The Mensch List: Feeding body and soul

While some synagogue sanctuaries are adorned with fresh flowers, the bimah of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village is lined with towers of fresh apples and oranges. Although the décor, devised by Leslye Adelman, is stylish, it is also functional. Every Monday, the fruit moves to the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry (NHIFP), a coalition of synagogues and churches that provides about 5,000 meals per month to the needy.  

“The first time I brought the fruit over, there was one homeless man who sat down with an apple in each hand,” Adelman recalled. “He devoured them as a small child would do with candy. It brought tears to my eyes that he was so grateful to have fresh fruit. The two years I’ve put in to adding fresh fruit into the mix of non-perishable food at the pantry was well worth the time and effort.”

Adelman’s three children are grown, yet she remains a mother figure in her professional and personal lives. Her work as a lactation consultant, childbirth educator and infant care specialist keeps her busy, but she finds the time and energy to oversee operations and volunteer activities at the pantry. She also volunteered for the 2013 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial and the Women of Reform Judaism Assembly, as well as at Temple Beth Hillel, home base for the 30-year-old food pantry.  

While this schedule may pose a challenge to even the most philanthropic souls, for Adelman, staying involved in the community is second nature. 

“When you’re passionate about something and you live what you are doing, everything just falls into place,” she said. “As I see it, [earning money through] my career is what keeps me able to do the food pantry. If you really believe in what you are doing, you make the time. I don’t think twice if somebody from the pantry calls and tells me they need something done, or they are short on help for some crisis with the pantry. It’s something I do, and I do not question where or how I will come up with the time.” 

Adelman tries to inspire this mindset in other volunteers as she trains them, be they 5 or 95 years old. The way she raised her own children plays into her training approach. When school groups, scout troops or family members arrive, she starts with the basics — the history of the pantry and how it serves the community. From there, she personalizes the experience so each person can see how their mitzvot make a difference to individuals and the community.

“We have grown from serving primarily homeless people, to the wider community,” Adelman said. “I want to instill in the volunteers that they could be in need tomorrow, and this is one reason why they should take their work at the pantry seriously. On the other hand, especially when training younger kids, I want them to enjoy what they’re doing, whether it is bagging or sorting groceries, and make a game out of it. Some of the kids end up coming back week after week. I’m certainly still here.”

Feeding the hungry, keeping It ‘light’

On a recent Friday morning, about an hour and a half into his regular weekly shift as the Friday manager of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry (NHIFP), Jerry Rabinowitz, 86, broke into a smile.

A young mother and her two young boys had come to the food pantry with about a dozen bags of food. One of the boys had just celebrated his 10th birthday, and, instead of gifts, his mother said, he had asked his friends to bring nonperishable food items. They came to the First Christian Church of North Hollywood that morning to see where the donations would end up.

“Let’s start with some tuna,” Rabinowitz told the two boys, who then started distributing the cans among individual bags of groceries. The boys’ mother stood near the door, watching.

The pantry was founded in 1983 by a group of local Christian and Jewish congregations, and Rabinowitz joined its all-volunteer staff about 25 years ago as a packer. Now, as then, volunteers work in the basement of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village and assemble donated foods into 20-pound bags of groceries, intended to feed a family for two or three days.

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The bags are moved by pickup truck to the church’s former nursery school annex, where the pantry distributes more than 5.5 tons of food every month on an annual budget of about $70,000. Every Monday and Friday morning, starting at 7:30, families come to the door, some from close by and others from as far away as Santa Clarita. There, they meet volunteers like Rabinowitz and a rotating roster of children and teens who come to lend their hands.

“When a kid gives out a bag of food for the food pantry, there is what I call a magic moment,” Rabinowitz said later that morning. “It’s when a kid’s eyes go from the bag of food he’s holding to the face of the person he’s giving it to.”

Rabinowitz retired 30 years ago — from the grocery business, coincidentally — and he fills his weeks mostly with volunteer work. A decorated World War II veteran, Rabinowitz spends Mondays with fellow veterans, Tuesdays volunteering in a hospital’s medical library, and on Wednesdays he accompanies his wife to the Braille Institute, where he helps pack Braille books to be sent to developing countries. On Thursdays, the Rabinowitzes go bowling (his typical score is about 145).

But the pantry is Rabinowitz’s primary commitment. “Of the whole ball of wax, this is the most important thing I do,” he said.

On Fridays, Rabinowitz is the go-to guy. He decides how many cooked eggs go into bags for people without kitchens (two), whether donated bagels should be packaged with donated tubs of cream cheese (yes), and is the one who had to tell one regular pantry visitor that he would not be going home with the 12 boxes of cereal he had asked for.

Rabinowitz is always ready with a joke, mostly about the beautiful younger women who staff (and rely on) the pantry. “Get me the telephone numbers of pretty girls,” he told a volunteer, with a wink and a nod.

“Everything’s gotta be light,” Rabinowitz said, explaining his tendency to crack wise. “Nothing heavy. These people have enough heavy in their lives.”