When Zach Piser learned that Berkeley Midrasha might not have the funds necessary to sustain its volunteer program with the Berkeley Men’s Homeless Shelter, he couldn’t just sit idly by.
So he planned a fundraiser at his school, Piedmont High, thinking he’d be lucky to raise $1,000.
More than 150 people attended the May 1 film screening, far exceeding the incoming senior’s expectations. As a result, Piser raised $4,500 for meals at the Berkeley Men’s Shelter.
“This is the power of one,” wrote Diane Bernbaum, director of Berkeley Midrasha, in a newsletter announcing Piser’s achievement. “Yashar Koach, Zach. The Jewish community is lucky to have your energy and enthusiasm dedicated to tikkun olam.”
For the past 15 years, Berkeley Midrasha students and their parents have prepared and served meals at the men’s shelter. The partnership began with Midrasha staff organizing students and their parents for once-a-month volunteer nights.
Soon after, there was enough interest that Berkeley Midrasha agreed to prepare three meals a month, and students became responsible for organizing the entire project.
Berkeley Midrasha started a homeless fund to reimburse students’ families for the cost of a meal (one evening of volunteering usually costs about $150, which feeds about 60 men). Over the years, families infrequently requested the reimbursement, instead opting for a tax deduction.
But as the economy tumbled, more of the families requested to be reimbursed for what they had spent. In the winter, the Homeless Fund neared zero, and the Berkeley Midrasha board of directors feared they would have to discontinue the program next year.
He’d volunteered with his parents for three years at the Berkeley Men’s Homeless Shelter. For the past year, he led the committee that organized the volunteer nights.
He loved the experience so much that on his own, outside of Midrasha, he organized a group of his friends from Piedmont High to join him at the shelter. He dubbed the club “Lechem Oni,” which translates as “bread for the poor.”
“I knew that with the economy, fewer people were coming to participate because not everyone could feed their own families, let alone hungry men,” Piser said. Through his fundraiser, he wanted to enable more people to volunteer at the shelter without it feeling like a burden, and also to “promote awareness of the hungry homeless in Oakland and Berkeley.”
For Piser, the work has become more meaningful than he ever imagined. Every time he goes to the shelter to prepare a meal, he always sits with the men as they eat.
“They’re completely open: They tell you their life stories, heartbreaking stories, and it makes me feel good to know I’ve helped them in some way,” he said. “The men may have broken lives, but at least I can fill their stomach up.”
Piser planned the May 1 fundraiser with support from the Jewish Teen Mentor Project, a project of
BBYO that supports Jewish teens in planning large-scale community service projects.
The $4,500 Piser raised will fund about a year of Midrasha-prepared meals at the men’s shelter, assuming all families request reimbursement. The fund will last even longer if families instead opt for a tax deduction.
Either way, Piser said his fundraising ensures that many more teenagers will have the opportunity he had.
“People are now saying they want to participate because they know there’s a pot of money to help fund the dinners,” Piser said. “It’s great to know I’m helping people perform tikkun olam.”
Piser and his parents are active members of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. His parents, Joel and Jing, are mohels. Jing is also a cooking enthusiast, and prepared a dozen dishes for the fundraising film screening of “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
“Ever since I was a kid, my parents taught me to give my doggie bag from the restaurant to the homeless,” Piser said.
They told him there was no guarantee that loose change would help, he recalls, but “if you give them food, they will be satiated and nourished.”