When Rabbi Michael Lezak met with Jeff Kirshbaum for breakfast two years ago to discuss a possible food charity service involving their synagogue, Congregation Rodef Sholom, both men had little idea of what to expect from the endeavor.
Lezak suggested that Kirshbaum, a former chef skilled in Jewish cuisine, might somehow parlay his considerable culinary expertise into a program that could benefit the less fortunate members of the synagogue, as a way of showing solidarity among the congregants.
The idea started off slowly. But now, two years later, it has evolved into something much larger than a simple altruistic gesture: It has united a community, and introduced a more personal element to the San Rafael synagogue.
The program, dubbed the Mitzvah Kitchen, hand delivers over 80 challahs a week to members of Rodef Sholom.
The initiative was first tailored to benefit those in need. But now any congregant can pay to receive a challah, with the proceeds directed to Jewish youth programs.
“We really wanted to find a way to involve people in the community,” said Kirshbaum, who owned and operated a Jewish delicatessen near California and Kearny streets in San Francisco’s Financial District until 2001.
“The idea, which was really Rabbi Lezak’s and my wife’s, was to donate challahs to people in need, and it has really taken off from there. The synagogue has been so supportive and the community has really united behind this idea.”
Kirshbaum, along with his wife, Judi, donated an extensive amount of equipment to Rodef Sholom, giving the synagogue a fully operating kitchen. That made it possible for the Mitzvah Kitchen to operate.
However, the program truly thrives thanks to the efforts of an ever-growing group of volunteers. Members stopping by the synagogue pick up the challahs and get directions to the home of the recipient, delivering the present unannounced — a surprise cherished by the beneficiary.
“Some of these people might be very ill or in mourning and in desperate need of personal attention,” said Lezak, the associate rabbi of Rodef Sholom. “Seeing a friendly face does so much for them; it really lifts their spirits in a tremendous way. It has also helped introduce so many people to each other, which makes our large congregation much more intimate.”
The Mitzvah Kitchen, which Kirshbaum estimates has now delivered over 3,500 challahs, continues to expand due to the program’s popularity.
“In Marin County, where we don’t have a Jewish bakery, it’s hard to get challahs as authentic as how Jeff makes them,” Lezak said. “We decided to set up a program where people could pay for the challahs, which enabled us to fund more youth groups. Now, we have more people than ever” in the program.
Kirshbaum, who donates about 20 hours a week to his various endeavors, also teaches a weekly class in Jewish cuisine, imparting his knowledge in a setting that brings people together. “I share some recipes for certain dishes. One week I might do something on Italian Jewish cooking or other European cuisine as a way to introduce people to traditional Jewish meals.”
Despite his considerable contributions, Kirshbaum remains modest and is quick to deflect attention away from himself.
“He would never mention it, but Jeff has done so much for our community,” said Rabbi Stacy Friedman. “What he and his wife have accomplished will have a long-lasting impact among our congregants. It has given our synagogue a human face and a human touch.”
One specific occurrence of that touch struck Kirshbaum in a particularly personal light.
“We had one woman who was very sick. She said that getting the challahs delivered to her gave her a purpose for living each week, and looking forward to the next delivery was what kept her going. To hear something as powerful as that is really what makes the Mitzvah Kitchen so important.”