Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food for Thought

Finally a volunteer opportunity came my way that allowed me to help the homeless in my community. I have been calling soup kitchens and food banks for the last three weeks. I understand most of these places are staffed by volunteers themselves who work on part time schedules, but when people are calling to literally show up and help in any way they can, it is so critical that these organizations are there to return those calls and open their doors to people.

After some deep searching and a few wonderful recommendations, I stumbled upon Manna Food Center located in Gaithersberg, MD. Not only did I have an email response back from their volunteer coordinator the next day, but I was invited to volunteer for various days and times the same week I contacted them. Manna is a non-profit aid organization that donates food to families in need, senior citizens and people with disabilities all around Montgomery County (thats just outside DC for those distanced folks reading).

Happy to have a dear friend volunteer with me, we settled on a date and time and showed up to be greeted by a volunteer in the warehouse. Large pallets of every kind of food from rotisserie chickens to birthday cakes were spread out, ceiling to floor, throughout the warehouse. We were escorted into the back to sign in, put on plastic disposable gloves and assist with bagging collard greens. Food is donated from various types of organizations from processed food vendors providing boxes of crackers and cookies to local supermarkets with left over packaged salads and sandwiches which went unsold that day or the day before in their aisles.

We bagged collard greens for about an hour, taking large handfuls and stuffing them into plastic disposable bags. When full, we passed our bags to a man with a large shopping cart who tied the bags and distributed them to the food boxes. The cases of collard greens were cold since they were put on ice to keep their freshness. Water dripped all over the floor and we sat on milk crates to keep help keep our backs somewhat comfortable as we hunched over to fill our bags.

When we were done, we were directed to the shelves with the food boxes, each filled with a package of rice and a bag of our collard greens and we walked up and down the aisles with a variety of additional items (bunches of broccoli and bananas for example) to add to them. I noticed that certain boxes received more food than others depending on where it was located on the shelf. It was hard to see what the boxes on the top shelves already had and the lower shelves were simply easier to fill.

It started me thinking that if I was in the situation where I needed to rely on a place like Manna for food, I would hope to have a lower box handed to me. That being said, I am certain the recipients of these meals are just so happy to receive something. I did see a lot of the donated fruits and veggies were beyond their prime and many boxes of them were discarded. Some donations like the tofu or ready made supermarket sandwiches were also beyond date so those were sorted through as well. Its nice to know that even people who have nothing still deserve some dignity and food that is clean and in decent condition. That being said, it hurt me to see anything going to waste when we could put one more apple in one more person's basket. Definitely will make me think twice before throwing food away or taking too much on my plate---something I am guilty of on a regular basis.

I sometimes wonder if its a third child syndrome or something. You know, people blame everything that went wrong in their lives on their childhood. I could say that I had two older siblings so I needed to take all the food I thought I could possibly eat at the meal in my first serving to make sure I had enough to eat before everyone else ate all the food. Which if you come to any of our family meals that include my older siblings, this still holds true today. However, I have learned in my own small nucleus of a family, that sometimes waiting to take seconds allows for both a more enjoyable conversation and sometimes the surprise of not really being so hungry for more.

That being said, I think I had a great childhood, complete with a warm and loving family, a nice big backyard surrounded by lots of grass and my elementary school complete with a playground and a pretty decent education. Our childhood is our starting point in life but its what we choose to do with it and where we let it take us that is the most important. To say I couldn't do this or that, only limits me. To say I can try and I can dream, only expands my abilities to become more.

Ok enough ethical mumbo jumbo. I had fun today packing veggies and making food boxes up. I found it especially interesting to see folks lined up inside the lobby of the food center ready to pick up their goods. When I used to live in Jerusalem, I volunteered regularly at a food pantry for Jewish victims of terror and their family. Located in the observant neighborhood of Meah Sharim, Ohr Meir V'Bracha, is a weekly food distribution center where volunteers, mostly yeshiva and seminary high school students, come on a weekly basis to pack food baskets from donated goods and watch as survivors of terror attacks and their families arrive to pick them up (complete with chicken and challah bread for shabbat) as well as deliver goods to survivors unable to pick up their own food.

