Holiday help, Jewish Federation style

Traditionally, the holiday season is a time to think about others. This year, several events focused on the continuing need to address social issues, especially feeding the hungry and appreciating veterans.

Imagine a coordinated effort among food distributor executives blanketing L.A.’s hungry children addressing the problem. “Childhood Hunger: Taking Action,” a panel sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, aspired to put such a plan into action with a Dec. 3 think-tank rally. 

The featured guests, brought together by Federation’s Community Engagement Initiative, were Matt Sharp, senior policy advocate for California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA); Jessica Jones, policy and outreach manager for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank; and David Binkle, Los Angeles Unified School District’s director of food service. They were joined by Nicola Edwards, also of CFPA. Flori Schutzer, program director of Federation’s Hunger Initiative, moderated.

At Federation headquarters, about 40 people listened to talk of a plan to coordinate efforts between some of the area’s resources that collect food and serve meals. One of them — Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program — had its own panel discussion on food and hunger on Nov. 29 featuring chef Susan Feniger; Michael Flood, president/CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank; Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food”; and Rick Nahmias, founder of Food Forward.

The others area groups targeted for collaboration at Federation’s panel were Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Westside Food Bank, Project Chicken Soup, Union Station Homeless Services, Fred Jordan Missions, Union Rescue Mission and Big Sunday.

With the topic of childhood hunger, of course, also came that of schools. While the panel acknowledged changes in LAUSD’s lunch menu — shunning vending machines with unhealthy snacks and replacing fatty comfort foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk — students’ need for more help remains great. According to Binkle, about 80 percent of LAUSD children qualify for subsidized breakfast/lunch programs. 

To help, Jones said, the food bank runs a privately funded program that packs a weekend’s worth of food in backpacks for hungry kids to make it through a weekend until school resumes.

A day earlier, members of Federation’s Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA) group continued the theme of serving the community when they braved a drizzly Sunday to participate in Mitzvah Day at the annual Veterans Holiday Celebration. 

Volunteers such as Benjamin Abrams arrived at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System’s facility in West Los Angeles, which welcomed some 1,500 veterans and their friends and family.

“I like to help out,” said Abrams, volunteering alongside his friend Patrick Azria. Abrams, who earlier in the day had run in the Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging’s annual 5K race, planned to take part in yet another charity event that night in Hollywood.

The Federation’s Debbie Dyner Harris said the VA volunteer effort was just one-quarter of a broader initiative for Mitzvah Day.

“We [also] volunteered at Friends and Helpers, where we packed holiday packages for women and their children who are victims of domestic violence; the Ronald McDonald House, which houses families while their kids undergo treatment at nearby Children’s Hospital, where we made a large meal and did arts and crafts projects for the kids and their siblings; and here at Federation, where we had families with small children packing care packages for Tomchei Shabbos, which provides all sorts of assistance for religious Jewish families,” she said.

Over the past two years, more than 1,000 people have attended at least one such community service day, according to Catherine Schneider, Community Engagement Initiative senior vice president.

“These days have helped build a true community of Jewish Angelenos who are devoted to creating relationships throughout our city and building a better Los Angeles,” she said.

Out of 130 Federation volunteers participating that day, some 91 volunteered at the VA benefit; 55 were from YALA.

In celebrating and honoring local veterans, the event united men and women from different conflicts. Soldiers from World War II and Vietnam mingled with those who served in the Gulf and Iraq wars. 

Ninety-six-year-old veteran Otto Verdekel, along with daughter Karen, enjoyed a hot meal that included everything from turkey with fixings to cheesecake. One of five brothers to enlist during World War II, Verdekel fought in the European theater, including in the Battle of the Bulge. 

Verdekel, of Ukrainian descent, shared his empathy for the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, pointing out that 11 million Ukrainians were murdered by the communists in his ancestral home. 

“A lot of my family died,” he said.

In 1948, Verdekel, now a resident at the Brentwood veterans’ home, moved to Eagle Rock. As a Pittsburgh native who was stationed in northern France, he had vowed, “If I survive, after I get out of the war, I never want to see snow again!”

More than food was on the menu at this event.

“What we’re doing is serving gratitude,” event co-manager Gregg Sanders said.

At 17, he entered the military’s advanced electronics and nuclear program. Flamboyant in cowboy garb, Sanders had an anachronistic, Civil War-era air about him as he delivered a motivational speech mobilizing his troops — the food servers.

Others sought to lift the veterans’ spirits in other ways. This year, Jim Belushi performed for nearly two hours while Carolina Chavez, one of five from the Pin Up Doll Platoon (one for each military branch, including the Coast Guard) made the rounds done up retro-style as a sexpot USO bombshell. 

“It’s been a pretty good turnout, despite the rain,” she said.

“Everyone’s enthusiastic!” Federation participant Julie Tseng echoed.  

One of the happiest people there was Adrea Miller-Vesely, who assisted in honor of her grandfather Lou Miller, who served in the Army Air Corps and met Miller-Vesely’s grandmother at a USO dance.

“This is my first opportunity to volunteer. I’m always out of town,” she said.

Meanwhile, Edward Collins dined on a turkey lunch with girlfriend Arlene Sword and her son, veteran Jim Reese, a stevedore stationed in Thailand from 1969 to 1970 who supervised cargo ships entering the Gulf of Siam. Reese recalled how conflicted he was about the Vietnam War. 

“I was drafted, but I was a hippie,” he said. “But when I was asked to go, I couldn’t say no. I had to serve my country.”

Reese would not have traded the experience.

“It changed me,” he said. “It disciplined me. It sobered me up.”

For many participating Jews, this initiative is a gateway into their community and into leadership roles in Federation programs “that shape our city,” Community Engagement Initiative’s Schneider said.

“It was an extremely positive experience overall,” YALA’s Josh Klein said. “The volunteers got a lot out of listening to [the veterans’] stories … and many vets offered their thanks to The Jewish Federation for our presence and support.”