Jewish community joins forces for good on Christmas
DECEMBER 13, 2018, MALDEN – One night many years ago, Ed Weiner and his son Jonathan, then 5 or 6 years old, were walking through Boston Common and saw a number of homeless people sleeping in boxes. When Jonathan asked his parents about it, Weiner and his wife, Elaine, explained to their son that these people had nowhere else to sleep.
“Jonathan pulled my leg and said, ‘Dad, what are we going to do about this?’” said Ed.
Ed and Jonathan Weiner have spent the past three-plus decades answering that question. Not long after that fateful night on the Common, they joined together with Project Ezra, which enlists local Jews to spend Christmas preparing and serving meals for the less fortunate.
Every year for more than 30 years, the father and son team have partnered with Bread of Life, a faith-based ministry in Malden that helps the homeless, hungry, and isolated, to transform this day of service into one of the largest Jewish one-day programs in the region, enlisting roughly 100 volunteers to feed over 1,000 people.
Christmas Day always has begun early for Ed, a Malden native who now lives in Burlington. He is president of Temple Tiferet Shalom of Peabody, which formed in 2015 when Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden closed and consolidated with Temple Beth Shalom of Peabody. He is a longtime member of the Burlington Board of Health, and a medical affairs consultant.
He and Jonathan, a Philadelphia-based biopharmaceutical executive, arrive at Malden High School at 1:30 in the morning to begin preparing for the day. With trucks bringing in hundreds of pounds of donated roast beef, potatoes, green beans, carrots, stuffing, gravy, and turkey, there is a lot of work to do before the meal is served at noon.
For many years, Ed and Jonathan alone directed this gargantuan culinary undertaking. It began at 2:30 one Christmas morning when the event’s chef couldn’t make it.
“I said, ‘Who’s gonna make the food?’ Everyone was standing around and they sort of pointed at me,” said Ed. “We put together a timeline of what do we need you to do now and every 20 minutes from 2:30 in the morning until noontime. I put the timeline together, and with the help of God, we got it done. The next year, they said, ‘Ed, when are you starting?’”
State Representative Ken Gordon, who lives in Bedford and attends Temple Isaiah in Lexington, enjoys being a player in what he calls Ed Weiner’s orchestra. “[Ed] is the orchestra conductor. I play an instrument, which happens to be a potato,” said Gordon. He enjoys chatting with the fellow members of the philharmonic as they prepare food. “I have some really interesting discussions while doing it. We talk about the issues involving our community, our Jewish community, we talk about what’s going on in the state, the country,” said Gordon, who also is an attorney. “It’s easy to roll over in bed that night, but it means something when you make a sacrifice.”
Now, Mike Levine, the executive chef at Rockefellas restaurant in Salem, helps Ed and Jonathan manage the group of volunteers unloading, peeling, chopping, and cooking. Given that it’s Christmas, Ed estimates that about three quarters of the volunteers are Jewish. Many of them, like Sam Tabasky, a consultant from Middleton, are members of Temple Tiferet Shalom.
“This has really been a major project for our temple all these years,” said Tabasky, who has participated in the event every year since its inception. “It’s a privilege to do something like this. It’s something we feel we owe the community, and we want to give back to the community, and allow other people to have their day off.”
The event attracts volunteers from around the region, including Phillip Weiner, Ed’s brother who now lives in Newton, and is a former international war crimes judge; state Senator Cindy Friedman of Arlington; and Malden Mayor Gary Christenson.
“One of the things we joke about is that all volunteers are the same – so whether you’re a politician or anybody else who’s showing up, you’re most likely at 2:30, 3 in the morning peeling potatoes with everyone else,” said Jonathan. “On Christmas Day last year, there was a big snowstorm in the Boston area, and I was wandering around the high school looking for a shovel, and Gary [Christenson] said, ‘I’ve got one in my car!’ And next thing you know, you have the mayor of Malden shoveling out the front walkway of the high school so that our volunteers could get in.”
According to Jonathan, he and his father begin planning next year’s event the day after Christmas. Ed works hard to raise money, and for the past few years has personally matched every donation up to $1,000. Meanwhile, Jonathan works hard to secure donations for food and toiletries.
“We work the rest of the year to figure things out, to get a number of donations, whether it be financial, soaps, shampoos, other toiletries, or even food,” said Jonathan. “Throughout the year, we’ve been fortunate to have a number of key partnerships.”
Two of their largest donors are Bimbo Bakeries, a commercial bakery in Wilmington, and Costco of Everett, which both fill two or three pickup trucks worth of donated food.
Once those truckloads have been prepared to perfection, there is often so much food that guests leave with up to a week’s worth of meals. Additionally, 700 to 800 Christmas dinners are delivered to people unable to leave their homes. The event also provides hundreds of boxes of toiletries for its guests.
Decades after Jonathan first asked his father how they could help the homeless, Ed is satisfied that they have done their part.
“We’re talking about hundreds of Jewish people coming together to make a difference on Christmas – it’s really extraordinary,” he said. “When I die, they’re gonna ask me did I make a difference. I’ve done so much, Jonathan has done so much, that we can say we did.”
To volunteer, contact Congregation Tiferet Shalom in Peabody. Call 978-535-2100 or visit templetiferetshalom.org.