The organization itself was started by a victim of terror who lost a few children in a bus bombing. She also helps collect financial donations to send children of terror to summer camp and provide for family counseling and cover medical and cost of living expenses. If you are looking for one of the most honest and need-worthy charities in Israel, this is THE place. The difference between the American and Israeli food banks was that the Israeli center met in a parking lot in rain or shine and didnt have fancy loading docks or machinery to load and unload the trucks. They had a mini delivery van or two and rows of baskets. I hear now that they have built a proper office to manage paperwork and even set up a local office in New York to oversee American donations. Regardless of their difference, people are in need and thank g-d these organizations are here to help out where they can.

In honor of today being my mother's birthday, which I somehow forgot to mention in this entire post until now, I really wanted something to do to occupy my time. And ideally something that could just be busy work for a few hours to distract me from the day. My mom died in 1979 at the age of 32, which I believe if my math is correct, would have made today her 64th birthday. It always sort of creeps up on me, her birthday every year. Her death date is a more prominent date in my mind (November 6, Cheshvan 16) since I go to the synagogue and say kaddish for her every year. In addition, my synagogue also has the date of her death on their internal calendar and always happens to send me a letter reminding me that the date of her yahrzeit is upon me and would I like to make a donation on her behalf.

But her birthday always catches me by surprise. I see it as a day that used to be so happy for her and I try every year to look around me for something to smile about on her behalf. Yesterday I bought some pretty orange tulips at Whole Foods. On Monday, I baked banana chocolate chip muffins with Ma'ayan. And today, I went to the food pantry to pack food baskets.

These are some of the things I do to make myself smile at a time when I want to be sad. At a time when I want to mourn the life that once was and the one that was taken away from me when we were both so young. But I have to remember sometimes that this day isn't just about me for my pain. Its for the woman I wasn't afforded the chance to see and to hear and to love in person. I feel like I owe her some happiness and a smile. I do these things to remember her and to keep her memory alive. She bestowed so many wonderful things on this earth, in her family, in the kids she taught, in her love of Judaism. To me, giving to others without being thanked is what I truly believe is the best way to honor the memory of a loved one who has passed on. So tonight, may it be that my actions and my merits be in her honor and on her behalf so that her soul can continue to rise just that little bit higher. Or at the very least, may she look down and smile at the life and the good deeds she has inspired once again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Month of Service

This month has flown by and I feel like I have done nothing towards my blog project. How is this possible? I am in the midst of month seven and what do I have to show for my efforts? I have put in so much time contacting the aquarium, a park ranger, two soup kitchens and a few bartenders to try and volunteer/shadow with no success.

Well, no success is a little harsh. I have had numerous conversations with the aquarium folks who seem so nice and I would feel so lucky for a few days there. I spoke with one soup kitchen a half hour away since the local down-the-street place apparently does not return phone calls or emails for volunteers but the farther away place has been just delightful and I have a volunteer gig there next week. I came across a few bartending options which included a non-profit catering towards fundraisers and someone local who bar tends on the side looking for someone to assist at a real serving gig. While I loved the idea of hosting a benefit for a brain cancer foundation to raise money and awareness for the disease which took my mother's young life, I can barely find time to work at my volunteer projects, make my work hours and schedule a trip to the grocery store these days. The bartender looking for assistance thought I had some experience and wanted support at a chabad event in DC. Due to my lack of drink coordination beyond the basic rum and coke, I was unable to fulfill that role.

So here I am mid-March and I started wondering how have I been spending my time this month. And suddenly it all came clear. I have been volunteering each week, little by little, but rather than it being a planned monthly excursion as glamorous as my ideas above, I have been quietly fitting in environmental research and support to green my synagogue on a weekly basis. I launched the green committee at my shul when I first moved to the area. Its been a small venture since then, slowly gaining steam through a Tu B'shvat seder, mini recycling program of commingled containers and paper and now has expanded to include an energy efficiency initiative, green purchasing program for cleaning supplies and paper goods and an eco arts table at the purim carnival.

