Every Sunday evening, Aviva Allen and Al Efremoff, who made aliyah from Englewood, and their children, Mayan, 19; Dalia 17; Uriel, 15; and Avital, 8, pack meals for the needy of Israel.
“Their devotion redefines volunteering,” Rabbi Menachem Traxler said. “No matter the weather, or covid, no matter what is going on, unless they are out of town they always come.”
Rabbi Traxler is director of volunteering for Colel Chabad and the founder and director of its Pantry Packers program in Jerusalem. The program welcomes community members and tourist groups to give an hour or two of their time to provide nutritional support to those less fortunate.
Started in January 2013, Pantry Packers now delivers monthly grocery boxes to 10,800 families. Each box contains nonperishable goods such as flour, sugar, salt, oil, canned vegetables, legumes, rice, bulgur, cereal, spices, and grape juice. Costs are kept low by buying items such as rice in bulk and packaging them inhouse.
The Efremoff family discovered Pantry Packers six years ago, when they were looking for a meaningful activity to do with Aviva’s parents during a visit from Englewood.
“It’s right up the block from us so we went and that was it — we were hooked,” Ms. Allen said.
“We loved packing the food, we loved the idea of why we were doing it, and we loved that it was a great family activity. We began volunteering often.”
More recently, Pantry Packers partnered with Leket, Israel’s national food recovery network — founded, incidentally, by Joseph Gitler, who made aliyah from Teaneck. Leket volunteers collect surplus food from corporate cafeterias, army bases, and hotels and bring it to Pantry Packers.
“Since we already had walk-in refrigerators and follow Health Ministry regulations, it was easy for us to designate a section of Pantry Packers for this partnership,” Rabbi Traxler said.
The food is refrigerated and repackaged nightly by volunteers for distribution to underprivileged children and seniors, including Holocaust survivors, and to Colel Chabad’s four soup kitchens.
“About 250 to 300 meals go out of this kitchen five days a week,” Rabbi Traxler said.
Each evening, a different family is assigned to accomplish that task. The Efremoffs are one of those families.
Ms. Allen explained that when Rabbi Traxler told them about the Leket partnership about three years ago, the idea that some of this rescued food was going to Holocaust survivors struck a chord. Mayan had just returned from her class trip to Poland, a rite of passage for most Israeli high schoolers.
“We all jumped in, and we’ve done it once a week since then,” Ms. Allen said. “We’re just one gear in the machine. We go on Sundays because my husband works American hours and that’s the only evening he can do it.”
The number of meals they prepare — each including a vegetable, carb, and protein — depends on the amount of surplus food rescued that week.
“We time ourselves so it’s like a race,” Ms. Allen said. “The kids enjoy coming back because we’ve made it into a competition to get it done as fast as we can. Our record length was 348 minutes, but generally we spend around an hour to an hour and a half.”
The family developed an efficient operating system based on everyone’s capabilities.
“There are stickers that need to be date stamped, so Avital’s job is to stamp them and put them on the covers of the containers,” Ms. Allen said. “Dalia gives everyone what they need. It’s like a conveyor belt, and we each keep to our tasks.”
Ms. Allen said her children have learned the value of teamwork and much more. “They know that everyone in Israel deserves to get a meal a day, whatever situation they’re in. In a broader sense, they realize we need to improve things in our world. They see this food that would have gone into the garbage going to good use.”
A strong sense of community responsibility was ingrained in Ms. Allen from childhood. Her father, Albert (Avraham) Allen, who died three years ago, was a main founder of the Sephardic Center of Congregation Ahavath Torah nearly 40 years ago. He and his wife, Sarah, had grown up in Egypt and were concerned that non-Ashkenazic children in the Englewood community would lose sight of their unique traditions.
The Allen house always was open to guests.
“I was very blessed to grow up in a home that was very much like Avraham and Sarah’s tent, and in fact those are my parents’ names,” Ms. Allen said. “We always had people at our Shabbat table, different people from different backgrounds. My parents welcomed everyone with open arms. That affected me and my siblings.”
Of the four Allen children, three live in Israel with their families. Rabbi Ely Allen lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and Elana Allen lives next door to the Efremoffs in Jerusalem. Their brother Michael lives in Paramus, and their mother, Sarah Allen, now lives in Fort Lee.
Before making aliyah about 10 years ago, Aviva Allen was a teacher at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus and at Chabad of Tenafly.
Pantry Packers isn’t the only family activity the Efremoffs enjoy together, even now that Mayan is a soldier. About once a week they travel to Palmachim Beach on the Mediterranean shore, Ms. Allen said. “We love Jerusalem, but we also love the beach!”
For anyone coming to visit from abroad — once foreign residents are permitted entry again — Pantry Packers is “a wonderful, fun experience for all ages that would be a shame to miss,” Ms. Allen said. “You get to give back to our land. It’s not exhausting, it’s not long, it’s centrally located, and you feel good about yourself afterward.”
Go to the website, pantrypackers.org, to learn more and schedule a visit.