Jerusalem — When Jordana Schoor was planning her son Saadya’s bar mitzvah she sought an activity that would be both fun and meaningful for her large extended family. Knowing Saadya’s commitment to doing good deeds, Schoor booked a family outing to Pantry Packers (http://pantrypackers.org/), the 2-year-old food distribution arm of Colel Chabad, the oldest continuously operating network of social services in Israel.
“Our family has a long history with Colel Chabad, and we were one of the first groups to come when Pantry Packers opened,” said Schoor, as 35 members of her family measured, labeled and packed bags of rice that would later be distributed to needy Israeli families.
During the past year thousands of volunteers, many of them participants in simcha celebrations and organized Jewish missions, have helped Pantry Packers prepare thousands of boxes full of staple foods and vegetables for more than 40,000 families across Israel, where 23 percent of the public, or 1.7 million people, live below the poverty line.
Although there are many other Israel-based mitzvah activities a family celebrating a simcha can take part in — Leket, the country’s food bank, relies on tens of thousands of volunteers to pick fruits and vegetables among other activities — volunteering at Pantry Packers’ Jerusalem plant is an indoor activity; even older family members can take part.
Upon their arrival at the plant, volunteers view a video explaining the country’s high level of food insecurity (19 percent of Israelis as a whole, and 47 percent of single-parent families, cannot afford to buy nutritious food), and how to prepare food for distribution. Once they don an apron, plastic gloves and a hair net, they are ready to begin.
Volunteering at the plant the same day as the Schoor clan, my family (two adults and two almost-13-year-olds) set to work at one of the plant’s many stations. Once Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Colel Chabad’s director of volunteering, gave us a two-minute demonstration of what was required, we got to work.
While my husband helped the kids fill a large hopper with rice using a measuring cup, I stood at a table and affixed labels stating “Packed with our love,” with our family’s name.
The kids then took turns filling the labeled bags with rice and sealing them in a heat-sealing machine and placing them in a carton. The work, though not physically demanding, required concentration in order to not waste the rice by spilling it. We set ourselves a personal challenge: to see how many boxes we could fill with bags of rice in the allotted 90-minute period.
Our boys, who were less than enthusiastic when I told them we were going to do a mitzvah project that day, became super motivated once we started the task, and felt a sense of accomplishment once we’d completed it. It gave them a great feeling to know that they were helping to feed dozens of needy families.
The Schoors, with so many family members in tow, helped feed hundreds of families.
Watching his grandchildren readying the rice, Martin Kofman, Saadya’s grandfather, said, “It’s important to teach children the mitzvah of helping poor people not just with money. We have to put in effort as well.”
Kofman, who lives in Woodmere, L.I., said he and his family have been supporting Colel Chabad for four decades.
“It’s a wonderful charity. Of course everyone has their favorite charities, but I find that Colel Chabad feeds the hungry in a very dignified way. Go to the organization’s food kitchen and you could mistake it for a restaurant.”
Traxler said some bar/bat mitzvah families go beyond the food packing, by creating a Virtual Food Drive from anywhere in the world.
He noted how Ariella Yantin, a bat mitzvah girl, created a cookbook and sold it to family and friends. She donated all the proceeds to Pantry Packers through one of the program’s Virtual Food Drives.
Traxler said people can choose an occasion — bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, birthday, anniversary, graduation, yahrtzeit — to raise money for the program.
Pantry Packers will create a special page for your Food Drive, detailing how much you hope to raise and providing a specially prepared e-mail text to send to your contacts.
“When groups complete their work with us, many ask how they can help once they return home,” Traxler said. “Virtual Food Drives are the answer. The volunteers share the experience they had here in Israel with the people they know at home and raise much needed funding in the process.”
Taking in the scene as her relatives, about half of them kids, worked hard while clearly have fun, Jordana Schoor called the experience “extremely worthwhile. Helping people is what a bar mitzvah celebration should be about,” she said.
To view the article at the NY Jewish Week, please visit: http://www.thejewishweek.com/special-sections/celebrate/helping-people-not-just-money