(From left) Chef Mike Harris; Zion Taddese, owner of Queen Sheba’s restaurant; interns Lesieli Ngata Pailate, Essly Olvera, Lucy Munoz, Zach Roberts; Rabbi David Azen; and intern Omar Mendoza (Photo/Courtesy David Azen)
(From left) Chef Mike Harris; Zion Taddese, owner of Queen Sheba’s restaurant; interns Lesieli Ngata Pailate, Essly Olvera, Lucy Munoz, Zach Roberts; Rabbi David Azen; and intern Omar Mendoza (Photo/Courtesy David Azen)

Q&A: This rabbi helps people find a way through Sacramento food desert

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Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Rabbi David Azen, 60, founded Fresher Sacramento more than a decade ago to provide low-cost, healthful meals to communities that are “food deserts,” lacking easy access to fresh, affordable and nutritious items. In addition to its twice-weekly meal service, the nonprofit also offers skills and job training to area students. In June, state Sen. Dr. Richard Pan chose Fresher Sacramento as nonprofit of the year for its service to the community. Azen, who previously had pulpits in New York, New Jersey and Toronto, is also the part-time spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Harim in Grass Valley. He is the father of five. (The eldest, Aryeh Stein-Azen, died of a rare form of sarcoma in 2015.)

J.: How did a rabbi get involved in the food industry?

Rabbi David Azen: I’ve always thought that hunger in America is the most unconscionable thing, and social justice is my driving force as a rabbi. The prime directive we Jews have as spiritual heirs to Abraham is to be a blessing to all families of the Earth. Our well-being requires us to be in partnership with other minority communities. That’s why we’re involved, for instance, with the Black Child Legacy Campaign in Sacramento, to ensure that pregnant women of every color get the nutrition they need.

Can you describe your operations?

We work out of a pool kitchen at a community center in the southernmost part of Sacramento, one of the most underserved areas of the city. It’s 30 percent Asian, mostly Hmong; 30 percent Hispanic; and 30 percent African American. We have a chef and five young people from the area who receive training in food preparation, handling and techniques that are in accordance with the guidelines of the California Restaurant Association. So far, 500 students have been involved in the program. A number of organizations, such as a local Meals on Wheels serving the Japanese American community, contract with us to provide meals. Proceeds go to pay stipends to our students. At present, we have the capacity to produce 800 to 1,000 meals per shift.

What are some of your favorite meals?

Asian noodle salad, teriyaki chicken and veggie lasagna.

Did your family play a role in your career choice and your interest in social justice?

Not at all. My parents were Republicans, and I was a junior golf tournament master. But my family did attend a Reform synagogue in Westfield, New Jersey [Temple Emanu-El], and the rabbi there, Charles Kroloff, talked about things that mattered. I gave up golf and started reading history [and books about] free markets and social responsibility. At Princeton, I started a progressive Jewish service. I also fasted on Yom Kippur, the only one in my family to do so.

Your interests extend beyond Jewish social action. A half-dozen years after you were ordained, you completed a fellowship in film, cinema and video studies at Temple University. How did that come about?

I write screenplays. I have three under my belt. My screenplay called “Moses in the Wilderness and How the West Was Lost” is based on a story in the Tanach about Moses dealing with a rebellion and the right wing.

But you’re not limited to the silver screen. At Princeton, you also were part of the university’s mime group. And what’s this about your one man-show about the origins of the universe, and all of its related problems, that starts with a rabbi arriving late to conduct Yom Kippur services?

It’s called “I Caused the Big Bang.” I used to perform it locally, but I haven’t done it in a while.

For a guy involved with serious causes and commitments, you have quite a sense of humor.

My mother always said I was weird. I thought that I was going to be Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind.”

Fresher Sacramento meals are available for purchase and pickup at the Pannell Meadowview Community Center pool kitchen in Sacramento. To preorder meals, call (916) 295-1884 or email [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.