A jar of gefilte fish, a bottle of Tzali’s grape juice, Manischewitz matzah ball soup mix, Streit’s macaroons, Trader Joe’s horseradish, matzah, Sun-Maid raisins. All the makings for a Passover seder — even if you’re homeless.
On a sunny Friday morning in March at SOVA’s humble West Los Angeles storefront, about 10 people — young and old — work together in assembly-line fashion to package these nonperishable items. These volunteers are unpaid, and the Passover kits are aimed at low-income, homebound and even homeless Jews.
Helping the needy is what SOVA (Hebrew for “eat and be satisfied”) has been doing since 1983, when Santa Monica deli owner Hy Altman and wife, Zucky, created the nonprofit organization.
SOVA’s three storefronts are open for four hours a day during the weekdays, during which the Los Angeles and Valley locations provide grocery packages for more than 2,000 people a month. A typical four-day supply of groceries — designed for homeless people without cooking facilities — includes canned and packaged grocery products, produce, liquid supplements and can openers. In addition to its food pantry services, SOVA provides referrals to an array of employment, legal and medical help services, as well as bus tokens.
There is a cap on how many times people off the street can solicit SOVA’s services: twice a month for the homeless, once a month for low-income, although exceptions are made for emergency situations.
Originally a Jewish Community Centers (JCC) program, SOVA transferred over in 2002 to the authority of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, as part of a post-crisis reorganization of JCC assets. SOVA operates on an annual budget of $560,000 culled from The Federation, government and municipal grants, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and private donors, such as the Edelstein Family Foundation and Carolyn Spiegel. Spiegel, who has purchased and donated products to SOVA for several years, even developed a system for combining coupons and advertised grocery store specials to donate goods. In 2002, she single-handedly donated more than $39,000 worth of products for SOVA’s clientele.
“Their income is so low, they can’t afford to cover their day-to-day costs,” said Leslie Friedman, SOVA’s director since the JFS takeover.
SOVA is a real roll-up-your-sleeves kind of team effort.
“The most rewarding element has been working with volunteers,” said Lirona Kadosh, the 25-year-old manager of SOVA’s West L.A. location. “In the end of the day, it’s tough, it’s draining. But you learn a lot.”
SOVA thrives from food collection campaigns supported by more than 50 area congregations, as well as other community entities. Passover — along with Rosh Hashana, Thanksgiving and Chanukah — is one of several holidays each year for which SOVA holds special distributions. The food collected during the High Holidays translates into an estimated $80,000 saved.
“We have a lot of regulars — homeless veterans, Russian immigrants, Latino families that just can’t stretch enough,” said volunteer Myrna Dosie, who is in her 12th year as a volunteer. About a quarter of those helped by SOVA are Jewish, many of them elderly, some Holocaust survivors.
Enter Hans, a man with a German accent, who comes in for his typical SOVA care package, which might included cooking oil, tuna, pasta, rice, spaghetti sauce, tea, cereal and toiletries, such as toothpaste, shampoo and hand lotion.
Minutes later, in walks another regular, Paul, who lives in the Crenshaw District. He feeds a family of five and has been turning to SOVA twice a month for supplemental help since 2000. He also has AIDS.
“They’ve been very helpful,” said Paul, an African American who learned about SOVA through AIDS Project Los Angeles. “They’re very personable and have always treated me with kindness. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
Since 1989, Paul and Ruth Mittleman have dropped by the West Los Angeles station every week to donate their time. Ruth even got her friend, Dosie, involved.
What might not be so obvious on the surface is that SOVA not only assists total strangers, but often even helps the very people volunteering for the nonprofit organization.
Ezra Shemtob, 82, struggles to suppress tears as he tells his story, even after nearly two decades have passed. The Mittlemans helped Shemtob adapt to America when he was just a stranger to the United States in 1989. The former high school teacher came to this country a broken man — his apartment, career and car confiscated by Iran’s government, simply because he was Jewish. Upon his arrival in America, his wife died of a heart attack as a result of all of the stress they had endured.
Every day after synagogue services, the observant Shemtob comes down to SOVA to volunteer a few hours of his time. Given all that he has experienced, Shemtob credits the volunteering as crucial to his mental and spiritual health.
“He’s been here for 14 years,” Paul Mittleman said. “He’s been very sick, but he’s OK now. He’s been a very loyal worker.”
Shemtob, who has a son living in Los Angeles and a daughter stuck in Iran, gives back to the community “as a mitzvah, for the United States, which gave me everything.”
He appreciates the scope of SOVA’s outreach.
“SOVA is a good organization,” Shemtob said. “They don’t look at race, what color, what religion — they help everybody.”
Also helping expedite things on this Friday morning are a clutch of students from the Archer School for Girls and Harvard-Westlake School who are fulfilling required community service hours. Abram Kaplan, a Harvard-Westlake 10th-grader, chose SOVA because he remembers the charity group from his Temple Emanuel days.
“I’ve met a whole lot of cool people like Ezra,” said Kaplan, 16, who sees SOVA as something he would volunteer for even if his school did not require him to. Kaplan roped in his classmate, Eyal Dechter, who was less enthusiastic about his community service detail. But he conceded that SOVA is a good cause.
“It’s a good idea to help others in need, but I do it mostly because I have to,” said Dechter, 15.
First-time volunteer Simon Yeger had no problem getting into the SOVA groove.
“Everyone’s been very helpful,” said Yeger, now retired for four years and looking for ways to give back to the community.
What SOVA needs most right now is more volunteers, who can donate a couple of hours per week, and vendors, who would be joining supermarkets such as Ralphs and Gelson’s.
“We are very open and interested to hearing from vendors who’d like to contribute goods,” Friedman said.
Kadosh has seen a difference for the better since JFS took over SOVA.
“All of the adjustments have been for the better. We’ve had more access to food, an increase in help, more drivers and stronger support.”
And volunteers see SOVA’s mandate as an extension of what the Torah commands Jews to do.
“The middle name of Judaism is tzedakah,” Ruth Mittleman said. “Offering help to people is just a way of Jewish life, and here you can see your money at work. This is as hands-on as it gets.”
The SOVA Food Pantry Program is located at 13425 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 200, Sherman Oaks. For more information, call (818) 789-7633 or visit www.jfsla.org/sova/.
The three SOVA storefronts are: SOVA Valley, 60271Â¼2 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 342-1320.
SOVA Metro, 7563 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 932-1658.
SOVA West, 11310 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 473-6350.