(June 8, 2015 / JNS) By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
Beth sits patiently at her dining room table, waiting for her Kosher Meals on Wheels (MOW) volunteer to arrive. A visit from a volunteer means dinner, which Beth receives five days a week from the kosher MOW program, run by the Torah Learning Center in Overland Park, Kan. It also means some much-needed socializing.
“I look forward to them stopping in and chatting for a few minutes,” says the nonagenarian, who depends on the meals to continue living independently.
“I don’t know what I’d do without Meals and Wheels. I have kept kosher since I was a little girl. It means so much to me and it would be so difficult,” notes Beth, which is a pseudonym because the woman interviewed asked to remain anonymous.
Beth’s story is not atypical. While a kosher MOW in larger cities with thousands of Jewish senior citizens may seem like an obvious option to offer, it is less so in smaller towns, where there may be fewer seniors or people with disabilities who desire kosher food. Nonetheless, there are more than a handful of successful kosher programs. That’s because the program is not solely about the food—though that is still an important component, explains Esther Friedman, director of Kansas’s kosher MOW program. MOW is about “bringing joy, conversation, community connection and friendship to isolated Jewish older adults,” Friedman tells JNS.org.
“It’s about empowering our community, including teen volunteers, to fulfill the important mitzvah of hiddur p’nai zaken, respect for the elderly,” says Friedman.
In Minneapolis, Minn., kosher MOW started around 20 years ago and is today a thriving organization, serving 24,000 meals per year. The program, funded by the local Jewish Federation through grants and private donors, employs four drivers who deliver food on four different routes. The meals cost around $15 apiece, when including overhead, according to Annette Sandler, director of aging and disability for Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) of Minneapolis. JFCS runs the program. While considered an official MOW, the JFCS program does not receive MOW national funds. Usually, MOW offers a kick-off grant to get new programs started, but then franchises must fundraise and sustain themselves on their own.
“Not all of our recipients did or want to keep kosher,” Sandler says. “But it is culturally specific food that they understand. It is not a ham and cheese sandwich or pork chops.”
The Minneapolis program receives referrals from city and county case managers, as well as through other areas within JFCS. Sometimes, synagogues or individuals make referrals. Minneapolis kosher MOW will take anyone who qualifies and encourages people to pay what they can, up to $5.50 per meal. But some recipients cannot pay, and nobody is turned away.
“A couple of years ago, a driver went to the deliver a meal to a particular client and the person didn’t answer her door,” Sandler recalls. “The policy is that the driver calls the office and we follow up. The case manager called and called and then reached out to the emergency contact, but could not get through. Then we called the police.”
When the police arrived at the client’s home, it discovered she had fallen on a Friday and was still there, on the floor, several days later on Monday. Her hip was broken. She was alive, but severely dehydrated. An ambulance rushed the elderly woman to the hospital for care. She survived.
“Our program, the daily visits, that is what saved her life,” Sandler says.
In just two years, Friedman has already had similar experiences. The Kansas initiative is funded through private donors and grants. It supplies around 13,000 meals to between 40 and 50 recipients, depending on the time of year. Meals are prepared at one of the area’s Chabad-Lubavitch centers and delivered by volunteers. It costs Kansas around $13 per meal, including overhead. As is the case in Minneapolis, where recipients tend to be among the community’s poorest individuals, Kansas recipients are asked to contribute toward their meals, but many cannot afford to do so.
Friedman says kosher MOW accomplishes three goals: feeding the hungry, respecting the elderly, and infusing the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) into the next generation of Jewish philanthropists and leaders.
The Kansas program is almost fully volunteer-run. Parents come with their children, and there are dozens of teen volunteers.
“The young volunteers learn to cook, they learn about kashrut, about holiday times and the foods associated with those holidays,” Friedman says. “We have a rabbi on board and the young people feel comfortable in this setting to ask their questions, so it accomplishes that, too.”
She adds, “So many people come together to do a kindness to make this happen in our community. There are people who donate food, people who package it, the drivers and the people that come to cook and deliver. It is not just that it takes a village—it is a village.”
That’s how Montgomery County (Maryland) kosher MOW volunteer Bill Zanoff describes his role. He has been volunteering as a delivery driver for 10 years. In Montgomery County, the program is funded with county dollars through the community’s Senior Food & Nutrition Program. The meals—in Montgomery County they deliver both lunch and dinner—range in content from tuna sandwiches or lasagna for lunch to chicken, turkey or meatloaf for dinner, as well as sides of fruits, veggies and desserts.
Zanoff says he enjoys meeting the seniors and knows how grateful the recipients are.
“Sometimes, I am the only person they see during the day, their only human contact,” he says.
But Zanoff gets a lot out of it, too.
“I think we get more out of it,” says Zanoff. “The drivers feel so good after we deliver.”
According to Diane Hays-Earp, who runs the Montgomery County program, there are 80 kosher MOW volunteers who are “the lifeblood” of the program.
“People are worried about the future, the Jewish future,” Friedman says. “This program is about the here and now. Every meal brings life today.”