Turning a holiday on its head
By: Isaac Ansell Forsyth
On a sunny Thursday morning in the holy city of Jerusalem, Yeshivat Shapell’s -Darche Noam embarked on a unique chesed mission.
The yeshiva boys journeyed to a humble building in the city’s Ramat Rachel neighbourhood, where they were suited-up with labourer’s apparel, and introduced to some heavy machinery. Ninety minutes later, several kilos of rice had been packaged for distribution to hungry families all around Israel.
Pantry Packers is a food-distribution initiative of Colel Chabad. Founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman ztz”l (the Alter Rebbe) himself in 1788, Colel Chabad aims to provide material help to needy families throughout the Holy Land. It prides itself in supporting Jews of all ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and religious observances. Impressively, they work together with government agencies and the IDF in order to organise a needs-based and efficient distribution of their vast array of social services, especially during times of particular crisis.
The organisation identified that hunger is a serious concern in Israel. They note: “Israel is the land of ‘Milk and Honey’. But for one in five people in Israel, hunger is a very real struggle.” According to the National Insurance Institute (2012) there are 1.75 million Israelis living in poverty. This includes 23% of elderly people, many of whom are holocaust survivors, and a high number of single-parent families. Pantry Packers notes, however, that hunger affects people from all areas of Israeli society. As South Africa knows all too well, hunger and poverty are not the end of the story, but rather have trickle-down effects for the physical and mental wellbeing of the individual and the nation.
Enter Pantry Packers with a bold new concept: Tikkun Olam Tourism. In this ninety-minute experience, groups are invited to pack containers of non-perishable food staples destined for needy families throughout the country. Menachem Traxler, Director of Volunteering at Pantry Packers, explains: “It’s so different to have a hands-on project instead of just writing out a cheque. People ask me occasionally ‘why a fish and not a fishing rod?’ Well, I say, why not both? We have to understand that in order to hold that rod, one cannot be hungry. We are just a part of the process that helps people get out of poverty and I am proud and happy that we are able to do that. We literally pack Tikkun Olam into tourism.”
The process begins with a video introduction to the work of Pantry Packers and the details of the food-packaging operation in which the group is about to participate. The group then dons aprons, gloves, and caps, and is given a guided tour of the machinery. They then divide up into individual roles for labelling, filling, and sealing the bags of the food item, as well as making and packing the boxes. Shapell’s student Yisroel Ragosin commented, “It was fascinating to see the whole process of what goes into such an operation. And it was fun, as chesed should be! Ivdu et Hashem besimcha! (Serve Hashem with joy!)”
The venture offers an opportunity for groups to join together to do a day of chesed, including bar/bat-mitzvah parties, family groups, schools, and all different kinds of tourists. The products are labelled with a sticker bearing the name of the packing party, immortalising the group in chesed history.
This wonderful concept of Tikkun Olam Tourism is not to be confused with “voluntourism”, the name given to the phenomenon of affluent youngsters travelling to foreign lands to contribute to some society in a way they feel that society needs. Rather, Pantry Packers is run by Israelis for the Israeli community. It works with the government to establish the needs of poor families in Israel, and Tikkun Olam Tourism allows visitors to make a genuine and meaningful contribution to meeting these needs.
Devorah Levine Katz of Toronto said, “My family loved this experience! My kids and nieces and nephews ages 4-15 really got into packaging and felt like they were truly giving. A great way to help out!”
Visit: pantrypackers.org or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeard in the March 2016 Issue of Jewish Life magazine. To read the complete issue, please download the free Jewish Life app and select this issue.