I have input all of the synagogue's energy bills into the EPA/DOE's Portfolio Manager online tool and we have applied to become the first synagogue in the US to earn the ENERGY STAR label for houses of worship. Fifteen churches have earned this distinction but never a synagogue. Its a long story I will not go into here but as a technology-neutral program, Portfolio Manager actually tries to place emphasis not just on those buildings which have the fancy state of the art windows and boilers but also those facilities which operate as a green building, i.e. not lighting and heating the 500+ seat sanctuary for weekday minyan when a 100 seater chapel will do. We may not have the fancy equipment, but our energy use is so low for our sized space just by our operating decisions. I have poured months of work into what is currently under review in some office building in DC and should this come into fruition, the hype and promotion could be huge.

So perhaps this month isnt a total wash after all. Some volunteering in my local community has taken place and hopefully some soup kitchen/food pantry assistance will also take place during the last two weeks of the month. I have donated clothes to Goodwill, dropped off extra toiletries for the local shelter's drive at my daughter's pre-school, and ran an eco arts booth where kids decorated Purim baskets made out of recycled plastic containers that we collected from shul families.

Sometimes volunteering time can come in the form of little things that pop up all around us every day that we put off until we have time for spring cleaning or we know the people in need. But maybe its those mundane needs of the community that call to us in a way that we often dont hear where we can be the most helpful. Sure everyone can and should send money to Japan or provide support to the survivors of the family in Itamar, Israel. But we are also needed here to do our parts and carve out our roles to help those around us. Maybe its not a perfect month in the making but maybe thats the point afterall. Just giving where we can one day at a time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March Madness

I know the point of this blog is to share my monthly experiences taking on a new goal or fear per month and share the highs and the lows, the ups and downs with all of you. Its my way of taking pictures to remember my deepest thoughts, stay on top of the moment as it arises and have something to look back on at the end of all this.

But many people simply use a blog as a diary. A very public diary depending on how many people follow your posts and you open yourself up a bit to the outside world. People can see how you think, how you express yourself and often times, blogs go a little too far. We've all seen those photos on facebook that we cannot believe people posted. You know, if your boss saw those, you may not have a job on Monday morning. Sometimes blogs go too far as well. You share a story about an old relationship gone sour or that family reunion that didn't end too well. And guess what, your old love stumbles upon your blog or that family member checks in and bam: too much information shared often in the heat of the moment and you can't take it back.

Well, forgive me tonight for using this sacred space, that I share with all of you, to open myself and my mind up to my innermost thoughts. Its not news that I am Jewish or that I lived for a few summers (high school, college) and a few years (newly married) in the land of Israel. I've considered relocating (making aliyah as Jews call it) and always have that deep place in my heart that knows its where I long to live.

That being said, I am American through and through. Not just because I was raised here or my family is here. But because I have that whole "I'm American and I am entitled to x, y and z." I believe if you work hard, in school/at your job, it pays off. You earn a fair and decent living and you can be successful. I am very western in my thinking and very open to freedom of religion and especially freedom within Judaism for us all to practice in our own ways.

I have had little stance on settlement building. Two state solutions and various political parties in Israel. Yeah I admit to being an environmentalist at heart but I wouldn't say I'm a staunch green party supporter. I'm just not that politically minded. I sort of like just being. Living in the moment and living somewhat care free.

However, over the weekend, during the Jewish holiday of shabbat, a family, with children, living in Israel, was murdered. Whether it be because they were religious or living in a settlement in the West Bank. It doesn't matter to me. Two parents and three little kids including a 3 month old baby were taken from this world in the most heinous of crimes. Since hearing the story, I haven't been able to sleep. My mind is racing with thoughts of how it happened. And now I've heard photos of the crime have surfaced somehow online. I keep looking at my children wondering if that could be us. If that could be a family I know. If I could ever move there, to a place where something like this could happen. Did the parents go first or the kids? Did the mother know what was happening to her children? How can one possibly comprehend these acts of terror? All I pray is that everyone was taken in their sleep, without knowledge, without pain.

