“Providing charity for poor and hungry people weighs as heavily as all the other commandments of the Torah combined,” the Babylonian Talmud instructs. The holiday season is traditionally a time for giving back to the community, and local synagogues have risen to the occasion.
Temple tikkun olam initiatives generally fall into two categories: drives for items like food and clothing, and serving and delivering meals to the needy. Many synagogues perform some version of both throughout the year, and add additional projects for the holiday season. Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott always puts out a collection bin for Jewish Family & Children’s Service, collecting food that volunteers help prepare and deliver. For Hanukkah, they will be delivering potato pancake mix and vegetable oil so their clients can celebrate the holiday, and their book club donated 30 boxes of candles. Shirat Hayam is also running a holiday drive to collect sweaters, sweatshirts, gloves, mittens, and thermal underwear for My Brother’s Table, a soup kitchen and shelter in Lynn.
Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody is also collecting items for the homeless population of Peabody, who are served by St. John the Baptist Parish. Their Social Action Committee is collecting a wide variety of items for the church and an initiative from the Peabody public schools to help hungry children, from backpacks to clothing to small disposable items like hand wipes and socks – small items that can be kept in the backpacks that are often a homeless person’s only form of storage. On the first Sunday of every month, temple volunteers prepare 50 sandwiches (often tuna sandwiches, which one client simply called “the Jewish sandwiches) along with fruit, a bottle of water, and cookies.
Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody is also working with JF&CS, running a drive to provide gift cards so that clients can buy their children gifts for the holidays. Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead is also working to collect holiday gifts for foster children. Emanu-El collaborated with the Department of Children and Families in Salem, who provided the names, age and gift requests of 75 foster children. The Emanu-El staff made tags with those details, and then hung each tag to a large menorah that they put in the entryway. Each of the tags were picked up by congregants, who returned with the gifts requested, and volunteers recently delivered the gifts to a social worker at DFCS.
Some temple programs also allow congregants to make deliveries themselves. Several Sundays each year, congregants from many synagogues gather at Temple Sinai in Marblehead to prepare the healthy, kosher food items that clients have requested, and then they deliver them. “We try to fill the orders as if it were our own home or family,” said Bette Shoreman, the Shirat Hayam site coordinator who has been delivering food for seven years, when she started it as a mitzvah project for a group adult bat mitzvah.
Shirat Hayam also enlists people to deliver meals through Greater Lynn Senior Services on Christmas morning. Around 30 people show up to deliver pre-packaged meals of turkey with stuffing and gravy, a slice of pie or cake, and milk to around eight different sites around Greater Lynn. Employees at GLSS who normally deliver meals have the day off, so without the volunteer effort, many immobile seniors would spend Christmas without any food.
Often, congregations assemble volunteers to prepare and serve food at homeless shelters. The third Monday of every month, volunteers from Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly buy food and prepare dinner for 40 to 50 people at the First Baptist Church soup kitchen in Beverly. Some of the food is donated to the cause by local food stands, fisheries, and meat markets. Last year, the third Monday happened to fall on Christmas Eve, and volunteers prepared a full Christmas meal. B’nai Abraham is also collecting clothing, and in December they will lay out all the clothing for the clients and let them choose.
One of the largest meal servings takes place on Christmas at Bread of Life, a faith-based ministry that aims to end hunger and homelessness. Ed Weiner, a member of the Burlington Board of Health and the former president of Temple Tiferet Shalom, helps organize the event – which regularly draws over 1,000 people – with his son Jonathan. Members of Tiferet Shalom show up in Malden at one in the morning on Christmas to begin preparing the hundreds pounds of donated potatoes, roast beef, green beans, and more. In addition to serving 1000 people, hundreds more meals are donated to people who cannot leave their homes.
Many people from Temple Sinai will be preparing and serving a Christmas meal at My Brother’s Table. For the past several years, the same group has served meals at the Lynn Emergency Shelter right next door, and spent three days prior preparing a massive Christmas feast with eight turkeys in the kitchen of Sinai congregant Alison Brookes, who organized volunteer missions to the shelter throughout the year. The Sinai crew transported the food they’d spent days preparing over to the shelter, which they transformed into a nice restaurant. While some cooked, others interacted with clients. This year, Brookes is excited to be able to help and meet a much wider range of people at My Brother’s Table.
While volunteering during the holidays is a longstanding, noble tradition, Brookes thinks it’s important to volunteer during random times in the year when shelters don’t receive nearly as much help. “What’s really appreciated by clients is when you show up when it’s not Christmas … these people are not just homeless on Christmas,” she said. And though the Jewish community shows up in full force to help during the holidays, they’re performing mitzvot all year long.
Editor’s note: Due to space limitations, this is but a small sampling of the good being done by the Jewish community around the holidays.