Achdut, Achdus, Whatever

The Winter issue of Jewish Action initiated the first of a series of articles created to highlight and encourage instances of mutual cooperation between diverse groups of Orthodox Jews.  Fortunately, achdut is not limited to any one locale.  The first article was about a successful united effort in Twin Rivers, New Jersey; the following story came to us from the West Coast.

All Hands On Deck

In an age when many communal mitzvot have become the province of specific groups, this hands-on project draws volunteers from across the board.

By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

It was a sight familiar in Los Angeles.  Cars were backed up helter-skelter behind a warehouse.  Every few moments, another person emerged from the building, triumphantly holding aloft a box of valuables.  Many of them had small children trailing along.

A scene from the LA riots?  Hardly.  The prizes that each family clasped were packages of food, but they were not the spoils of urban war.  In fact, the only thing that was stolen was time — a few moments plucked free from the frenetic activity of the last days before Pesach.  The trophies that these people vied for were mitzvot, and the competition spanned all parts of the Orthodox community.

The packages were arranged by Tomchei Shabbos, which reaches more than 1,000 people, each week.  The story of this remarkable organization is not one of how a community can unite to perform a mitzvah.  Rather, it is a study in how the performance of a mitzvah can unite a community.

The project was the brainchild some 19 years ago of Rabbi Shmuel Lazer Stern, to honor the memory of a friend.  With a few friends and a student of his, Arnie Steinberg, Rabbi Stern originally serviced six families, providing for their needs with the utmost discretion.  Today, it takes a few score volunteers each week to transform the holdings of a small warehouse into the packages that will be delivered throughout the community.  Rental of the warehouse and the costs of any foods not donated are the only overhead expenses.

All members of the original group hailed from the Chassidic and yeshivah strains of Orthodoxy.  As the organization grew, however, links between individuals and between institutions began gobbling up greater and greater chunks of the landscape of Los Angeles Orthodoxy.  Many of the original group regularly headed for the local kollel, an offshoot of the Lakewood Yeshiva.  So did a young man who had recently returned from several years of learning at the famed Kollel Chazon Ish of Bnei Brak: Rabbi Benji Jacobi also happened to be the newly-appointed head of West Coast NCSY,* and he saw educational opportunity in the making.  Thus was born an alliance between Tomchei and the OU’s youth organization which has flourished ever since.  Soon, NCSY volunteers took over the lion’s share of packing and shlepping each Thursday night.

One of the eager workers introduced Tomchei to a friend of hers.  Michelle Lerer was a long-time Bnei Akiva activist who quickly adopted Tomchei’s activities as a pet project.  As she tells it, “When the warehouse coordinator had to leave early one evening, he gave me the keys and asked me to lock up. I never gave them back.”

Michelle brought in Steve B., another Bnei Akiva member.  Together, they run the logistics and operational ends of Tomchei, and represent Tomchei’s cause in the general Jewish community.  Steve and Michelle preside over the pandemonium of the Thursday night package distribution with vigor and aplomb.

The circles widened.  Individuals from all parts of town found out about the opportunity to really get involved in a tzedakah project beyond writing a check, learned of people pitching in and helping people.  Chassidim, centrists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, baalei teshuvah and roshei yeshivah, young and old — all have a place in the organization.  A few days after a write-up in the secular Hebrew paper Yisrael Shelanu, secular Israelis showed up at delivery time to pitch in and help.  Non-Orthodox day schools have invited spokespeople from Tomchei Shabbos to speak to the children about hands-on tzedakah.  Many of the large centrist shuls have fixed rotations, contributing a set number of drivers every few weeks.  Chabad assumes the responsibility before Chanukah of throwing in chanukiyot and candles.

In the space of about 45 minutes each Thursday night, scores of young volunteers descend on the efficiently organized warehouse, first packing and then carting away large cartons with grape juice, frozen chickens, gefilte fish, milk, eggs, and challah.  (The packages are purposefully designed to surpass the needs of Shabbat, and therefore to ease the burden throughout the week as well.) The only criteria for eligibility are need (certified informally by community rabbanim), and a statement that the recipient requires kosher food.  Many of the recipients have returned later to pay back what they received while unemployed.  Some have become regular volunteers themselves.

The packages are delivered under the cloak of darkness, and the recipients are identified only by a routing number.  The volunteers have perfected a “stop and drop” strategy.  After casing their mark, they quietly leave a carton at the targeted doorstep, ring the bell — and run.  The recipients (many of whom are middle- and sometimes upper-class citizens who suffered sudden business losses or unemployment) maintain their self-respect and dignity through their carefully safeguarded anonymity.

The organization seems to breed largesse and passion. A few vignettes will illustrate:

To mark the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, a local businessman saw Tomchei as a modern-day alternative to the earlier custom of inviting the poor of the town to the wedding meal.  The week of the chatunah, an entire flatbed truck, laden with food for Tomchei’s pantries, pulled up in front of the warehouse.  The chatan and kallah came themselves during their sheva berachot to help package and deliver.  One volunteer talked a female acquaintance into joining him for the Thursday evening delivery session.  After a while, he proposed, and they became the first Tomchei shidduch.  A member of the Aish HaTorah community fell in love with the operation, and pledged that his bakery would supply them with all the packaged pies they could use — with a stipulation that his name be deleted from the boxes.

Have the different groups that cooperate in Tomchei lost their distinctive identities?  Hardly.  They will admit, however, to a new-found respect for each other, and to discovering models of inspiration lacking in their own respective groups.

Rabbi Yonah Landau is a high-energy, affable and personable Chassidic teacher in a local school, who has been involved with Tomchei since its infancy.  He and his friends retain overall responsibility for the organization, and determine all halachic issues.  He and his wife Tzirel, every bit his match in enthusiasm for chesed, take a few moments to give me their impressions.  It is a busy evening.  As I walk in, Rebbetzin Goren (widow of the former Chief Rabbi) is just on the way out.  Visiting from Israel, she wants to see the operation first-hand.  She is concerned about the proximity of the chickens and the cholov yisrael milk in the same cartons, but is shown that leakage is not a problem.  We begin talking, and are interrupted by the arrival of Rabbi Landau’s personal trainer.  Although not Jewish, he too has come to help out.

The Landaus are effusive in their praise for the young people whose zeal assures the uninterrupted service of Tomchei.  “They are here every week, regardless of workload at school, or exams and finals scheduled for the next day.  Nothing can keep them away.  I’m not sure that kids from our own community always show that kind of commitment.”

Meanwhile, Steve B., bond-trader turned maestro of carton delivery orchestration, readies his remarks.  He is somehow aware of what is going on in all corners of the large room, as he challenges some of the youngest volunteers with questions from the weekly Torah portion.  (Winners get slices of pizza.)

“People don’t know how many gemachim [organizations that loan needed items] the charedim have.  We learned the real scope of chesed from them, while we brought in organization and professionalism.  Our people learned to reach out to the needs of others, and found by experience that they got far more out of doing a mitzvah than by sitting in front of a television set.”

There is still good-natured repartee between advocates of different causes.  Each group has tried to mark the warehouse with some sign of its participation.  A bulletin board near the entrance is festooned with some of these efforts.  You will find there pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, Rav Boruch Ber Lebovitz, zt”l, and a Bnei Akiva emblem.  Like a Jewish Mount Rushmore, their close proximity projects a message and a hope for unity that is bigger than life.

Rabbi Adlerstein is a contributing editor of Jewish Action.

*  National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the outreach arm of the Orthodox Union

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This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.
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