By Maayan Hoffman
On any given day, hundreds of volunteers put on plastic gloves, aprons and caps and for 90 minutes pack cereal, lentils, rice, beans and other dried legumes for Israel’s poorest families.
“It’s the most important thing,” said U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who volunteered at Pantry Packers with his wife and the staff of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem in December. “People cannot go undernourished. Hunger doesn’t discriminate between Jews, Muslims or Christians and Pantry Packers delivers food to the entire nation – not based upon their religion, not based upon where they live, but based upon need.”
Pantry Packers is a program of Colel Chabad, Israel’s oldest charity, which was established in 1788. The Pantry Packers program began in 2013. At the end of 2018, the warehouse on Derech Moshe Baram in Jerusalem – which operates like a manufacturing plant with workers standing in assembly line fashion, processing, bagging, sealing and labeling products and then boxing them for shipping – underwent a major renovation.
Now, the program’s more than 18,000 annual volunteers can not only package upwards of 500,000 bags of food, they can get a history lesson on charity in Judaism, see the scope of the impact of their work and understand more about Colel Chabad, the organization behind it.
Director Rabbi Menachem Traxler spearheaded efforts to create a mini-museum in which visitors can hear stories from the mouths of service recipients and create their own tzedakah portfolio to see how far their donation can go.
One wall resembles a wall of fame for bar and bat mitzvah kids who raised $613 each to sponsor the bar or bat mitzvah of an orphan or to feed a family for a year (the money is matched by the government) as part of Colel Chabad virtual food drive. There are children-donors from around the world, including America, Costa Rica, Australia, Brazil and Panama.
At one of the virtual stations, an elderly Ethiopian woman, Naori, talks about her journey to the Holy Land and how in her first years in the land, suffering from poverty, she would yearn for her traditional flavors, for peas and barley and roasted coffee. Now, with Pantry Packers new ethnically sensitive food boxes, she eats what she loves.
The video shows her roasting coffee over a small fire.
“They bring me supplies with a smile,” Naori says through her own smile.
Display cases house the letter signed in 1788 by the first Chabad rebbe announcing the establishment of Colel Chabad. There are mailing envelopes that were used to send donations stamped as early as 1921. Ledgers of service recipients go back to the 1800s.
Finally, a tzedakah timeline walks the volunteer from the kindness of forefather Abraham to tithing in Temple times all the way to Colel Chabad.
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 Hasidic. Pantry Packers distributes monthly food boxes to 48 Israeli cities and to a diverse group of people ranging from Muslims, Christians and Druze to religious and non-religious Jews. Recipients are determined by the welfare department.
Roughly 1.8 million Israelis live below the poverty line.
With the renovation, Pantry Packers added additional services, too. Now the center offers Meals and Wheels. Some 5,000 meals are sorted, packed and prepared for delivery at the plant. The cooking is done off site.
The program also signed an agreement with Leket, Israel’s leading food rescue organization, to prepare food onsite for local soup kitchens. Traxler said he hopes to incorporate volunteers into that program soon.
“When one gives money, it elevates his hard work – the work that he is doing all day, whatever job it is,” he said. “But to use your hands to create something for the needy is irreplaceable. And it is especially so when you are trying to educate your children about the importance of tzedakah.”