RIVER HILLS – The uplifting part of this story is that so many people – including many Jews – in the Milwaukee area are involved with trying to end hunger.
The depressing part is hearing Reenie Kavalar say: “We know hunger is never-ending.”
Kavalar chairs the Salinsky Program to Feed the Hungry at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills, a program created about five years ago when Louise Salinsky left CEEBJ a lot of money upon her death.
A recent project for Kavalar and her committee was helping CEEBJ host a Mazon truck with a “This is Hunger” exhibit for three days in late June. Kavalar estimated that 350 to 400 people, including many invited elected officials who spoke at the kickoff event, visited the exhibit that was publicized in partnership with other agencies and North Shore synagogues. The truck was loaded with books, photos and statistics telling stories of people who have experienced hunger.
The Mazon truck at CEEBJ had visitors from many age groups. “One of the great parts of the weekend was that OSRUI (Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute) sent a group of 60 sixth- through eighth-graders and 20 counselors as part of their social responsibility program at camp,” Kavalar said.
“Hunger affects people of every demographic you can think of,” Kavalar said. “There was even a story of a woman who had a great job on Wall Street before it all fell apart for her.”
The truck also emphasized the need to let government officials know that cutting funding “would be horrible for a lot of people,” Kavalar said. She added, “Charity is great, but it’s never going to solve the problem. We need to work with government agencies to sustain funding to help feed the people who are hungry.”
CEEBJ’s Salinsky program began with a panel discussion in which committee members learned from representatives of agencies such as the Jewish Food Pantry, the Hunger Task Force and the Milwaukee schools lunch program about hunger issues around the area.
“Then we began to think about what we could do to make a difference,” Kavalar said.
The congregation began by planting a vegetable garden with all the produce going to local food pantries. A cooking club meets once a month to prepare meals and sandwiches for local agencies. Kavalar’s committee oversees the High Holy Days and Passover food drives, and financially supports several pantries. It also helps with the congregation’s Mitzvah Day, in which over the past three years, about 2,000 snack bags have been provided for the Hunger Task Force to be used for its summer meal program for children. Congregants also helped purchase equipment for kitchens at shelters.
There are five congregants on Kavalar’s committee, but she adds, “There are lots of congregants participating on various projects.”
Kavalar’s committee doesn’t spend all its money in one place at one time. “We have been very prudent,” Kavalar said. “We use a portion of the funds each year and invest the rest so we can continue to do this for a long time.”
Rabbi Marc Berkson was involved with bringing the Mazon truck to CEEBJ. “As someone wrote in a Newsweek story several years ago, ‘as more of us indulge our passion for local organic delicacies, a growing number of Americans don’t have enough nutritious food to eat,’” Berkson wrote in a blog. As Mazon has put it: “The faces of hunger in America are both familiar and hidden from view, yet they are all too real and far too many.”
Many synagogues have a long history of social action, being involved, as Kavalar said, “in doing the right thing.”
Another such synagogue is Congregation Sinai of Fox Point, where Idy Goodman and Craig Johnson co-chair the social justice committee.
“Our congregation has been involved with social justice for a long time, going back to when Rabbi (Jay) Brickman and a group of congregants connected with a church to begin serving meals there,” Goodman said.
Goodman said Sinai has become involved with several other organizations over the years, and took part in an activity in which congregants discussed how people with a limited amount of money would spend it.
Donna Neubauer coordinates Sinai’s involvement with the Mother Scott Christian Center’s meal project, something Sinai member Lisa Phillips was passionate about before she died. Neubauer said there are 96 volunteers who “provide all kinds of services to the neighborhood community such as hot meal program, the Emergency Food Pantry, nutrition for babies and a bread ministry.”
Neubauer emails volunteers – most of whom are Sinai members – six times a year, asking them to drop off food items at Sinai for delivery to the Scott Center.
Congregation Shalom of Fox Point has been involved for more than 32 years with the St. Ben’s Community Meal Program. Bill Gartenberg, who along with Steve Rubnitz co-chair Shalom’s social action committee, got involved with the program through his daughter Tess’s bat mitzvah project. The family continued its involvement throughout Tess’s high school years. When she went off to college, Gartenberg and wife Deborah continued.
“We have an obligation, especially Jews, to help people less fortunate than we are,” Gartenberg said.
Shalom has helped St. Ben’s since 1985, with Sharon Goldberger coordinating. Goldberger says there are about 60 to 65 Shalom families on her list who provide chicken, and approximately 20 congregants who serve the second Sunday of each month. “We help feed a lot of people, as many as 600 but now between 300 and 500,” Goldberger said.
Jim Ross has coordinated Shalom’s involvement with the Agape Community Center’s meal program since 1994. On the second Tuesday of each month, congregants cook and serve a spaghetti dinner with food purchased by congregants. Ross estimates “anywhere from 50 to 125 clients are fed in a family-style manner.”
Ross is among 25 to 35 volunteers, many of whom are congregants, at the Hunger Task Force. Ross estimated that in the past 23 years, “we have sorted, collected or packed over 925,000 pounds of food.”
Jess Henrickson and other Shalom members buy, cook and serve breakfast at The Guest House, a homeless shelter. Henrickson estimates his committee serves between 80 and 90 men on Sunday mornings four to six times a year.
Rabbi Gil-Ezer Lerer, who has served Temple Menorah in northern Milwaukee since 1982, said he’s not embarrassed to ask people for money to feed the hungry. He said Menorah is involved with Golden Rule Church of Christ, collecting funds for approximately 100 to 150 turkeys a year, along with the fixings that go into a meal. He added that his congregants do many things “quietly.”
“My congregants respond when they are called,” Lerer said.
Lerer points out that there is a lot of need among Jews. “It’s great to help at churches, but we have to help the Jewish community,” Lerer said. “People don’t realize the number of hungry people in the Jewish community.”
Lerer said that after every project in which congregants are involved, “I tell people, especially the kids: “They should open up their refrigerator and realize how blessed they are to have food in it. It’s a big shock to young people who ask, ‘What’s for dinner?’ instead of asking if there is any food in the house.”
Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha
Since Phil Musickant was hired as Religious School principal at Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha in 2001, he has encouraged congregants to bring donations for the Waukesha Food Pantry to the temple. CEEW donates between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds of food yearly.
Feeding the hungry is not just an adult exercise at many synagogues. It’s a school activity at CEEW.
“Every Sunday almost every student has a food item,” Musickant said. “Donating food has become part of the school experience. Adults see a parade of students coming in with food and they recognize something is going on there. Bringing food is a very easy thing to do and it makes a difference in other peoples’ lives.
“One of the worst things imaginable is that someone doesn’t have food.”
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Hunger by the numbers
- 1 in 8 Americans struggle with hunger
- 1 in 5 Israelis fall below the poverty line
- 11 percent of Wisconsin households are food insecure
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This article has been corrected. It misstated the number of years that Congregation Shalom has been involved with the St. Ben’s Community Meal Program. Congregation Shalom has been involved with the St. Ben’s Community Meal Program for more than 32 years. The article also misstated the number of Congregation Shalom congregants who provide chickens for the program. There are 60 to 65 Congregation Shalom families who provide chickens for the program, according to the congregation.