By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
Imagine what it is like to be hungry – really, truly hungry. Imagine sending your child to school on an empty stomach. Imagine a Holocaust survivor with an empty fridge. For the roughly 1.6 million Israelis living under the poverty line, hunger is a reality. However, Pantry Packers is helping to ensure these individuals survive.
A food distribution project of Colel Chabad-Tzedakah Central, Israel’s oldest charity group since 1788, Pantry Packers distributes monthly food boxes to more than 40,000 families in 24 Israeli cities. Run in collaboration with the government’s National Initiative for Nutritional Security, to date only about 10 percent of Pantry Packers’ clients are Chabad or even Hassidic.
The gem of the food distribution project happens in a small warehouse on Derech Moshe Baram in Jerusalem. There, more than 8,000 annual volunteers come for 90-minutes of hands on volunteering, packing the commodity food staples for Israel’s poorest families – cereal, lentils, rice, beans and other dried legumes.
Pantry Packers volunteer center is celebrating its third anniversary next month, on Jan.31.
“The vision is to get the entire family involved,” says Director Rabbi Menachem Traxler. “Families walk in and everyone from the grandkids to the grandparents has something to do.”
Weekly, groups of special needs youth and young adults volunteer, as do many tour groups who want to give back to the Jewish state.
“We call it Tikkun Olam Tourism,” notes Traxler.
He says people like the experience because they can learn a skill and create something. Pantry Packers operates like a manufacturing plant, with workers standing in assembly line fashion, processing, bagging, sealing and labeling products and then boxing them for shipping to Pantry Packers’ Kiryat Malakhi’s warehouse for distribution. In an average year, Pantry Packers sees around 465 volunteer groups that pack 5,550 boxes and 167,000 bags totaling 183,852 pounds of foodstuffs.
“Jewish people love to help others. Yes, there is poverty in Israel. But there are also people who can help. A Jewish person would never let his neighbor die,” says Traxler.
On a Sunday in December, a group of boys with special needs from Ohr Torah Stone’s Yeshivat Darkaynu are volunteering. They concentrate hard on the assembly line, determined to pack as many bags and boxes as possible in their hour-and-a-half session. They help one another, smile a lot and know they are making a difference.
Volunteers are given plastic gloves, aprons and caps.
“My population is usually on the receiving end,” says Darkaynu Program Director Avi Ganz. “Here, you give them a responsibility – something exciting and meaningful. They turn from receivers to givers in a such a professional way. It is a great atmosphere.”
Another visiting family is considering volunteering, too. After a short video, Traxler stands and ushers them to the assembly line.
“You guys came here to work,” he says with an encouraging smile.
Aside from its partnership with the government, Pantry Packers is made by possible by private donations. Traxler says the program has survived for its more than 200 years “because of the generosity of Jews in Israel and around the world.”
“Tzedakah is a part of the Jewish people. It’s the idea of v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha [love your neighbor as youself],” he says.
Traxler poo-poos the idea that any of Pantry Packers’ work is kiruv, intended to bring Jews closer to Torah. Rather, it is about sustaining the Jewish people. He tells a story of one of the late Chabad-Lubavitch rebbes who explained that if a man comes and asks for bread and water and you try to give him Torah, you are in the wrong.
“You cannot teach Torah to someone on an empty stomach,” says Traxler.
He continues: “Solving Israel’s poverty problem – it doesn’t take a miracle. It takes love.”