Four S.F. synagogues flex muscle to fight hunger together

The Southside Jewish Collaborative — a group of four San Francisco synagogues — is taking its growing partnership to a new level with a joint charity program that aims to fight hunger in the city.

Titled “The Year of Feeding the Hungry,” the program was established in January by a Tikkun Olam committee from Beth Israel Judea (Reform), B’nai Emunah (Conservative), Ner Tamid (Conservative) and Or Shalom (Reconstructionist).

The program includes several yearlong cooperative projects to combat hunger in San Francisco. So far, for example, nearly 60 volunteers have made 1,200 sandwiches for the homeless, and others have helped out at a food bank. Food donations are being encouraged throughout the year, not just at holidays.

Southside Jewish Collaborative volunteers make sack lunches on June 18. photo/sara weissman

Beginning with a joint Shavuot event in 2012, the four synagogues, all in the southern part of San Francisco, have been collaborating on adult education classes, holiday celebrations and scholars-in-residence weekends. B’nai Emunah and Beth Israel Judea also have joint Hebrew school programming, and Beth Israel Judea and Or Shalom share facilities.

However, the current social action project, proposed by Rabbi Danny Gottlieb of Beth Israel Judea, covers new ground.

On the third Thursday of every month, community members come together after a monthly Lunch and Learn program to make balanced lunches (usually a sandwich, fruit, granola bar and cheese) for San Francisco’s needy. And for people who can’t make it on a weekday afternoon, the collaborative also holds sandwich-making events on a Sunday every other month.

The lunches go to three organizations: At the Crossroads, which focuses on youth homelessness; San Francisco General Hospital’s methadone clinic; and the Homeless Outreach Team, which targets chronically homeless adults on the street and is guided in  part by the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Congregants say they find playing a role in such a process particularly meaningful.

“It’s just sandwiches. It seems like a simple act,” says Beth Israel Judea’s Lori Ganz, a team leader at a recent Sunday sandwich-making session. “But by partnering with these organizations, it leads to a larger impact.”

Congregants also volunteer once a month at the SF-Marin Food Bank, a project spearheaded by B’nai Emunah. For a decade or so, B’nai Emunah members have been volunteering there; now, three or four other people join them on any given Sunday.

Despite its good intentions, “The Year of Feeding the Hungry” is sometimes challenged by a lack of funds.

According to organizer Sharon Blevis of B’nai Emunah, the materials for bagged lunches cost approximately $80 per session. Volunteers do their best to bring extra sandwich-making materials from home, such as peanut butter or bread. And though a couple of larger donations have come in, Al Sion of Or Shalom hopes small “pushke” amounts from individuals will keep the projects afloat.

“It’s hard to get people into the mindset of doing little things to help people on a regular basis,” he says. “But I think that’s a better type of project in the long run, because it keeps the idea of doing tikkun olam foremost in your mind.”

Rabbi Mark Melamut of B’nai Emunah thinks that joint efforts like this one are “the future of our people.”

Of collaborative projects, he says, “There’s a sense of connecting to the people of Israel, as opposed to staying separate in our own silos. It’s a warm, glow-y feeling when I see people working together no matter what denomination.”

Gottlieb agrees, saying that “The Year of Feeding the Hungry” encompasses core Jewish values.

“Our tradition teaches clearly the obligation to look after the poor and homeless in the community — all those who are vulnerable — as far back as biblical times,” he says. “Leaving part of the harvest for the hungry, the corners of the field — [this] is a modern way to fulfill that obligation.”