another place — a different denomination — and see that they still accept us.”
Over the past decade, Kanefsky has come in touch with hundreds of people who are homeless or at least in serious financial distress, and he has developed personal bonds with many of them. That, he said, makes it tough to see people who are able to stand on their own for a few months return to a tikkun olam lunch, again in need.
“Over the many years, I’ve seen people whose lives have gotten dramatically better,” Kanefsky said. “Then six months later or a year later, they are kind of back where they started.”
As tragic as this is, it does give Kanefsky a chance to build a sort of community.
“The civic and religious obligation that we have is to extend assistance and friendship to the poor people who are in our community,” Kanefsky said. “Those people include many who are Jews and includes people who are not Jews.”
Back downstairs at the Russian lunch, a homeless Jew in his 20s, Andrew, who would only give his first name, said a prayer in Hebrew. Later, he made his way upstairs and explained that this was his first lunch. He intends to come back.
“It means love and togetherness,” he said. “It was beautiful.