Kosher lunch at JCCSF: a program non-Jews are sinking their teeth into

San Francisco is home to many subsidized senior lunch programs, but only one offers up kosher fare with a side of Judaism.

The Kosher Lunch Program at the JCC of San Francisco serves as many as 90 seniors six days a week and has been operating in various iterations for several decades, program director Shiva Schulz said.

But despite being the only free kosher lunch program for seniors in the city, only a handful of Jews attend. Many attendees are Asian, and some are practicing Christians.

So what brings them out to a Jewish Community Center for kosher lunches?

“I think it’s perfect because [the food] is not greasy and mostly vegetarian,” said Suzuko Turman, a Japanese American woman who was dining at a recent JCC lunch with her husband, George. “Japanese people don’t eat too many greasy things. When I grew up 80 years ago, I ate pretty simple food, just like the Jewish people.”

Schulz elaborated on what makes the lunch program so popular among seniors irrespective of religion.

Eating lunch at the JCC of San Francisco photo/sasha gulish

“It’s menu-driven,” she said. “People always think that’s [a joke], but it’s true. There are days, like when we have salmon, where we have to bring out way more tables. These people shop around.”

The seniors whose thriftiness and discerning palates land them at the JCCSF get an extra helping of Jewish tradition on Fridays and Jewish holidays. With Shabbat just a few hours away, every Friday meal features a candlelighting, and every other Friday the JCC brings in Jhos Singer.

Singer, who goes by the title of maggid (spiritual leader) but whom the lunch attendees call rabbi, has a long history of interfaith work and delights in working with the seniors twice a month. After taking over the Jewish education aspect of the lunch last November, Singer said one of the first things he did was teach the seniors how to greet each other in Hebrew.

“When I got done, Paul, an older Chinese guy, says, ‘Hey, rabbi! You say this ‘Sabba Shalo, Sabba Shalo,’ but what does it mean?’” Singer recounted. After offering an explanation, he asked if Paul was satisfied.

“Yeah it’s helpful,” Paul said, according to Singer. “But we’re Chinese. We need it written down. We need a handout.”

Thus began Singer’s practice of bringing handouts, heavy on imagery and light on text for those whose English skills may be lacking. It was only later that Singer learned Paul was actually a retired minister.

“He knew full well what ‘Shabbat Shalom’ meant,” Singer said. “He was just being a really good mentor to me, like, ‘Dude, you need to get your act together,’ which was fabulous.”

Singer has another favorite story, this one involving an elderly Chinese woman. After Singer taught her the Shabbat greeting — and it wasn’t easy! — she immediately said to him that she now wanted to learn the Hebrew words for “thank you” and “how are you.”

“I’m like, ‘Hold it, what’s going on here?” Singer said.

It turned out her son had married a Jewish woman, and the couple was raising their son as a Jew. The elderly lady wanted to be able to greet everyone at her grandson’s bar mitzvah.

For Singer, that was a defining moment. In his mind, he shouted out to the program’s funders, “OK, there you go! … You want your proof [of the program’s effectiveness]? Here it is!”

Added Singer: “If we are able to connect a young Jew to his Chinese grandma because she’s coming to our cheap lunch and we’re giving her words of the tribal language to bring her into the tribe, what more could we want?”

The lunch program has changed over the years. Once it included delivering food to seniors around the city. Also, the JCC used to prepare the food in house, but now gets the lunches catered by the Jewish Home of San Francisco.

A cadre of volunteers helps things run smoothly. One of them is Laurence Moy, who has been volunteering with his wife, Priscilla, since 1996. “In the beginning I didn’t find it so rewarding, because some hungry seniors are mean,” Laurence said with a laugh.

The Moys, who are not Jewish, have enjoyed the experience. “We pick up a lot about Jewish people, about their food, about the culture,” Priscilla said. “Before, we didn’t know anything about Jews.”

For funding, the lunch program draws heavily on grants from Jewish foundations, and seniors are asked to donate $2.

And though there is Jewish content, the JCC doesn’t force anything on anybody. “We definitely try to make it as inclusive as possible,” Schulz said. “People can step out of the room, and, let’s face it, a lot of people don’t understand what we’re doing in English, let alone Hebrew.”

Schulz and Singer said there has been no pushback on the Jewish content — and that, in fact, they find that many attendees are interested in learning a tidbit or two about Judaism.

Of course, some of the attendees don’t need any lessons, such as the Holocaust survivors or the ex-New Yorkers who like to sit together.

Every once in a while, Schulz said, one of the Jewish seniors will get upset when the food runs out before they get served. Why, they kvetch, did the non-Jews get served before them?

It’s a simple answer, really, Schulz said. The lunch is open to anyone 60 and over, and that’s the only criteria. “It’s first come, first served,” she said. “We don’t turn anyone away for not being Jewish.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.