Many people receiving a Mitzvah Food Pantry package last month may not have realized that the organization is celebrating a decade of service to the community. They just knew they had a few meals to satiate their hunger and a way to maintain connections to their heritage.
Since 1996, the Mitzvah Food Pantry -- a local Jewish communal response to hunger coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Social Responsibility -- has operated through a network of individuals, synagogues, Jewish agencies and hunger-relief organizations. Today, it's tackling the ever-present challenges of hunger by evolving to better address community needs.
A significant change includes moving one of its five sites. Last week, the pantry at Congregation Beth T'fillah in Overbrook Park moved seven blocks away to the Jewish Community Center's Kevy K. and Hortense M. Kaiserman Branch in Wynnewood. Organizers say the new site offers a stronger infrastructure to support stable operations and meet the needs of the growing population of homebound elderly.
"We're seeing changes in the demographics and the community as a whole, but the needs are still there," says Lee Hillerson, chair of the Mitzvah Food Pantry advisory board. "This particular population is not so mobile, so we'll be delivering most of the food packages -- which means we need more volunteers than ever."
Mitzvah Projects Task Force Co-Chair Jerry Frezel points out that participating in food deliveries makes for an ideal family mitzvah project. "If we can get people who use other services at the JCC Kaiserman branch to drop off food packages on their way home from the gym or from picking their kids up from school, that would be a terrific mitzvah," he says.
Letters notifying pantry recipients about the move and listing numerous resources were sent in early August, and copies of that list are available at Beth T'fillah to ensure that people continue to be served. One thing that will not change is the regular food delivery to the Golden Slipper Center for Seniors in Wynnefield Heights. Shabbat packages containing such items as matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, grape juice and candles are distributed monthly to about 120 seniors, along with supplemental food packages for about 85 seniors.
"The packages help our members stretch their budgets and connect them to the traditional foods they grew up with," says Marcia Garrell, executive director for the senior center. "They get great enjoyment out of the Shabbat foods, which they might not buy on their own."
In 2005-2006, the Mitzvah Food Pantry network distributed 21,000 food packages to 1,900 households, in collaboration with area hunger-relief organizations, including the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, Philabundance and SHARE's State Food Purchase Program. Pantry organizers say they are working on a strategic planning process to better shape the future of hunger relief and social action. "We're hiring an AmeriCorps*VISTA member to develop a volunteer management system and create a system of nutritional food donations, while educating community members about the underlying causes of hunger and poverty," says Jessica Charmont, Federation's senior mitzvah project planner.
Hillerson says volunteering with the Mitzvah Food Pantry is a perfect example of gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). "It's wonderful to be able to help without people asking for it," she notes. "One recipient said to me, 'I can't ask my own to do this.' I said to her, 'You're not asking us; it's our privilege to do this for you.' "
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