Rodef Sholom is creating community with free meals one challah at a time

It’s late Thursday morning, and the smell of baking challah is so powerful it wafts through the lobby of Congregation Rodef Sholom and into the parking lot. If this were a cartoon, people entering the San Rafael synagogue would be following the scent with their noses in the air, eyes closed, until they reached the warm, fluffy source.

At the source,  however, in a kitchen near the back of the building, the man responsible for this overwhelming aroma barely notices it anymore. In a white chef’s coat and baseball cap, Jeff Kirshbaum — known in these parts as Chef Jeff — clearly has his routine down, as he slides another tray of bread into one oven, then spins around to chop salad ingredients, all the while giving instructions to his volunteer prep crew.

“Does it need more seasoning?” he shouts to Dan Goltz, a retired architect and regular volunteer, who’s presiding over today’s entrée, a hearty beef and vegetable stew. Goltz tastes a spoonful, adds a bit more salt and pepper. “Got it,” he responds. “It’s almost done.”


Jeff Kirshbaum in the kitchen at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. photo/courtesy of congregation rodef sholom

This is the Mitzvah Kitchen, where, at least once a week, there really is such thing as a free lunch.


The program began in 2004 as a challah bakery and delivery service for elderly or disabled congregants. It was the brainchild of Rodef Sholom’s Rabbi Michael Lezak and Kirshbaum’s wife, Judi, as a way to put the retired chef’s culinary skills to use at the synagogue.

Quickly, however, the program became so popular that Kirshbaum added a paying component. Congregants could sign up to receive a weekly challah delivery — and/or meals at holiday times — with 100 percent of the proceeds going toward youth programs at Rodef Sholom.

In 2010, Kirshbaum started expanding the holiday menus, drawing on his mother’s recipes for brisket, matzah ball soup and more. He also started baking and selling artisanal bread, a different kind each week.

Chef Jeff and his crew cook a balanced, fresh meal each Thursday morning, and volunteer drivers deliver the free meals to around 20 congregants that afternoon, along with the subscription challahs. One recent menu, just before Rosh Hashanah, included stew, green salad, fruit salad, cornbread and honey cake.

The roster of recipients for the free meals changes each week, at the discretion of an administrative team that determines who in the congregation most needs the assistance; many are elderly or disabled people who have trouble shopping or cooking for themselves.

One thing that’s consistent: Everyone involved — from Kirshbaum to the volunteer prep cooks and drivers, to the recipients — says the project means the world to them.

“It’s amazing the connection that you can make with a meal,” says Kirshbaum, watching a pair of volunteers as they pour cornbread batter into pans. “What’s a loaf of bread? Three, four dollars? But the connection is what it’s all about. We like to say we’re building community one loaf at a time.”

Challah remains the cornerstone of the program. Free loaves go to people in need, and are also sent to welcome new congregants and babies, congratulate bar and bat mitzvah families, and comfort mourners.

Kirshbaum attended culinary school in San Francisco in the early 1990s, then briefly operated two delicatessens in the city — Shenson’s in the Richmond District and Kirshbaum’s in the Financial District —with his son, Noah. After they closed, his passion for cooking, especially home-style Jewish cuisine,  remained.


Dan Goltz pours some wine into a stew. photo/emma silvers

After meeting with Lezak, Kirshbaum and his wife donated a lot of equipment, including commercial ovens and refrigerators, to the congregation in order to get the Mitzvah Kitchen up and running.


And though the couple also pays for the ingredients, Kirshbaum is quick to deflect accolades for the charity’s work. For the past eight years, he says, a mish-mash team of regular volunteers has been the real force behind the kitchen’s growth.

Ken King, a longshoreman who lives nearby, works all night, then comes to work at the synagogue in the morning. He’s one of the regulars.

“When I first heard about it, it just seemed like a natural thing to do. People are hungry, you gotta feed them,” he says, adding that he has “zero” cooking experience. “I’m doing something that helps people, and it also helps me stay connected to people. And I’m having a great time. ”

Out in the lobby, volunteer driver Ilene Pearce is labeling envelopes for the Rodef Sholom office while she waits for her day’s assignment. Pearce moved to Marin eight months ago, and Moji Javid Smulewitz, the congregation’s director of community connections, suggested she join the Mitzvah Kitchen.

“I’ve met the most incredible people, even made some really close friends,” says Pearce, also a trained counselor. “I’ve been invited into people’s homes to play cards. I’ve sat with people who were having surgery the next day. And because of my background, I’m always happy to sit there and say ‘Tell me about how you’re feeling.’”

For Meg Eldelson, a congregant who’s been disabled and largely homebound for the last 13 years, receiving the meals a few times a year is her connection to the congregation.

“Moji will call and say ‘Do you need anything?’ and somehow it’s always at the perfect time, when we needed a little more help,” says Edelson, who lives with her husband in Mill Valley. “Once I had to go visit a doctor , and when we came home the food was just sitting there all wrapped up on the porch.

“Especially since I can’t make it to services anymore, it’s wonderful to feel included,” she adds.

Back in the kitchen, Kirshbaum glances over a spreadsheet of Rosh Hashanah orders: 100 pounds of brisket, 40 quarts of matzah ball soup and 75 special round challahs — with more paid orders still to come.

“That should [earn] over $1,000 for the temple,” he says, estimating that the Mitzvah Kitchen has raised almost $50,000 for Rodef Sholom’s youth programs.

The volunteers take pride in the money total, but they say you can’t put a number on how rewarding it feels to be part of the program.

“Even if I’ve had a rotten day,” Pearce says, “I can walk in here, smell that bread baking, find out where they’re sending me, and then I get to watch these people’s faces light up when I’m coming up their steps.

“I can’t imagine ever giving this up. It’s just too sweet.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.