Feeding a Nation: Body and Soul

“And the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field.” Exodus 23:16 (The Israel Bible™)

Last Saturday night, Jews stayed up all night for the holiday of Shavuot, studying Torah in what is called in Israel a “layla lavan” or “white night.” Displaying a hunger for God’s word, synagogues fill up with the sounds of learning and in Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Jews crowd the plaza of the Kotel (Western Wall), praying throughout the night.

But when dawn arrives and the sleepy, but spiritually sated, pilgrims finish their devotions, they are in desperate need of physical sustenance.

But not everyone in Israel has the means to answer even the most basic needs. For those people, Colel Chabad is there. Their volunteers eagerly meet the hungry pilgrims and give them special individual food kits filled with dairy baked goods and a cool beverage to fill their empty stomachs.

Feeding and nurturing the people of Israel is second nature to Colel Chabad, an organization founded with the goal of doing precisely that. Since its establishment 230 years ago, the organization has sent volunteers to help people living in the region.

Even in the early years, when living in Israel was practically impossible, Colel Chabad helped ease the burden by providing the people with food and economic assistance.

The founder of Colel Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, issued a clear plea to aid the people of Israel: “(I call upon you,) to bestir the alert and to strengthen weak hands, to contribute monies for the Land of Israel every week, or at least every month, of the amount assigned as the year’s apportionment, as well as all the “dedicated money” that one was inspired to donate annually, without a vow, for the support of our brethren who live in the Holy Land,” he wrote in a letter.

Today, feeding hungry worshipers on the holy holiday of Shavuot – which celebrates God giving the Torah to the Jewish people – is just one of the myriad of ways Colel Chabad assists Israel’s needy. The organization makes sure that the country’s most vulnerable have what to eat. Widows, orphans, and the elderly rely on Colel Chabad to make sure they can put food on their table.

With a $40 million annual budget and 75 programs throughout the country, Colel Chabad offers various options to those in need of food security.

“Thousands receive meals delivered to their homes. We also run daycare centers and provide financial planning for families,” Rabbi Shmuel Lipsker, a Colel Chabad representative, explained saying that the organization is prepared to help the needy through every stage of their lives.

Perhaps one of their most innovative initiatives is their non-profit supermarkets. To an observer, these supermarkets look no different from any of the major supermarket chains throughout Israel. But, to a family struggling to cope with the escalating cost of food, a trip to one of Colel Chabad’s five supermarkets nationwide can make all the difference.

“It’s a very simple concept,” Rabbi Lipsker explained. “We own the supermarket and they are run by us.”

The stores carry everything you’d find at a regular supermarket, except the generic brands on the shelves offer consumers savings of up to 60%.

“It’s an easy project to run in a way, we buy our quantities in bulk. So while we don’t make a profit, we don’t lose money,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable idea that nobody else has done. It’s not done to make a profit, it’s done to save money.”

Large families often travel long distances in order to buy enough food to get them through a few weeks at a time. And with such big savings, even families who are not below the poverty line visit the stores to enjoy the significant savings. For those who are not mobile or are too embarrassed to visit the stores, they can make their purchases online and the food will be at their doorstep within hours.

Having these non-profit food stores may seem like a strange concept to those in the United States who are familiar with the food stamp system. But with no real food security safety net available for families in need, they rely on these food relief programs in order to make sure nobody in their family goes to bed hungry.

“It’s hard to make it in Israel. For a large family, where a parent works full time and the other works part-time, the income earned is simply not enough to sustain a sizeable household. There isn’t enough to go around,” Rabbi Lipsker said. “In Israel, there’s little middle class; you’re either well off or struggling.”

Despite all the good Colel Chabad is able to do, there’s always more that can be done. In the coming years, the organization plans to open more non-profit supermarkets in impoverished neighborhoods, build additional soup kitchens, expand its distribution of monthly groceries and expand its holiday food distribution program.

But, as Jews celebrate the greatest gift they received from God – the Torah – Colel Chabad strives to ensure each family experiences joy, whether it be on holy or regular weekdays.