Thirteen years ago, David Nimmer, a 62-year-old copyright lawyer, was listening to a sermon inside the sukkah at B’nai David Congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
“In the dvar Torah from that day,” Nimmer recalled, “God says, ‘I want you to do my work.’ That’s healing the sick, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”
Two days later, Nimmer, B’nai David’s former president, organized breakfast in the sukkah for homeless residents of the area.
Only one homeless person came.
“Well, that was just the beginning,” he said with a chuckle.
Now in its “bar mitzvah year,” as Nimmer refers to it, B’nai David’s lunch program feeds about 100 people each month. With Nimmer as its lead architect, the program consists of two monthly lunches: one for mainly members of the Russian-Jewish community and another for all comers.
They also host special meals for the homeless on Jewish holidays and a Thanksgiving lunch that attracts about 60 guests each year.
B’nai David members, as well as student volunteers from Pressman Academy, Yeshivat Yavneh and the Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA Boys and Girls), prepare and serve the food, which often consists of traditional Shabbos lunch dishes like cholent and cucumber-and-orange salad. To pay for the food each month, Nimmer uses his personal connections to recruit local businesses as lunch sponsors.
People from all walks of life frequent the monthly lunches — Jewish, non-Jewish, homeless and affluent. For Nimmer, the main benefit for guests, shul members and volunteers alike is the shared humanity and unlikely conversations each meal brings.
“Homeless people confound your expectations.”
“The main thing is to just have all the people mixed up and spread out so they talk to people they don’t know,” he said. “We tell the local school kids not to sit with their friends. We tell them to sit with people you don’t know and ask them where they’re from. Homeless people confound your expectations. There’s a lot of political conversation. We want these kids to know that these aren’t scary people. They have histories, stories, hopes and dreams.”
Nimmer said that many of the student volunteers, upon graduating, cite the lunches as among the most impactful memories from their high school years.
“They always talk about the interesting people they met at the lunches,” he said.
Nimmer’s wife, Marcia, and his five grown children also pitch in and help with the lunches. Over the years, many of the guests have watched his kids grow up, he said.
“The guests will see my kids … and they’ll shout at them, ‘You’re back! Where are you at in school now?’ It’s fun,” he said.
Besides the food and fellowship, Nimmer focuses on a third crucial component each month: the entertainment.
There’s typically a sermon or text study, which helps engage Jewish and non-Jewish guests in conversation. On occasion, Nimmer has invited priests or evangelical authors to speak, just to shake up things.
Other gatherings feature parlor games or musicians whom Nimmer invites to perform. At a recent lunch, Nimmer said, a homeless Jewish man who brought his guitar with him stepped in for a canceled act and performed many of Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits. He even dissected verses of “Hallelujah,” discussing their meaning, as if the lyrics were words of
“My takeaway is that these lunches are miraculous,” Nimmer said. “The joke is that a miracle at every lunch is the norm.”