It’s a universal truth that wherever we go in this life, we inevitably bring things from our past. It’s certainly true of Jim Stoloff, who’s been the rabbi at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge since July 2019.
While there’s probably much that Rabbi Jim — as he calls himself — has brought with him to the congregation, including his open and friendly attitude, perhaps one of the most compelling is a social action initiative to pack nutritious food for the hungry around the world, along with his association with an organization that does it, Rise Against Hunger.
In its mission statement on its website, Rise Against Hunger describes itself as “a global movement to end hunger by empowering communities, nourishing lives and responding to emergencies.”
Rabbi Stoloff came to TAS after eight years in the pulpit at Temple Israel, a large Reform synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side. That’s where he first learned about Rise Against Hunger, and where he first worked with the group. He found that not only were the volunteers able to help other people, but also that the multigenerational families who came to work were able to grow from the experience.
Rabbi Stoloff was so impressed by Rise Against Hunger that he decided it was one of the things from his past he would bring with him to TAS. “Unfortunately, we had to wait until the pandemic was on the wane to schedule a day to do it,” he said. The synagogue’s Rise Against Hunger Day finally happened last Sunday, and according to a grateful Rabbi Stoloff, it was a great success.
More than 140 people — Rabbi Stoloff thinks it might have been 150 but so many people were there, packing, that he stopped counting — came to the synagogue to prepare and assemble 20,088 meals to be distributed by Rise Against Hunger, and they did it in just under two hours.
The organization started small. It was founded more than 20 years ago in Raleigh, North Carolina, and back then it accepted in-kind donations and medical supplies that it sent on to communities identified as being in need.
By 2000, its approach changed. The group began to buy mammoth-sized bags of dried food components, which it stored in regional warehouses — there are now 19 such facilities, including one in Newark — and then distributed to volunteer organizations that broke them down into meal-size packs.
Rise Against Hunger — the name it took in 2015 — works only with school feeding programs, orphanages, hospitals, or vocational training programs; it has a network of on-the-ground partners in 41 countries.
According to its website, 820 million people lack the nutrition necessary to lead active, healthy lives. Rise Against Hunger fights that by sending food that is not only nutritious but appealing, and it knows that in order to get children to eat food, it has to taste good. And it doesn’t have to taste good in general, it has to taste good, very specifically, to them.
Understanding that food that’s popular in Burkina Faso isn’t necessarily so India or in any of the 41 countries in the world where Rise Against Hunger is active, the organization distributes meals that can be tailored to the tastes of a particular destination.
The basic food it gives out is a bland, oatmeal-textured rice cereal — its components include dried soy, dried veggies, some type of multi-protein and vitamin, and rice. That sounds like something no kid would find palatable. But when it gets to the villages and the schools where it’s served, it’s seasoned in ways that local kids like.
“The first time I tried it, I put brown sugar and maple syrup in mine,” Rabbi Stoloff said.
Rise Against Hunger has continued to grow by word of mouth. Back when Rabbi Stoloff first encountered it, its closest warehouse was in Boston. The warehouse in Newark is a recent addition. That made TAS’s food-packing day much easier to arrange.
Every Rise Against Hunger event follows a strict pattern. A representative from the group arrives two hours before the action is to take place. Last Sunday, that was Rob Whitaker, its New York/New Jersey community engagement manager. A couple of volunteers arrive early to help him unpack the truck, which is loaded with all the component parts, those huge bags of rice, soy, dried veggies, proteins, and vitamins.
When the rest of the volunteers arrive, they listen to a short tutorial on how the packing is done. Safety protocols are strict. Each volunteer wears a hairnet, gloves, and, in the time of covid, a mask.
The packing is broken up into stations. The first stations have cups of different sizes reserved for each ingredient. The dried soy, veggies, protein, and vitamin mix go in the meal-size bags first. Rice always goes in last. The assembled packages are weighed at the next stations. “You have to know the number of grams in each bag and that it’s the right limit,” Mr. Whitaker said. “At this station you take out rice if the package is too heavy or put more in if it’s too light.”
After that, the packages go to the final station, where each is weighed again, sealed, packed into boxes, and put back in the truck. Back at the warehouse in Newark, and boxes are put into huge shipping containers, along with thousands of boxes packed by other volunteer organizations. Each container is marked for a destination and will contain 285,000 meals for one of Rise Against Hunger’s partner organizations.
“The next people who open the boxes are at the destinations,” . Mr. Whitaker said. “I like to think about the joy the teacher who opens a box feels as she or he gives out the food to the children.” And it’s at that stage that the individual flavors are added, customizing the meals.
Sometimes, a chicken or fish broth is added. In parts of India, children get red curry; the curry is more likely to be green in Thailand. In Zambia, the food is cooked in vats and seasoned with chunks of root vegetables, mostly yams. In parts of Niger, it’s cooked in vats, seasoned, and then doled out in flat pans.
“It’s not just the food, but the energy kids then have to study, and ultimately have options in their lives they wouldn’t have because volunteers put that meal in a box, in places like Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, New Jersey,” Mr. Whitaker said.
In recent years, Rise Against Hunger has relied on corporations to pack large numbers of meals. Since the pandemic, however, with employees working remotely, the group has had to rely on houses of worship to make up the difference. Now, Rabbi Stoloff said, its only local connections are to Avodat Shalom and to Temple Israel in Manhattan. It’s looking for other synagogues; any synagogue representative who is interested should email Rob Whitaker at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.