A Shabbat meal left for those in need

On a recent Thursday evening, instead of reading a book or watching a movie at home with her children, Stacy Kent brought her daughter, Rayna, 9, and son, Ami, 7, to a warehouse on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Wetherly Drive.

Their mission: Help make Shabbat, well, Shabbat for local families in need of assistance by packing boxes full of food.

That’s what the volunteers of Tomchei Shabbos of Los Angeles (tomcheishabbos.org) have been doing for 36 years. Every Thursday at 6 p.m. sharp, dozens of people rush around the group’s small warehouse at 9041 W. Pico Blvd. Some are packing food, some are making boxes, and some are coordinating where filled boxes go. In the hustle and bustle of the Pico-Robertson warehouse, kosher Shabbat staples — challah, grape juice, chicken, rice, fruits, vegetables — are placed into boxes, which are given to families that apply and meet Tomchei Shabbos’ income qualifications to receive Shabbat assistance. Because there are no other organizations that can meet the needs of families that only eat kosher food, Tomchei Shabbos restricts its clientele to families that are strictly kosher, said Steve Berger, who runs the group.

Tomchei Shabbos, literally “supporters of the Sabbath,” was formed in 1977 by three local rabbis. The nonprofit staffed entirely by volunteers now has a $2 million annual budget provided completely through donations and delivers food to about 120 families every week. In a span of 60 to 90 minutes, thanks to an operation fine-tuned over three decades, volunteers pack about 400 chickens, 350 bags of challah and 200 bottles of grape juice.

The group has another location, which operates out of the parking lot of Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic Congregation in North Hollywood, to serve families in the San Fernando Valley. 

And there are other offerings, too: Brides worried about breaking the bank can contact Tomchei Shabbos about the dozens of elegant gowns in its warehouse. Families struggling to raise children can purchase diapers at a reduced cost. And the organization provides used furniture and household appliances, among other things, to those in need.

For the weekly Shabbat operation, just who receives the goods is unknown to most involved in the process, as the organization is adamant that the identity of its recipients remains undisclosed. On every box is a sticker with a route number and a family identification number. Only a handful of people involved in the administration of the food know who receives assistance. The volunteers who pack the food have no clue who will benefit from their assistance.

“We leave the food at the front door and we do not introduce ourselves or deal with the recipients,” said Kent, who has been a volunteer for 10 years.

Anyone can come by on a Thursday evening, and Tomchei Shabbos’ staff will immediately put them to work. Stick around long enough and regulars may eventually be coordinating which boxes go where. 

Case in point: Gabriel Sasson, who will be a freshman at UC Irvine this fall. He started with Tomchei Shabbos two years ago packing boxes to the brim with food. He quickly rose through the ranks and now coordinates the section of the warehouse where families (or their friends) come to pick up filled boxes — good managerial experience for a 17-year-old.

After 7 p.m., the warehouse emptied out and the volunteer drivers were on their delivery runs. That’s when Berger, who like an air traffic controller helps direct Tomchei Shabbos’ many moving parts — people and boxes — reflected on the obligation for Jews to help other Jews in need. 

“The world stands, according to Pirkei Avot, on three pillars — study of Torah, worship and acts of kindness.”