Food for thought 407810

The Pantry Packers packaging facility promotes hands-on volunteering in the capital

The Weinbergs take time out from their vacation to volunteer. (photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
The Weinbergs take time out from their vacation to volunteer.
(photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
While a vacation or family and community excursions aren’t usually associated with packing dry goods, more and more people are looking to incorporate an added value to their outings. Many find an opportunity to do so in the Pantry Packers project in the capital.
The program is part of Colel Chabad, the humanitarian arm of the Chabad movement in Israel. Run by Houstonborn Rabbi Menahem Traxler, the project gives groups the chance to provide poor families across the country with food security.
Volunteers in the Talpiot foodpackaging facility spend an hour or so filling, stamping and packing food packets – rice, chickpeas and split peas – that are then sent to Colel Chabad’s main facility in Kiryat Malachi. They are assembled as parts of food parcels, and from there they are distributed to families in 24 towns and cities across the country.
The project came into being to allow people to volunteer with the organization, which also maintains a large staff at its Kiryat Malachi facility and its distribution system. The food parcels support 8,500 families in the country, of all backgrounds, who are referred to the project by Colel Chabadsponsored social workers in the various municipalities.
On the morning In Jerusalem visited the volunteering facility, the Weinberg family from Teaneck, New Jersey, was there to celebrate the bar mitzva of son Sam. The bar mitzva boy was joined by his parents, Aliza and Roniel, twin sister Yonina and younger brother Alex, as well as grandparents Debbie and Avi Fox from Chicago.
Asked what they wanted their children to take with them from the activity, the parents were very clear.
“That doing acts of hessed can be enjoyable. It’s important even on holidays to do things for others,” says Aliza, who teaches Bible.
Roniel, a physician, agrees, saying that the children can learn that it “can be fun doing worthwhile activities” and that “the act of doing good has a value in itself.”
“In the American Jewish community, we often take for granted the basic necessities of life, such as food,” says grandfather Avi. “And while we try to instill in our children the mitzva of tzedaka [charity] in every way, this kind of experience helps them understand that there are many Jews who are hungry.”
After a short introductory video and some guidelines, the family dons aprons and hair nets and gets to work.
At the different stations – labeling and stamping plastic bags, filling them with rice, sealing them and packing them – everybody seems to be having a great time.
“The jobs are fun because it feels like you’re one of the busy workers here,” says nine-year-old Alex, who is stamping expiry dates onto the packets with great care. “I want to get this right,” he says, adding that “it is very surprising” that he is enjoying his task so much.
Thirteen-year-old twins Sam and Yonina are in charge of filling the packets with rice and together are operating the large machine that rolls out the correct amount into each bag.
“There’s a thing to do for every person in the family,” observes Yonina. “It’s fun, and it’s helping the less fortunate.”
Sam agrees. “I would recommend it because it’s a lot of fun, and it’s also a mitzva.”
“I wanted an activity that would be fun for my kids and my parents alike,” says Aliza of the choice to volunteer with Pantry Packers.
She had heard about the organization through a friend in Teaneck and sums up her impression as “wonderful.”
Enabling the volunteering to be an activity for the whole family is a big drawing point for Pantry Packers. It seems to be working, as the grandparents, Alex and everyone in between quickly found a suitable station.
Traxler, Colel Chabad’s director of volunteering, is very proud of the program. He started working with the organization three years ago, but Colel Chabad dates back much farther than that. It was established by the first Chabad rabbi in 1788. Today, the Pantry Packers volunteer program in Talpiot is just one of many programs it operates throughout Israel, such as 22 soup kitchens, subsidized wedding halls and dental clinics.
The organization “needed to get people involved in a meaningful way,” says Traxler of the decision to initiate the program, which is supported by the Welfare Ministry and the Joint Distribution Committee. “We’ve had almost 1,600 volunteers come through from all over the place,” he says, as well as from all denominations.
The program is continuing to grow.
“The month of July is full. We have 40 groups scheduled. August is filling up,” he says of upcoming visitors.
A lot of volunteers come from abroad, he acknowledges, incorporating some charity into their vacation.
“Many people come on vacation to have a good time. They’re having a good time [at Pantry Packers] and helping someone else.” He adds, “The kids are doing something meaningful, dressed up in a way they won’t forget, and creating something.”
Traxler is also planning a way to enable people to help out even from abroad.
Through a virtual food drive, where a person such as a bar or bat mitzva celebrant plans a menu for a family of five for a month and adds up the total cost, donations can be given to that end to support families in Israel.
“No family should go hungry in Israel,” he says of the food-security program, adding that despite its religious orientation, 90 percent of the people supported by Colel Chabad are not hassidim. “Every person should be able to get proper food and guidance,” he says.
“The foundation of the Jewish people is ‘Love your friend as yourself,’” he points out, noting that this is the basis of the program, “the opportunity to give back.”
For the Weinberg family, volunteering and packing food have a personal side as well. Roniel’s father was about Sam’s age when he lost his entire family in the Holocaust. It is particularly important, says Sam’s grandfather Avi, “for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors not to take for granted that their own grandfather knew the feeling of hunger.
Their grandfather was starving,” he says.
Seventy years later, his family is packing food for the needy. “When you think of it, it’s mind boggling,” he says.