I am quickly reminded that acts of violence occur everywhere. And right down the road in Baltimore is the murder capitol of the USA. Crimes like this happen all the time. In fact, Israel has one of the lowest interpersonal crimes/murders/rapes than most places in the world. Main crimes are stealing and auto theft. I have always felt safe walking around there at night. Feeling like I am part of the family in the Holy Land.

Since last night, I havent' been able to shake the feeling that Jews aren't safe anywhere. And I have had the urge to blanket my children in love today like never before. I pray that my nightmares go away soon. That I can block out the reenactment of these crimes which runs round and round in my head. Tonight I will tuck my kids in tighter, hug them a little longer and lock the door to my apartment a little stronger. Truth is, nothing can bring back those who have been taken out of this world. But in their names and in their memories, I will pick my head up and go on. May their memories be for a blessing. May their souls ascend to heaven quickly. And may their surviving children only know a future of peace.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Searching for a March Home

So I have been working really hard at finding a project for March. I have completed six months of this blog project and can see the end in sight. Well actually I feel somewhat lost in the abyss of it all but knowing I am halfway there makes me feel giddy in a weird way. One that I am doing it and two and I hope I figure out enough stuff to do to fill the rest of this year.

Some ideas still on the table for the end of the year include whitewater rafting which was always planned for the spring time when the water table is decent and public speaking. The speaking gig will probably be in the form of a Dvar Torah, which in the Jewish world, is a public speaking engagement usually at the end of Shabbat services on Saturday morning in front of my entire congregation. I sort of always planned to do that right before the high holidays, as my last month of this year long adventure to talk about my year in review, goals met, fears overcome and what it feels like to reach 33. Those two are still on the table.

Thus far, I have explored three additional items for March: volunteering with animals at the aquarium in DC, bartending or shadowing a local bartender since I have no idea how to mix drinks (is it that hard?), and volunteering at a local shelter serving food or sorting clothes... whatever they could use me for when I have the time.

In terms of progress, I have spent four weeks tracking down aquarium folks, been redirected from the education department to the husbandry department which requires 100 hours and 6 months of commitment, neither of which a part time stay-at-home mom and working mom has available. Then when I mentioned the blog project and publicity, I was redirected to the PR department for further consideration. I am hoping this pans out in the future, but for this month, it isnt looking so likely.

Next, I looked into bartenders. Started contacting friends who frequent drinking establishments but most were beer only places. Found a non-profit with potential but need to find some regular time to shadow for more than one event a month type of experience. May have located something in DC but that is pending at the moment. I can update you all on that situation once I know more.

And lastly, I realized I could not and should not go a whole year sewing my royal "goal and fear" oats without volunteering at a shelter or food distribution center at some point. These organizations strive on volunteers and donations to provide for so many homeless or less fortunate folks. I realized giving back one's own community is crucial and I did locate a shelter in Montgomery County right in downtown Silver Spring that needs helping hands. I have put in a call to their volunteer coordinator and have been waiting a week to hear back. While it is a week I could have already helped out, I realize most of their staff are probably volunteers themselves and sometimes these organizations take time to return calls and solidify workers where they are needed most.

So with all these prospects on the table, I am praying that one by one, they will fill the coming months and so I will have five more months of planned activity to combine with one additional spontaneous adventure in the future. So please stay tuned, snap your fingers, think good thoughts and wish me luck having this all fall into place. I am looking to the spring and summer months with a fresh perspective and a glimmer of hope that all will work out as I continue on this path.

Oh and I forgot to mention my little man turns one next week so another milestone reached during this year of challenge. Makes this working mom yet again in awe of the mother who created me and continues to sustain my heart and soul in so many ways... I hope I am able to give him half as much as she has given me.