A Touch of Tomchei

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and the modest storefront at 3531¼2 N. La Brea Ave. is teeming with people. The shelves that were stocked with bottles of Rokeach grape juice, jars of Tzali’s gefilte fish and cans of California chunk light tuna only a half hour ago, are now nearly empty.

But what looks like the pre-Pesach rush at any number of local Los Angeles grocery stores is actually a typical Thursday night at the warehouse of Tomchei Shabbos — a nonprofit organization that provides needy Jewish families throughout the Greater Los Angeles area with kosher food to enrich their Shabbat and help sustain them throughout the week.

Translating to "Supporter of the Sabbath," Tomchei Shabbos was started in 1977 by three Orthodox rabbis who recognized a need within the Los Angeles Jewish community. Under the direction of Rabbi Yona Landau, and sustained predominately by private donations, the organization has grown out of its original garage and into two locations (a garage in the Valley and a storefront in Los Angeles), serving more than 200 families weekly. But the real phenomenon behind Tomchei Shabbos is the dedication of its volunteers — from uniformed schoolgirls and yeshiva boys to well-dressed businessmen on their way home from work — who gather here every Thursday night to pack and discreetly deliver boxes of food to recipients, and whose vested interest in the organization far exceeds simply making out a check.

"It involves volunteers from all walks of life," said Michelle Lerer, who manages a medical office by day, but who can usually be found at the warehouse on Thursday nights distributing route sheets, giving box-packing lessons to new volunteers or directing parking in the lot behind the storefront. "It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not religious. It’s the one charity that I know of in this city where everything goes."

Lerer came to the organization approximately 15 years ago upon a friend’s recommendation. While packing food one Thursday night, a man that she was working with asked her to lock up for him. She did, and she never gave back the keys. Today, Lerer, together with bond trader Steve Berger, manages the Tomchei Shabbos L.A. storefront. She takes care of all food ordering for the organization, while Berger coordinates delivery routes.

"We go on the principle that they need everything," said Lerer, adding that she always makes sure that the boxes are bountiful, with plenty of extra food to carry families throughout the week. During the holidays, boxes include all necessary items and ingredients. Passover boxes this year include everything from ingredients for making charoset and old-fashioned horseradish to aluminum pans and dishwashing soap.

In the interest of preserving the dignity of recipient families, the majority of Tomchei Shabbos transactions remain anonymous. The organization uses a coding system, and volunteers never meet most of the people whom they deliver to. Some packages are covertly placed in front of recipient residences and others are dropped off to third parties.

"It’s embarrassing for people to have to ask for help," Lerer said.

Tomchei Shabbos realizes that need is often relative. Therefore, there is no set criteria to qualify for assistance. Applicants are often referred by friends, rabbis and Jewish Family Service and are only required to find a sponsor (usually a rabbi) within the community to confirm their need.

While most Tomchei Shabbos recipients are below the poverty level and receive some form of government assistance, the causes for their predicaments greatly vary: an Argentine immigrant family whose life savings was lost, a couple whose monthly income is far less than the expenses involved in raising five children, an elderly person barely surviving off of social security, a family where the main breadwinner was struck by illness — all are examples of Tomchei Shabbos recipients.

Rivka (not her real name), a mother of two young children, has been a Tomchei Shabbos recipient since she and her husband divorced nine months ago. Finding herself in debt as a result of court fees and very little child support, Rivka went from living in a five-bedroom house to renting a guest house in someone’s backyard. With two children and very little work experience, the money that was going out far exceeded what was coming in.

"I don’t have a college degree," she said. "And truthfully, I believe in being a mother more than anything else. To go and work for $7 an hour when I have to pay the babysitter $7 an hour — it doesn’t sound very appealing to me."

Like Rivka, the problems that Tomchei Shabbos recipients encounter are complex. While Tomchei Shabbos helps get them on their feet, many also require further assistance.

"If someone doesn’t have money to buy food, there are many other things they don’t have money for," said Landau, an insurance broker who simultaneously and voluntarily runs the organization. With this vision in mind, Landau has expanded Tomchei Shabbos into something more inclusive in recent years. Under the umbrella organization of Touch of Kindness, further programs have evolved. Some such programs include Jewish Job Link, a group of businesspeople who help people find jobs; The Clothes Conscious, a group of women who contact Jewish manufacturers, buy clothing at wholesale prices and offer them for free to Touch of Kindness recipients; and Masbia, a group that gathers leftovers from various schools and synagogues. Like Tomchei Shabbos, each group is run by volunteers.

In addition to the three existing programs, Landau often subsidizes other things when necessary, such as rent, day care, tuition and car payments.

For the volunteers of the organization, the mitzvah of Tomchei Shabbos and Touch of Kindness’ programs is a two-way street.

"Here the children see charity really being done," said Cathy Lawrence, coordinator and only employee of Touch of Kindness. "At home, mom might talk about tzedakah, but it’s different for them to be taking part in the actual physical doing…. They go to a home and they see other little children awaiting the Tomchei Shabbos box or an old woman whose face lights up when they come."

Lawrence came to Tomchei Shabbos after trading in a long-time career in the entertainment industry.

"The movie business," Lawrence said, "is about putting out a lot of energy to get a reward that is mostly monetary. It’s a very material world, and I needed a break from it."

Although the career change meant a significant change in lifestyle, Lawrence said that the feeling she gets from working for Tomchei Shabbos is worth it.

"It’s a trade-off for being around people that are givers and appreciate," she said. "People who do good and put the needs of the community above themselves."

For more information on Tomchei Shabbos call (323) 931-0224.