Can a Few People Make a Huge Difference?

(Please feel free to send this article to anyone who is interested in positive ways of creating sacred community or innovative ways of making a difference)

Every day in the mail you probably receive several pitches from worthwhile charities. But how does an individual or a congregation decide where to donate their limited time and resources? How do you make sure you are choosing wisely in trying to repair some broken aspect of the world we share?

Here's one true story about choosing creatively on how to make a significant difference even if you are few in number:


Kimball Marsh, who grew up in Los Angeles and was trained as a social worker, was walking near his home a few years ago to do some errands. He saw a blue building near Pico and Robertson from which people were carrying bags of food, even though the building was clearly not a corner grocery store or a supermarket.

Curious about what goes on in his neighborhood, Kimball went inside and found out the blue building contained a non-profit called SOVA (a Hebrew word which means to eat and become fulfilled). Kimball soon learned that SOVA distributes nutritious free food to financially-struggling people of all races and ethnicities, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

Raised in a family where Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) was discussed often, Kimball thought that doing something for SOVA might be a good solo volunteer project. But then a few weeks later, he attended a brainstorming session of the social action committee of the relatively-new congregation he had joined, Ahavat Torah, which gathers each Saturday morning in Brentwood for lively discussions and Sabbath services.

Even though Ahavat Torah is not a large congregation, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and the social action volunteers said at this brainstorming meeting that they wanted to make sure they picked social action projects for the congregation that could spark a significant impact. Kimball wondered if possibly he could make more of a difference for SOVA and its food distribution program if he got his congregation involved in the project as a group effort.


According to Jean Katz, a trained educational consultant who was facilitating that particular brainstorming session, "There are many different ways to pick social action projects. Yet we knew we didn't want to be trying to reinvent the wheel. So we decided to focus on ways of making a sizeable difference where we could give a unique and needed boost to some excellent non-profits that were already in existence."

At the brainstorming session, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell described the enormous impact that could be accomplished if the congregation donated clothes and raised funds to purchase computers and other education tools for students at an innovative school in Israel, called Pardes Hana, that trains young people who have been abused, homeless, or neglected.

Two other members of the social action committee, Estelle Fisher and Sherry Modell, also suggested setting up field trips and personal moments of connection with the residents of a shelter called Grammercy Place in mid-city Los Angeles which supports homeless families and children.

At a later brainstorming session, Sherry Modell also outlined what she learned from other non-profits on the specific steps that could make Ahavat Torah more consistent at using recycled and renewable materials, along with ideas on how to make each congregational event greener and more eco-Kosher (a growing form of Jewish mindfulness and action that honors our human role in taking care of this holy planet).

At several of the social action committee meetings, two other members, Judy Dubin and Vivian Gold, suggested specific ways to get Ahavat Torah aligned with Jewish World Watch and other groups that were responding to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, including the carefully-organized efforts of Jewish World Watch to help rural women in Darfur to be able to obtain free backpacks with enclosed solar cooking devices that would allow them to avoid travelling for supplies to places where kidnappings and rapes were occuring frequently.


As a result of these small-group conversations on how to give a unique and needed boost to innovative non-profits that were already in existence, Kimball Marsh went back to SOVA at Pico-Robertson and interviewed the pantry manager, Hessie Axelrod, asking her directly and openly, "What exactly do you need that others aren't yet giving you?"

Hessie Axelrod replied, "We have a lot of volunteers who help pick up and sort donated food items from markets and wholesale food companies. But we always seem to have less cooking oil than is needed for the hundreds of families who rely on us each week."

So Kimball and his mother, Gene Marsh, began to let people know at Sabbath services each week at Ahavat Torah that the congregation would begin collecting quarts of cooking oil every Saturday morning for SOVA to distribute to families in need. At first only a few congregants remembered to bring oil with them to the weekly services. But over time the number has grown.

According to Kimball, "Currently each week for the past two years, a sizeable number of the members of our congregation voluntarily remember during the week to purchase one or more quarts of cooking oil to bring on Saturday morning. I honestly don't know who brings and who doesn't because the bottles of cooking oil are lined up on the congregation's kitchen counter each Shabbat by the time we enter the social hall for our pot-luck meal after services. But I do know that each week there are at least 100 and maybe 200 kids and grown-ups from struggling families who have better tasting food and more dignity as a result of the quarts of cooking oil we take to SOVA to be distributed for free."

As Jean Katz explains, "What's remarkable about Kimball and Gene Marsh is that they keep making the weekly deliveries to SOVA even when one of them is ailing. In addition, Kimball somehow finds a way to announce each week to the congregation in a new and refreshing style how SOVA and its clients at Pico-Robertson depend on our relatively-small congregation for its supply of cooking oil. On some weeks, Kimball makes the announcement in a poem, other weeks in prose as a tie-in to the weekly Torah portion, and still other weeks in a personal story about the lives and families that are counting on us."


According to Fred Summers, a recent new member of Ahavat Torah Congregation who is also the overall Director of Operations for the three SOVA sites (Pico-Robertson, Van Nuys, and Beverly-Fairfax), "SOVA has seen a dramatic increase in the number of individuals and families seeking food and resouces in the past nine months--close to a 50% rise. We currently provide free groceries to over 7,000 people each month, which means we need to cultivate additional food donors, additional financial donors, and many more volunteers to help serve the needs of our clients."

Fred explains, "Because we are able to leverage our buying power with food banks and supportive wholesalers, SOVA can typically turn one donated dollar into five or six dollars worth of food. When someone living in poverty describes being hungry or needing to be part of SOVA's weekly food distributions, they're not referring to a growling belly that occurs when it's been three hours since breakfast. Their hunger is about empty cupboards, empty refrigerators, empty wallets, and empty stomachs. Their fear is that their children will not have enough to eat that day or any day. But living in poverty does not mean living without hope. Each month, 7,000 men, women, and children receive help from the people who volunteer and donate to SOVA, so that all who are hungry might have enough food to eat."

If you want to learn more about how to help SOVA feed the hungry among us, contact www.jfsla.org/sova.

If you want to learn more about the weekly Shabbat services or the social action programs of Ahavat Torah Congregation, which meets on Saturday mornings at 10 am at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood (just west of the 405 Freeway between Sunset and Montana), log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.

Or if you want to know more about the current activities and future brainstorming sessions of the social action committee of Ahavat Torah, contact Estelle Fisher at mindbfree@yahoo.com or Sherry Modell at zabi123@aol.com.