Tis the season for synagogues to lend a helping hand

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Jews might not know much about Christmas hams or holiday fruitcakes, but they do know how to serve up a festive meal.

And that’s exactly how some members of the East Bay Jewish community will spend Christmas day this year. Temple Sinai in Oakland and Temple Israel in Alameda are joining forces with a food charity and a local church to serve a free community meal in Alameda for up to 1,000 residents in need.

Temple Beth Hillel religious school student Eloise (right) assembles bags of chocolate that will be included in boxes of food distributed to needy students. photo/joel rosenbaum-temple beth hillel

The dinner originally was organized several years ago by Saboor Zafari, a refugee from Afghanistan who owns Angela’s Bistro and Bar in Alameda. But after his restaurant was damaged in a fire late last year, he reached out to community partners to host this year’s dinner.

Joan Steber, a member of Temple Sinai and board member at Alameda Meals on Wheels, is helping organize the meal, which will be served at the Twin Towers United Methodist Church in Alameda. Steber said the Jewish community is more than eager to volunteer on Christmas Day.

“Usually you’re off from work that day, so you want to do something good,” she said. “That’s why doing this is just a nice thing to do.”

Steber noted that she still has volunteer spots to fill and that Alameda Meals on Wheels is still accepting monetary donations for the dinner. Volunteers can sign up at www.tinyurl.com/alameda-xmasmeal.

The dinner is just one of many volunteer efforts spearheaded by synagogues throughout the Bay Area this time of year. Many are busy with food, clothing and toy drives during the month of December, all with the aim of brightening the winter holidays for local families in need. Here are just a few examples of ways that some synagogues are giving back:



Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services are prepping for their annual tradition of preparing and delivering meals to the homes of critically ill residents and seniors with Project Open Hand. Volunteers have filled all available slots on Dec. 22, 23, 24 and 25 to cook and distribute meals. To bring Christmas cheer, they will deliver the meals to homebound San Francisco residents on Dec. 24 and 25 by car and on foot through the Tenderloin neighborhood.

Earlier in the season, JFCS held a Hanukkah Holiday Bag drive aimed at bringing goodie bags with festive food and treats to the agency’s clients. Volunteers helped assemble the bags in various Bay Area locations, then delivered them to seniors, people with disabilities and families.

Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond continues its annual winter Food for Thought program, which provides groceries for schoolchildren and their families while school is closed over the holidays and subsidized meals are not available. The program, in partnership with two local churches, adopts 150 needy families from seven elementary schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Last weekend, the congregation’s religious school students gathered to pack peanut butter, canned goods and candy they had collected into boxes for the families; over the next week, additional volunteers filled the boxes with donated fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, toys and turkeys and delivered them to the participating schools.

Temple Sinai in Oakland provided food and cooked for a holiday dinner for First Place for Youth, a support organization for foster youth as they age out of the foster system. This was the 12th year Temple Sinai provided food for the group, this year about 100 foster youth and advocates. The congregation also collected canned foods for local Greenleaf Elementary School for children and families who will be without subsidized breakfast and lunch during the winter break.

Also, as has become an annual tradition, many local synagogues are participating in the Holiday Dinner Drive, which raises monetary donations for local food banks. Started 17 years ago by Temple Sinai member Dan McClosky, the effort to combat hunger has raised more than $1 million since its inception. For details, visit www.dinnerdrive.squarespace.com.


Toys and other goods

Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley spearheaded its Embrace-a-Family program for the eighth year in a row. The agency posted gifts that would be appreciated by local seniors, adults and families in need on “dreidel boards” at congregations such as Beth David (Saratoga), Emeth (Morgan Hill), Shir Hadash (Los Gatos), Sinai and Emanu-El (San Jose) and Beth Torah (Fremont). Volunteers then bought the gifts and brought them to JFS, where they could be distributed to community members for Hanukkah. Some of the gifts included bus passes and supermarket gift cards.

Shalom Bayit, a nonprofit that combats domestic violence within the Jewish community, organized an Adopt-a-Family program for Hanukkah that provides gifts, food and necessities to those escaping violent homes. Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City was one of the participants this year; members of the congregation chipped in to meet the requests of a woman who recently escaped an abusive relationship, including a used computer and printer. Her identity was kept anonymous from the congregation in order to protect her confidentiality.


Warm clothing

A number of synagogues are collecting warm clothes to help locals in need get through the cold months.

In Walnut Creek, Congregation B’nai Tikvah is collecting warm coats, scarves, gloves and hats on behalf of Contra Costa County’s Volunteer Emergency Services Team in Action.

The B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma held its third annual Winter Warmth Drive in partnership with the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, collecting donations of warm clothes, sleeping bags, tents, rain gear and backpacks filled with toiletries at the congregation in early December.

And the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, in cooperation with a number of South Bay congregations, collected coats and warm clothing for adults and children as part of its Warm the Winter Coat Drive.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.