When we returned to school for in person learning in September 2020, our campus was closed: no visitors, no parents, no prospective students. The closed campus had some benefits for students – an online lunch ordering system allowed students to bypass lunch lines – but the losses felt more acute. Athletic competitions and Shabbatonim were canceled, and the loss of chesed opportunities was felt viscerally by our students. Chesed is a major component of SAR’s mission, enabling our students to probe and engage the world with humility. Our students had previously volunteered with dozens of partner organizations throughout the metropolitan area, and suddenly their doors were shut to us and our doors shut to them.
As the school year began, however, a door opened. Lay leaders from the food pantry that had been housed at the Kingsbridge Center of Israel in the Bronx reached out to see if we had any ideas for a new home for their pantry. Supported by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (Met Council), the pantry provided shelf-stable food as well as produce, meat, and dairy to needy individuals and families in the Bronx. Its services were needed more than ever during the pandemic as many of its elderly clients were most homebound and particularly vulnerable to the virus. When asked for ideas, we quickly responded, “We’ll take it!” In advance of Thanksgiving, our students and teachers sprung into action. The shelves in our school’s kitchen stored boxes of non-perishable food while our fridges and freezers stored eggs, dairy, and chicken. Our unused cafeteria became an area for building and packing boxes. Once a week, students with driver’s licenses and teachers volunteered to deliver boxes to Riverdale, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Pelham Parkway, Co-Op City, White Plains, and Washington Heights, serving approximately 80 families per month.
As the 2020-21 school year came to an end and we inched closer to a return to normal, we knew that we wanted the food pantry to become a permanent fixture at SAR High School. With the vision of our lay leaders, we took over and remodeled a vacant storefront around the corner from the school. Met Council secured heavy duty shelving units, two commercial refrigerators, a freezer, and shopping carts, and community members also chipped in, donating extra fridges and freezers.
Throughout the 2021-22 school year, students came to the food pantry with their advisory groups to prepare the deliveries. On Tuesdays, students built boxes and packed non-perishable items, and on Thursdays, delivery day, a different group of students packed fruit and vegetables along with chicken, eggs, and other perishable items. Sometimes students feel anxious about missing time from their rigorous courses to volunteer in the food pantry. They wonder if it would be such a big deal if, instead of twelve volunteers packing, there were eleven. But that’s not all that we seek to accomplish with our food pantry and chesed programming.
SAR’s motto is “It’s not just what you learn, it’s who you become,” and we say it so often that it has been known to generate dramatic eye rolls from our students. In this context, eye rolling is a good thing; it means that we have really hammered home the message. This tagline, along with our mission statement, drives what we do. We know that classroom instruction is important – “it’s what you learn” – but the chesed we do and the middot we exemplify outside of the classroom are equally, if not more, important: “it’s who you become.” A student may ask, “How can I afford to miss this class?” We respond, “It might be hard, but you should figure it out.If you really feel that you must attend this class, you need to find another time to volunteer in the pantry.”
Making the food pantry a compulsory part of our curriculum is an intentional educational choice. Students do not have a requirement to fulfill a certain number of chesed hours outside of the classroom. Instead, we find that exposure to chesed activities and clubs during the school day leads to more genuine, long lasting volunteering outside of school hours. Missing class for chesed, making it a co-curricular activity instead of an extracurricular activity, communicates a powerful statement of values.
I could share several anecdotes of how the food pantry has impacted the “what you become” of our students, but one in particular sticks out. A student, let’s call him Michael, signed up to do a delivery in May. Since Michael was a senior, he no longer had classes and was working on his independent senior exploration project; Michael planned to make a special trip to school in order to do his delivery. But when I saw that his delivery had not been made by 8:00 in the evening, I reached out to him to make sure he hadn’t forgotten. He responded, “I am so sorry! I haven’t had a chance to deliver yet. I actually just got home from my internship and forgot about the delivery, but if it’s ok, I will come and do it now.” Michael drove the 20 minutes from home and made the delivery. Afterwards, he wrote, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this. When I delivered the packages, the eldelry couple were so happy to see me. The husband would not allow me to leave without giving me a bracha. I know this was for them, but please sign me up for next week’s deliveries because this is very good for me too.”
The KCI Food Pantry at SAR provided us with a chesed lifeline during the height of the pandemic. As we open up more fully, we have been able to expand the footprint of the pantry, welcoming clients who prefer to shop for food in person. Choosing food from the shelves and refrigerator and freezer sections much like at a supermarket (shopping carts included), provides a dignified experience for those who are food insecure. Through additional funding from the Met Council and the City of New York, we have been able to hire a part-time pantry manager who staffs shopping hours so that clients can avoid potentially uncomfortable interactions with familiar faces while shopping. As our students begin to once again probe and engage the world with humility through work with our partner sites, we are fortunate and proud to have such an opportunity, which helps our hundreds of SAR High School students work on “who they become” on our own campus.