Like so many things, Mount Zion’s planned hands-on, all-ages mitzvah day which had been scheduled for the spring of 2020, got put on a pause. That was until May 7, when more than 250 people of all ages came to Neighborhood House in St. Paul to help learn about food insecurity and pack 27,000 meals for people in need.
Neighborhood House was founded in 1897 by the women of Mount Zion as a safe haven for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Russia. It has grown into a presence for the St. Paul community helping people in need, from offering assistance with basic needs from food to housing, as well as education services and programming, among others.
“On every Yom Kippur at every synagogue, people are bringing bags of food to a food shelf,” said Shai Avny, the executive director of Mount Zion. “When I got to Mount Zion, I said ‘Okay, this is nice. But I don’t have a personal connection to Neighborhood House. So it’s just another bag of food, which is a big impact, but it’s not the same.”
The meals packed were donated to Rise Against Hunger, an organization that responds to hunger emergencies around the world. Attendees also got to learn about MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the US and Israel.
Jennifer Mason, a Mount Zion congregant and parent of students in the Hebrew school, was one of the organizers of the event. She said that students have been encouraged to bring non-perishable canned goods to Sunday school each week, as well as tzedakah, which would go to Neighborhood House.
“So from the kids’ perspective, when they got to walk through the food shelf it was explained to them all the food that you’re donating, both what they brought [to the event], as well as what they do on Yom Kippur food drive, as well as what they used to do in Sunday School this is where all the food goes,” she said. “It was a great connection for a lot of our students and families. For me as a parent … I got to look at my kids’ faces as they were going through the food shelf, and them seeing that recognition.”
Sue Summit, Mount Zion’s religious school director, said that in the three years since the program was originally planned, the event has grown substantially – which included adding Mazon to the mix as well as a station for Rabbi Adam Spilker to talk about the history of Mount Zion’s connection to Neighborhood House.
“I really wanted that station added because when I first came on as the director, we had a staff retreat over there and Rabbi Spilker showed me the mosaic and gave the whole introduction on our connection,” Summit said. “Everybody needs to hear that. For the kids to actually experience that it’s not something they can imagine – they have to see it for themselves.”
Avny said that in addition to the meals that were packed, participants donated 1,500 pounds of food, and he thanked Kowalski’s Markets, RBC Financial, the Women of Mount Zion Temple and the synagogue’s brotherhood for helping raise money. He also said that an anonymous donor gave a $6,000 matching donation.
“Many people asked about volunteer options – adults and kids,” Avny said. “And one congregant said that she is going to add Neighborhood House to her monthly donation list. We wanted to create this feeling that we are connected. This is something that we want to do as a community.”