IsraAid volunteer Lee Erman (left) delivers food to one of the agency's beneficiaries. (Photo/Courtesy IsraAid)
IsraAid volunteer Lee Erman (left) delivers food to one of the agency's beneficiaries. (Photo/Courtesy IsraAid)

‘Worst food insecurity since the Great Depression’: Bay Area volunteers deliver food for Israeli relief agency

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Lee Erman parked his car in front of a small house in Redwood City, the trunk packed with boxes from a local food pantry. Wearing a T-shirt with a blue IsraAid logo and a matching mask, he carried a box to the front door.

The elderly resident inside gratefully accepted the food, explaining he lived alone, his electricity had been shut off, and he had no phone, no car, no money.

Erman came only to deliver a box of food. But he ended up staying 30 minutes.

“His need was to talk,” said Erman, a Mountain View resident and a senior citizen himself. “The mitzvah … was listen[ing] to him talk.”

The volunteer effort was organized by IsraAid, an Israeli international relief agency that helps out after hurricanes, earthquakes and other crises and natural disasters — and, now, during a pandemic.

Its modus operandi is partnering with local communities to provide urgent aid. Right now, IsraAid volunteers are helping with food distribution in San Francisco, the Redwood City–Palo Alto area and San Jose.

“Besides the fabulous work they do,” Erman said, “they are one of the best ambassadors for Israel in the world.”

This is not the first time IsraAid has responded to a pandemic. The Tel Aviv–based nongovernmental organization was on the ground in affected areas during the West Africa Ebola crisis several years ago. That outbreak, however, was minor compared with the current global Covid-19 crisis. Starting in January, IsraAid began shipping personal protective equipment to China, and by February the agency was lending a guiding hand (albeit remotely) to Italy, which was at that time a Covid hotspot.

This is the worst food insecurity since the Great Depression.

Eventually, IsraAid’s leaders turned their attention to the United States, which by April had become home of the world’s worst outbreak, along with its attendant economic toll.

“We look where we can fill a gap,” said Seth Davis, New York-based CEO of IsraAid U.S. “We found that in California and New Jersey, there were gaps. What was needed was people to sort food and give it out or [deliver it].”

Locally, IsraAid teamed up with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco–Marin Food Bank, recruiting volunteers from the Jewish community to assist in distribution. For Second Harvest, it required volunteers such as Erman to personally deliver food. For S.F.-Marin, it meant being part of an army of volunteers in a parking lot near the Giants’ ballpark, where families pick up food at an ad hoc drive-through pantry.

Melissa Schneider was part of that army. The Tiburon resident became a supporter of IsraAid after reading about its work helping Syrian refugees fleeing to the Greek Islands. Starting in May, she donned gloves and an S.F. Giants mask, reporting for duty at the parking lot every Friday.

“They had 1,200 cars drive through every week and [each got about] four boxes of food,” Schneider said. “It was a lot of produce, a dairy box, a protein box. [Volunteers] get into groups of three or four and each take a car. Someone would be the trunk opener and closer.”

Schneider said she was proud to wear the IsraAid insignia on her shirt so that the other volunteers, as well as those driving through, would know that the Jewish community had shown up to help.

“These are our values,” she stated. “Jewish values, Israeli values.”

Sarith Honigstein serves as the senior director of operations for IsraAid U.S. and is based in Palo Alto. She said her agency’s national food bank partnerships have so far served more than 1 million people, and that recruiting volunteers was made easier when JCCs and synagogues helped get the word out.

Melissa Schneider volunteering with IsraAid. (Photo/Courtesy IsraAid)
Melissa Schneider volunteering with IsraAid. (Photo/Courtesy IsraAid)

Once people participate, they become what Honigstein calls “serial volunteers.”

“They love what they’re doing,” she said. “It gives purpose and satisfaction. The demand is huge, and the supply [of foodstuffs] has become less and less. So we really do need more volunteers.”

For Erman, the son of a German Holocaust refugee, it meant a lot to ally with an Israeli organization. Born the year before modern Israel was founded in 1948, he remembers growing up with an iconic Jewish National Fund blue box (or pushke, as it was often called) on the counter. “Israel,” he said, “ was always something important.”

He has visited Israel several times, including last year, when his synagogue, Congregation Kol Emeth of Palo Alto, went on a mission with the University African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, also of Palo Alto.

After a virtual training session, Erman received an IsraAid T-shirt and a mask in which to do his volunteer work. For each of his runs, he has loaded boxes of food at a Second Harvest warehouse, then made his deliveries. Though social-distancing rules were in effect, Erman said he was “encouraged to let the people know what IsraAid is.”

The volunteer effort isn’t winding down anytime soon, according to Davis.

“Every month we say it’s the last month,” the IsraAid U.S. CEO said, “and we end up extending it another 60 days. No one has a crystal ball. We want to help where we can. This is the worst food insecurity since the Great Depression.”

Meanwhile, Schneider, a mother of three, is taking a hiatus from volunteering while she sets her kids up for the school year. But she hopes to return to the parking lot and help hungry neighbors get through this crisis.

“We read a lot about what’s going wrong with the world,” she said. “Then you see something like this — something going right.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.