To help kosher families in need, Tomchei LA thinks inside the box

April 6, 2017
A storefront in Pico-Robertson served as the base of packing and delivering for Tomchei LA this year. Photo by Mushka Lightstone

When it comes to 400 local kosher families in need of help to make their seders more affordable, Schneur Braunstein knows just the right recipe:

About 12,500 pounds of chicken and red meat; 2,500 pounds of matzo; 15,000 pounds of dairy and produce; 1,800 dozen eggs; 1,200 bottles of grape juice; and 2,500 cans of tuna.

It’s a tall order, but over the course of three days during the run-up to Passover — March 30, April 2 and April 6 — that’s what Tomchei LA, a poverty-alleviation organization with an office on La Brea Avenue, expected to deliver.

“What I’m trying to do here is make this a bridge between tough times and better times,” said Braunstein, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Formerly known as Tomchei Shabbos (Hebrew for “Supporters of the Sabbath”), the organization provides an opportunity for local community members to perform mitzvot by packing boxes of food for families who cannot afford to purchase their own on Passover and to deliver the food to the families’ homes.

“I think it’s nice to give back in the community in any way possible, and it’s nice to share this with my nieces,” Shira Nissim, 28, said as she packed boxes of canned mushrooms with her relatives Aliyah, 8, and Neshama, 10, on March 30.

Founded in 1978 by three Orthodox families out of a garage, Tomchei LA aims to alleviate challenges facing families living an observant life in Los Angeles, especially during holidays such as Passover, when the price of kosher food skyrockets, Braunstein said.

Rabbi Yona Landau has led the organization — whose official nonprofit name is Touch of Kindness — as president since the 1980s.

The recent Tomchei LA activity for Pesach unfolded over a trio of days, with food packing taking place at a Pico-Robertson storefront and at a North Hollywood warehouse. On March 30, volunteers packed and delivered dry foods after convening earlier in the evening — despite the threat of rush-hour traffic and lack of parking.

Many of those who turned out were students, including Gaby Gershfeld, 24, a second-year student at Southwestern Law School.

“I’m here to give tzedakah and help families who need help because it feels good, it feels right,” said Gershfeld, one of several members of the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative to volunteer. “I have the opportunity to give, so why not?”

Edwin Yaghoobian, 13, of Paul Revere Charter Middle School, echoed those thoughts.

“I’m here because it’s a mitzvah and also it’s great to help out others who don’t have the opportunity to have this food,” he said.

At 6:20 p.m., only 20 minutes after helpers began pouring into the entrance of the storefront at Pico and Wetherly, volunteers started loading the boxes of food into cars. Tomchei provides volunteer drivers with the addresses of recipients who are located along 20 routes in the Pico-Robertson area and 45 routes in the San Fernando Valley.

Protocol is to leave the food at the door of the recipient, who is expecting the delivery, as opposed to knocking on the door or ringing the bell and handing over the food face to face. The goal is to preserve the anonymity of recipients.

“Many families are ashamed to ask for help,” Braunstein said.

On April 2, volunteers showed up at 10 a.m. to pack frozen chicken, ground beef and roasts, as well as handmade and machine-made matzo, into cardboard boxes. The boxes of handmade matzo — stacked into towers in the center of the storefront — were in high demand.

“Oh, my God, they’re getting a lot of matzo, this family,” said Merav Cohen, director of administration at Gindi Maimonides Academy, who volunteered with her two children, Naomi, 7, and Mia, 5.

Braunstein oversaw all of the activity, making himself available for questions from volunteers and taking cues from a computer database that keeps track of which families receive what groceries.

“Our sophisticated database formulates each family’s need based on size and need and dietary restrictions,” he said.

The program’s partners include J. Hellman Produce, West Pico Distributors and Western Kosher.

“All the local kosher stores give us 10 percent off,” the executive director said.

Braunstein, the organization’s only paid staff member, said goals for the organization include moving into a larger space, as the current warehouse in Pico-Robertson is not large enough for all of the work the organization does, which includes providing clothing and furniture to people in need, running a jobs program and offering financial assistance. And at a monthly rent of $15,600, the current storefront is unaffordable, he said.

“The bottom line is, Tomchei needs a building,” he said.

Challenges aside, Braunstein said the beauty of the organization is that anybody can help and anybody can receive.

“Whether it’s the volunteers or families we help,” he said, “we have a diverse … base.”

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