Veterans: The Austin lamplighter

Rabbi Menachem Traxler, 34, from Houston, Texas, to Jerusalem, 2001.

Rabbi Menachem Traxler (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Menachem Traxler
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 1788, Chabad Lubavitch founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi established Kolel Chabad to support protégés he sent to the Holy Land from Europe. Colel Chabad is now the oldest continuously operating charitable organization in Israel.
Native Texan Rabbi Menachem Traxler, 34, is the organization’s director of volunteering. Born in Austin, he grew up in Houston, where his parents are Chabad Lubavitch emissaries.
In January 2013, Traxler launched Pantry Packers, a “volun-tourism” initiative that has proven popular with visitors to Israel and helps Colel Chabad more efficiently provide free groceries to 8,500 disadvantaged families all over Israel.
“We’ve had 19,000 volunteers so far, and we celebrated our third ‘birthday’ on December 31 with a benefit where families learned how to make pickles that would make your bubbie proud, and they packed birthday-cake boxes for the needy containing everything they need to make a cake,” says Traxler.
“We had a buffet dinner and a master chef demonstration on how to make your own dessert.”
The birthday gala was held in one of Chabad’s subsidized wedding halls in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood; Pantry Packers is based in Talpiot, about six kilometers south.
Traxler didn’t come to this endeavor with any kind of management degree in hand. One of seven siblings, he was educated in Lubavitch yeshivot in Michigan and New Jersey, and then came to Safed to be groomed for community service in the movement’s Tze’irei Hashluchim (Young Emissaries) program.
Three years into that program, he traveled back to the United States to meet Rena Berkowitz, of a Detroit Chabad family.
“I went to yeshiva for six years in Detroit and I knew her father and brothers,” he says. “But I hadn’t met her.”
The match was made. They married in 2004 and formally made aliya together two weeks later. Traxler then became administrator of Tze’irei Hashluchim, until Colel Chabad brought him on board in August 2012 to create new volunteer opportunities.
The couple moved to Jerusalem and now has seven children ranging in age from 11 years to eight months. Traxler says there are good schools available to his children in Jerusalem and he enjoys taking his family on nature trips to the many parks on the outskirts of the city.
“I like photography, and I especially like taking photos of smiling people at Pantry Packers,” he says.
The program was conceived as a way to meet several challenges at once, he explains.
On the tourist side, many families coming to Israel for special occasions look for charitable activities appropriate for everyone, from children to grandparents, sometimes in a group of up to 50. The activity must be meaningful and held in a fairly central location.
On the organizational side, the activity has to make sense logistically and economically, and cannot be dependent on tour groups’ availability.
In cooperation with the Welfare Ministry, Colel Chabad produces monthly boxes of pantry staples in a warehouse in Kiryat Malachi. Each box contains 60 different items, such as flour, sugar, salt, oil, canned vegetables, legumes, rice, bulgur, cereal, spices and grape juice.
Packing food is an activity for all ages and can accommodate a large group, but Kiryat Malachi is not centrally located and the program needs more than sporadic volunteers.
“I studied all the different angles for meeting these challenges,” says Traxler, “and I came to this idea of creating a facility in Jerusalem for packaging our own line of dry goods – items such as rice, beans and split peas. We buy them from the importer directly and save 30 percent.”
Thus, Pantry Packers was born. Whenever a group is scheduled, they do the packing in Jerusalem; when there is no group, the packing is done as usual in Kiryat Malachi using store-brand items.
“If a group cancels, the families still get their food,” says Traxler.
Pantry Packers has become a fulltime endeavor. Rena Traxler works with her husband, booking reservations and handling correspondence.
“She has made a significant difference in organizing the program and making it run smoothly,” notes the rabbi, who generally keeps 9-to-5 hours.
Though he values the “life of giving” modeled by his parents, Moishe and Shoshana, his work does not require him to live in the Diaspora bringing Judaism to far-flung communities. Instead he offers volun-tourists a taste of Judaism in the Jewish homeland.
“Our way of life is that you have to make the vessels and have emuna [faith] that Hashem [God] will fill them. Pantry Packers is one of those vessels,” says Traxler, who has a brother living in Safed.
“I don’t have a traditional Chabad House where you have continuous interaction with attendees. I have short interactions of an hour and a half with people. It’s different, but quite rewarding,” says Traxler.
“The Rebbe said we are lamplighters; our job is not to track all the flames but to light them. You never know where it will lead. One girl came in the summer for her cousin’s bar mitzva, and later she did a bake sale at her school to benefit Pantry Packers. I didn’t know about it till her mother called and asked how to make out the check.”
He points out that in ancient times when the sabbatical year ended, all Jews would celebrate Hakhel, the gathering at the Holy Temple to hear the king read from the Torah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly encouraged Hakhel gatherings in modern Israel, and Traxler feels he is doing this in the course of his work with Diaspora Jews, sometimes four times a day.
Traxler says there are only a few things he pines for from the United States.
“I miss the hot dogs in America. They just don’t make them right here,” he says in good humor. “And I miss Morton’s coarse salt; here the coarse salt is more like the size of mothballs.”
He admits that his kids sometimes poke fun at his American accent.
“I speak Hebrew fluently – at least in my mind,” he says wryly.
“I never went to ulpan. When I was working in the yeshiva I had to figure out how to argue with suppliers. So at least I know how to yell in Hebrew.” 
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