September 23, 2019

Thanksgiving Spirit: Jewish Volunteers Step Up to Feed the Hungry

As the sun rose at close to 7 a.m. on Nov. 17, hundreds of people were gathered outside the Jewish Family Service (JFS) food pantry with empty shopping bags. The line extended half a block east on Pico Boulevard, wrapping south around Robertson Boulevard, and causing a stir at the busy intersection.

Many had lined up as early as 2 a.m. Some sat on newspapers spread out on the sidewalk. Others played cards to pass the time.

Inside the pantry, no one was standing around.

Dozens of volunteers, some busy since 4 a.m., pinballed around, shouting orders, pushing carts and unloading nonperishables from crates for JFS of Los Angeles’ annual Thanksgiving food drive.

“I love this day,” said Susan Wily, the pantry’s assistant manager, who donned a black shirt with skulls on it and worn worker boots. “It’s so great for the people outside as well as the people in here making it all happen.”

Susan Wily preparing care packages inside the pantry. Photo by Oren Peleg

JFS, formerly the Hebrew Benevolent Society, was founded in 1854 by Los Angeles’ Jewish community. It was the area’s first charitable organization.

Since 2001, the organization has distributed care packages of donated nonperishables and purchased frozen turkeys annually to thousands of people in need. The efforts are part of its SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, which also operates a pantry in Van Nuys. Sova is a Hebrew word meaning “eat and be satisfied.”

“We don’t just feed Jews. We feed everybody.” — Ruthanne Rozenek

The care packages included canned goods such as peas, carrots and cranberry sauce, plus instant mashed potatoes and gravy mix, as well as a frozen turkey.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Wily said, dodging a passing shopping cart filed with frozen turkeys. “These people can put together an entire Thanksgiving dinner with this and we’re helping them do that. It’s very heartwarming.”

A group of volunteers perused the line to offer warm greetings to people who had been waiting for hours in the dark. A security guard posted at the entrance controlled the flow in and out. Just inside at two tables, volunteers were handing out the packages.

Wily and her team distributed nearly 800 packages by noon. The Van Nuys pantry handed out nearly 900.

Both pantries operate Sunday through Thursday year-round and are closed on Shabbat. Businesses, schools, places of worship, community organizations and individuals contribute to the ongoing food drives. Last year, SOVA distributed 2.6 million pounds of food — over 100 tons each month.

Many of the volunteers at the Thanksgiving drive work at least once a week throughout the year, giving out groceries and toiletries. The pantries also offer a variety of services, including case management, vocational training, job-search assistance and legal counseling. Besides Thanksgiving, they also hold large drives to distribute meal packages on Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“But today is by far our biggest, busiest day of the year,” said Linda Alter, JFS of Los Angeles’ client services manager, who stood near the entrance, where grateful care-package recipients streamed in and out. “It’s very gratifying to see all of this come together.”

Alter said the preparations for each year’s Thanksgiving drive involve serious long-term planning. A few days prior, scores of volunteers, including many high school students, had spent a day assembling the care packages at the Van Nuys pantry, which has an attached warehouse. They also stored over 1,600 frozen turkeys there. Before 4 a.m. on the big day, volunteer drivers transferred nearly half the care packages and turkeys to the Pico-Robertson location.

“It’s just amazing that we’re able to do it,” Alter said. “Getting it all in order is definitely the hardest part. It all comes down to the volunteers.”

Ruthanne Rozenek, a Fairfax neighborhood resident and longtime member of Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills, was on the front lines inside the Pico-Robertson pantry in a hot-pink shirt and matching cap. A dedicated JFS volunteer, she has spent nearly every Monday morning and each Thanksgiving drive there for the last six years. When asked what keeps her coming back, she said it’s a combination of helping others and getting to see familiar faces.

“I just love it, love working here,” she said, distracted by a call for “More turkeys!” from down a hallway. “I love the camaraderie amongst the volunteers, and most of all I love the fact that we’re helping people. Here we feed all people. Even though this is a Jewish organization, we don’t just feed Jews. We feed everybody.”

Rozenek then apologized before rushing off to answer the call.

The line of people at the drive waiting on care packages came from all walks of life, including the neighborhood’s religious Jewish community. Inside, it wasn’t just Jews like Rozenek serving them. Several members from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, helped out. They were easy to spot in bright yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” vests.

Elder Lira, 20, who lives in Santa Monica, said that he and his fellow church elders rescheduled a missionary meeting to make sure they could pitch in for the Thanksgiving drive.

“We just look for any kind of service,” he said. “This is a place that seemed to really need our help, so we just keep coming back. It’s so enjoyable here and everyone is so nice.

Alter said the pantry’s Mormon volunteers are an indispensable part of the operation.

“They’re here all the time. They’re incredible. We couldn’t do this without them,” she said.

Many other Los Angeles Jewish institutions also give back in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Among them is the B’nai David–Judea Congregation, which held its 13th annual Tikkun Olam Thanksgiving lunch on Nov. 23. Student volunteers from YULA Boys High School and Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am cook and serve the food.

“It’s a really nice way to bridge these communities, these very different schools whose students volunteer, as well as the people who come for the lunch,” said Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Pressman’s school rabbi, who runs the Thanksgiving lunch every year.

Tureff added that he expected at least 60 homeless people to attend.

To make a contribution to the JFS of Los Angeles SOVA Community Food and Resource program, visit