“Tikkun olam” is a Hebrew phrase meaning to repair or heal the world. On Wednesday, a couple of dozen students from the Hebrew School at Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven did their part to make that a reality. They loaded 128 bags of nonperishable food into vehicles to be transported to the Island Food Pantry located a few blocks away at Christ United Methodist Church. The students ranged from ages six or seven to teenagers, and they made a pretty effective assembly line once they made it to the food pantry, passing bag after bag to each other until they filled the floor of one of the stock rooms in the pantry.
Grocery bags provided by Cronig’s were distributed at the Hebrew Center at the start of the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Since the middle of September, the congregation filled the bags with everything from coffee to Ramen noodles. Rabbi Caryn Broitman explained that charity is an important aspect of living the Jewish faith.
“An important part of our holiday period for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur involves the giving of tzedakah, or charity,” the rabbi said. “The root of tzedakah is justice, so it isn’t only charity but a sense of obligation toward making the world a more just place for all. Our Torah teaches that it is a community responsibility to take care of those who are hungry or oppressed among us.”
The food drive is an important part of the way the faith community begins their New Year, she said.
“We are blessed to have the Rev. Armen Hanjian, the director of the pantry, as an active participant in our community, so we feel a very personal connection as well. We feel very close to and appreciative of the work of the Island Food Pantry.
“It has helped our members, our friends and our fellow Islanders, and is there when any of us needs it. We feel, along with all our fellow faith communities and Islanders, that it is our basic responsibility to make sure that every single person on this Island has enough to eat and sustain themselves in a healthy way.”
And for the young people, she said, there’s no better way to teach than to “do.”
“It is a lot of work to bring over 125 bags or so and the kids are great helpers. They get the satisfaction of knowing they are doing good and they also get to see the food pantry for themselves,” Rabbi Broitman said.
Some of the older students are preparing for their bar or bat mitzvahs so along with study, acts of charity bring their faith to life. Jesse Herman is a 16-year-old student at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and after school on Wednesdays he volunteers at the Hebrew School. It has been only a few years since his own bar mitzvah, he said, so he can relate to the younger ones preparing for theirs now.
“Hebrew is a very hard language to learn and then you have to learn it without vowels and when you read from the Torah you have to have a certain rhythm,” he said. “Then there are service projects you have to do. Your bar mitzvah is the most important thing you do from the day you are born. It means you become a full member of the Jewish community. In the eyes of the Jewish community you are not a kid anymore.
Part of that is that you have to try to put in your one percent, you know, making the world a better place.”
Reverend Hanjian watched as the students carried bag after bag into the food pantry, sometimes cautioning them when they came close to stepping on the bounty. A way to put the donation in perspective, he said, is that each bag likely contains $30 worth of food multiplied by 128 bags is nearly $4,000 in groceries.
The Island Food Pantry feeds the hungry living all over the Island, Mr. Hanjian said. Last year the pantry helped 523 families, representing nearly 1,000 people on the Vineyard, according to his seasonal report. Some families come once or twice and others rely on the pantry on a regular basis.
He began volunteering at the pantry in 1996, and he said the number of visits has risen annually from 900 then to 2,700 last year. The pantry exists due to the generosity of the community. It does not receive government funding or assistance, Mr. Hanjian said. Community members provide monetary and food donations and the purple bins at area businesses and religious centers serve as a reminder to think about neighbors who may not have enough to eat.
“When you don’t have enough money you patch this and that together,” Mr. Hanjian said. “This is one of those patches. When you make cuts, one of the places you cut down on is food.”
When members of the community donate items it helps offset the money necessary to buy the food when the donations run short. In 2011-2012 the pantry saw a record income of $98,075 and record expenditures of $95,345. Nine out of the past 15 years, the pantry has spent more money than it received, Mr. Hanjian said. The difference is met using proceeds from an endowment.
There are 70 volunteers who help operate the food pantry. Besides stocking shelves and organizing the items into categories, they are there on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m. when visitors can stop by for three bags of groceries per family — one for nonperishable food items, one for fresh fruit and vegetables, and one made up of their choice of miscellaneous items. The food pantry operates from mid-October to mid-April and those who contact the pantry the rest of the year are also helped on an emergency basis.
Youngsters at the Hebrew School gain a valuable life lesson through the annual food drive and those who are hungry benefit from their giving.
Twelve-year-old Sydney Jasny is preparing for her bat mitzvah coming up in March. She has a good perspective on helping her neighbors.
“I especially enjoy helping the food pantry because the food goes to families here so that they can have good meals just like everybody else on the Island.”
The Island Food Pantry has been feeding the hungry on the Vineyard since 1981. For information call 508-693-4764, or send donations to The Island Food Pantry, P.O. Box 1874, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.