April 2, 2020

North Hollywood Community Creates Interfaith Food Pantry

At Temple Beth Hillel, dedicated volunteers from various congregations assemble bags of food for the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry.

It’s Friday morning and the basement at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village is abuzz. Most of the regulars are here, including a group of men from Temple Beth Hillel and Adat Ari El synagogues. 

They begin by loading all the donated goods from the temple lobby onto carts to take to the basement. Once there, they sort everything: beans with beans, peanut butter with peanut butter, etc. Then they assemble bags of food, which are distributed twice weekly at First Christian Church of North Hollywood. Each month, the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry distributes about 1,000 bags of food.

“It’s one of the few groups where politics doesn’t enter into anything. People aren’t looking for recognition and everyone just pitches in,” said Harvey Reichard, a retired workers’ compensation attorney and former Temple Beth Hillel president who has been doing this for nearly 15 years. “We’re all just volunteers working together for a common cause: feeding people.”

It all started in 1982, when five women representing five congregations — Temple Beth Hillel, Adat Ari El, First Christian Church of North Hollywood, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City and Faith Presbyterian Church of North Hollywood —came up with the idea to start an interfaith food pantry. 

Rabbi Jim Kaufman, now rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Hillel, was the senior rabbi at the time. He remembers when one of the women, temple member Florence Adler, requested a meeting together with Marj Luke of what was then called First Presbyterian. The women told him they had secured a room at First Christian to distribute food to people in need. “But we don’t have a place to store it and bag it and do our stuff,” he recalled them saying.

Kaufman was on board immediately. “I said, ‘Great idea. We’ve got plenty of room here I think.’ ” Ten minutes later, the three headed down to the basement. Because it had long been a repository for everything, there was some cleaning out to be done. But a small area near the entrance was earmarked for the pantry, which officially opened in 1983. Kaufman also saw this as an opportunity for additional interfaith work and suggested an interfaith service be held the night before Thanksgiving. This annual service has continued year after year, rotating among the participating congregations.

Since those early days, pantry activities have grown to occupy a much larger portion of the expansive basement space. Nine additional congregations have joined the original five, although Temple Beth Hillel and Adat Ari El remain the only Jewish organizations. The food pantry also receives support from the Bagel Brigade, which sources still good, day-old baked goods from markets and bakeries around the city.

The volunteers who deliver, unload, organize and pack food in the Temple Beth Hillel basement are diverse. On this particular morning, the groups consist mainly of retirees. But for the past few years, a small group of young adults from Tierra del Sol, which serves people with disabilities, has been volunteering at Temple Beth Hillel and in doing so, learning warehouse skills. Several have gone on to land paid warehouse jobs elsewhere.

“Volunteering for the food pantry has been a rite of passage for so many people. It is at the heart and core of the congregation.” — Rabbi Sarah Hronsky

It is not uncommon to have an elementary school student working alongside an octogenarian in the basement. Students and families from many of the local schools, public and private, including Temple Beth Hillel’s day school and religious school, regularly volunteer. And many a bar and bat mitzvah student has made the pantry their mitzvah project, including Ben Brachman. 

The 14-year-old Sherman Oaks resident started volunteering with his mother, Rachel, well before his bar mitzvah. But he decided to make it his mitzvah project and continues to volunteer most Sundays because, “I know I’m making a difference.” Plus, it’s quality time with his mother, not to mention the two have become quite the tag team over the years, able to assemble bags extremely efficiently.

“Volunteering for the food pantry has been a rite of passage for so many people,” said Sarah Hronksy, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel. “It is at the heart and core of the congregation.”

Hronsky also emphasizes that the pantry serves a much wider swath of Angelenos than many might imagine. “People think the pantry only provides to the homeless,” she said. But it also serves many senior citizens who would otherwise have to choose between heat, rent or food, she said. “There’s a family that attends all of our local schools. That’s where they get their food every week,” she added. “You don’t know that the kid sitting next to your kid in class doesn’t have food. To serve those who are at risk, but also your neighbor who you don’t realize is having a hard time. … It’s a very large and beautiful endeavor of interfaith work.”