On a recent Friday morning, about an hour and a half into his regular weekly shift as the Friday manager of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry (NHIFP), Jerry Rabinowitz, 86, broke into a smile.
A young mother and her two young boys had come to the food pantry with about a dozen bags of food. One of the boys had just celebrated his 10th birthday, and, instead of gifts, his mother said, he had asked his friends to bring nonperishable food items. They came to the First Christian Church of North Hollywood that morning to see where the donations would end up.
“Let’s start with some tuna,” Rabinowitz told the two boys, who then started distributing the cans among individual bags of groceries. The boys’ mother stood near the door, watching.
The pantry was founded in 1983 by a group of local Christian and Jewish congregations, and Rabinowitz joined its all-volunteer staff about 25 years ago as a packer. Now, as then, volunteers work in the basement of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village and assemble donated foods into 20-pound bags of groceries, intended to feed a family for two or three days.
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The bags are moved by pickup truck to the church’s former nursery school annex, where the pantry distributes more than 5.5 tons of food every month on an annual budget of about $70,000. Every Monday and Friday morning, starting at 7:30, families come to the door, some from close by and others from as far away as Santa Clarita. There, they meet volunteers like Rabinowitz and a rotating roster of children and teens who come to lend their hands.
“When a kid gives out a bag of food for the food pantry, there is what I call a magic moment,” Rabinowitz said later that morning. “It’s when a kid’s eyes go from the bag of food he’s holding to the face of the person he’s giving it to.”
Rabinowitz retired 30 years ago — from the grocery business, coincidentally — and he fills his weeks mostly with volunteer work. A decorated World War II veteran, Rabinowitz spends Mondays with fellow veterans, Tuesdays volunteering in a hospital’s medical library, and on Wednesdays he accompanies his wife to the Braille Institute, where he helps pack Braille books to be sent to developing countries. On Thursdays, the Rabinowitzes go bowling (his typical score is about 145).
But the pantry is Rabinowitz’s primary commitment. “Of the whole ball of wax, this is the most important thing I do,” he said.
On Fridays, Rabinowitz is the go-to guy. He decides how many cooked eggs go into bags for people without kitchens (two), whether donated bagels should be packaged with donated tubs of cream cheese (yes), and is the one who had to tell one regular pantry visitor that he would not be going home with the 12 boxes of cereal he had asked for.
Rabinowitz is always ready with a joke, mostly about the beautiful younger women who staff (and rely on) the pantry. “Get me the telephone numbers of pretty girls,” he told a volunteer, with a wink and a nod.
“Everything’s gotta be light,” Rabinowitz said, explaining his tendency to crack wise. “Nothing heavy. These people have enough heavy in their lives.”