Jewish Community Gives Back

Volunteers serve hot lunches at Baltimore nonprofit Paul’s Place, where more than 70,000 meals were served during 2014.
Volunteers serve hot lunches at Baltimore nonprofit Paul’s Place, where more than 70,000 meals were served during 2014.

Arleen Shepherd’s grocery list called for 60 pounds of ground beef, 60 pounds of chicken, 100 pounds of pasta, 40 pounds of rice, 120 cans of cream of mushroom soup and about 100 jars of pasta sauce. This wasn’t her usual shopping list, but when you’re cooking up 1,250 meals worth of casserole, you need a lot of ingredients.

On Sunday, Shepherd and almost 100 other Har Sinai Congregation members cooked 50 casseroles, which equates to 1,250 meals, or about a week’s worth of meals for 200 people, for nonprofit Paul’s Place.

“I’m just a regular person who is trying to pass on the word of how great you feel when you do good for others,” said Shepherd, who led the mass cooking event with her husband, Shep. Some ingredients are donated by congregants, and a bake sale is being held to supplement what the congregation bought.

The Har Sinai effort is just one of many charitable activities going on in the Jewish community during the holiday season. Throughout the community, congregations, organizations and individuals will give their time and money, donate clothing and food and help those less fortunate face-to-face by volunteering in shelters, soup kitchens and other nonprofit spaces.

Beth Tfiloh’s congregation and schools are a hotbed of social action. Social Action Committee Leader Lindsay Gaister said the effort spans all of BT “from the school to the shul to the camp to the Hebrew school.”

Twice a month, the school gives hundreds of lunches to women’s shelter Sarah’s Hope at Hannah More, they collected school supplies for Pimlico Elementary at their block party, their recent blood drive had 65 donors, donated 30 boxes of clothes to Baltimore elementary school Wolfe Street Academy and just had a toy drive for the Jewish Caring Network and the Hackerman-Patz House. On Dec. 7, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., BT Cares, the synagogue’s social action group, and the Beth Tfiloh Sisterhood will be collecting professional women’s clothing for Hannah More’s shelter and casual men’s clothes for Helping Out Mission and Beans and Bread.

In addition to other activities ­­ — including puppet shows at nursing homes and assisted living facilities — Gaister runs a social action group for BT’s b’nai mitzvah students. Once a month, the families and Gaister get together for tikkun olam activities. They’ve been to Helping Out Mission, Weinberg Park, Baltimore Station and Moveable Feast, among others.

“I think that as they become adults and they realize they’re a true member of the community, it’s good for them to see what’s out there. A lot of our kids aren’t aware of how fortunate they are and that there are others who are less fortunate,” Gaister said. “The kids will go in not-so-excited and they go out feeling amazing. They want to go back on their own.”

Every Christmas Day, congregants from Baltimore Hebrew serve “a nice full plate” at Our Daily Bread Employment Center, according to Sally Palmbaum, assistant to the executive director at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

“We serve a somewhat traditional Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings,” she said. “We order everything fresh, which is a real treat for the guests at Our Daily Bread because they often get leftovers and stale bread. We make sure everything’s fresh.”Before she started working at BHC, Palmbaum volunteered at Our Daily Bread. The congregation has been serving the Christmas meal for 20 years now. Last year, the congregation raised $4,000 and 50 volunteers cooked up 34 turkeys that were served with green beans, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauces, bread and butter. 403 people ate at the meal.

The event is so popular that people start asking Palmbaum about volunteering in the summer. Last year there were 14 people on a waiting list to volunteer.

While a lot of charitable efforts focus on the homeless, a nonprofit offshoot of a blog started by a Baltimore mother focuses on those who have fallen on hard times.

Baltimore resident Jill Smokler started the blog “Scary Mommy” six years ago as a place to speak candidly about the challenges of parenting. Since its launch, she has published two New York Times bestsellers and has developed a following of 30 million visitors a month. The launch of nonprofit Scary Mommy Nation goes back to posts Smokler saw in the sites’ “confessional” section in 2011.

“She noticed a trend that people were talking about having trouble feeding their families, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner,” said Julie Bender, executive director of Scary Mommy Nation. Smokler figured out that it costs about $50 to feed a family of ten on Thanksgiving. “That first year she supported two families and connected people in the community that were following her on Scary Mommy and matched 400 families with gift cards.”

Last year, 3,000 families received assistance, and this year Bender expects 2,100 – 2,500 families to receive $50 pre-paid Visa gift cards to buy Thanksgiving meals.

“What’s interesting about this project is that it isn’t necessarily people who are homeless or who are on food stamps, many of them are people who could be in your social circle who have fallen hard times,” she said, adding that people who apply have lost jobs, had health-related issues and been going through divorces.

Krieger Schechter Day School, where Bender’s and Smokler’s kids go, has raised money for the effort as well. To be eligible, families apply stating their need, how many kids they have and what their circumstances are.

While holiday giving is appreciated by the organizations that need the manpower, Bill McLennan, the executive director of Paul’s Place, said volunteers are needed just as much every other day.

“While it’s appreciated, it tends to get overexposed on that day, and then the Monday after Thanksgiving, we have a need just as we do Thanksgiving Day,” he said. Paul’s Place, which works with Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Beth Am Synagogue, BT and Har Sinai, supports the Baltimore communities of Washington Village and Pigtown. His nonprofit, which provides health care, especially needs nurses during the winter and summer, when student-nurses from the University of Maryland are on break and not taking part in their weekly clinics.

While he encourages people to volunteer, he also tries to get people to come in on dates other holidays to help out.

“In January, February and March, we still are serving 400 people a day,” he said.­

Local accountant and Beth El Congregation member Lynne B. Kahn recognizes the need for year-round volunteering.

Earlier this month, after raising more than $1,000 for the event, she took part in the Maryland Food Bank’s “Pack to Give Back” event, where she packed boxes of holiday food for needy Maryland families.

Started five years ago, Lynne’s Garage makes 200 meals a month for Sarah’s Hope in Reisterstown and Baltimore. She and her teenage son volunteer weekly at the Bentley Food Pantry in Baltimore. Kahn recently started her own nonprofit, the Baltimore Hunger Project, which aims to feed needy Baltimore City children on the weekends, when they don’t get food from school.

“I’m not solving the problem, but I’d like to help it,” she said. “Hunger is a huge issue that impacts our whole community.”

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