Rolling up our sleeves
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Rolling up our sleeves

Why we should pitch in and help the less fortunate

As a Jew, “calling” – as in “having a calling” – isn’t something I hear often in conversation. But I heard it Sunday morning as I worked with about 25 other volunteers sorting food for the Center for Food Action in Saddle Brook.

What I heard was this: “I skipped church this morning to do this, but I guess it was a higher calling.” The statement was echoed and applauded by several other volunteers.

My first (childishly defensive) instinct was to look around and try to calculate how many of the volunteers were Jews. Sadly, the number wasn’t high. And frankly, I was a bit jealous. After all, we may not have a “calling,” but as a community, we do have a highly developed social conscience.

According to Jennifer Johnson, CFA’s director of communications, the number of people requiring food assistance is rising.

She said that the food sorted on Sunday would be distributed among the group’s eight sites. In addition to its headquarters in Englewood and venues in Fairview, Hackensack, Mahwah, Ridgefield, Ringwood, and Saddle Brook, CFA recently opened a site at Bergen Community College for students and faculty.

“Many faculty members are adjunct and not full-time,” she said. “They are also struggling.”

Last year, CFA distributed 70,124 emergency food packages, each package containing “anywhere from four to 10 bags of food. Some recipients are repeat, but not that many,” Ms. Johnson said. Distributions are made on a monthly basis.

“We’re a safety net to help people get through a crisis,” she said. “We were not developed to handle the need we’re now seeing.”

Johnson said food donations are not matching the number of food requests received. In addition, “right now if a person calls and needs food, we have to ask them to wait. It used to be you could come in a day or two. We don’t have enough food, and people in crisis have to wait.”

Besides seeking increased donations, the CFA is also requesting that donors check expiration dates. “We have to throw a lot away,” she said, noting that some people donate food past these dates. “Legally, we’re not allowed to give it out.”

She said the greatest need is for high-protein items such as tuna, hearty soups, and canned meats. CFA also welcomes supermarket gift cards and “cold, hard cash, allowing us to buy what’s needed. We can maximize these purchases,” filling in items that have not been donated.

Ms. Johnson hopes readers will “spread the word on Facebook and Twitter or host a food drive.” She wants people to realize that while our area is “so affluent, so many don’t have food.”

Running after Irwin Vogelman, CFA’s director of food resources, on Sunday – he was hard to catch as he simultaneously supervised, sorted, and schlepped the canned and boxed food – I asked him how often he coordinates such large-scale food-sorting events.

We sort it when we get it, he said, adding that the reason such a large effort was necessary now was because of Thanksgiving. People have been donating the extra food they bought for the holiday.

And that’s the problem, he said. Despite what seemed like huge quantities of food – carton after carton of canned soups and vegetables, a ridiculous amount of cranberry sauce, yams, and gravy – this food will not last long. And without a holiday like Thanksgiving to prod donors, it’s unlikely that such a large volunteer effort will be needed again soon.

But wait, I thought. What about Chanukah? What about channeling our gift-giving impulses in a different direction? (Granted, I should have written this last week, before we joined the thronging multitudes in local malls.) And even if we’ve used up our gift-giving allowance, we can still give of ourselves, offering our hands-on help to groups such as CFA, which struggle to fill a gaping hole in society’s safety net.

If only as a matter of communal pride, we should be in the front lines of such an effort. No doubt, many of CFA’s food donations are made by Jews, whether from shuls or by individuals. And indeed, giving food – and money – is crucial, and we must try to increase our current offerings.

But we must also join the ranks of those who show up. To use a sports metaphor, we must run onto the field and show that we’re ready to play. If the metaphor is a bit shaky, the reasons for it are rock solid – and the need is critical.

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