Yad Ezra works with Chief Rabbi of Poland to help establish a kosher food pantry in Warsaw.
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer
Yad Ezra Executive Director Leah Luger believes in no coincidences. All personal connections happen for a reason.
It is this serendipity of relationships and connections — particularly her working relationship and friendship with local filmmaker and producer Roz Lullove Cooperman — that paved the way for the Berkley food distribution center to receive a visit from Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich this summer, who is eager to learn best practices to establish his country’s first kosher food pantry.
Located within Warsaw’s historic Nozyk Synagogue — the food pantry will serve elderly Holocaust survivors, the remaining Righteous Gentiles along with other members of the Jewish population and may even evolve into an educational resource to Poles who are only now discovering they are Jewish.
For Luger, a second-generation Holocaust survivor who grew up listening to the stories of how her mother survived Nazi-occupied Romania, this mission is a personal one.
“When I think of Poland, what comes to mind is darkness and death,” Luger said. “Now, Yad Ezra has the opportunity to bring light and something life-affirming to this reemerging Jewish community in Poland. We have an opportunity to help them, just as we help our hungry clients here in Southeast Michigan. I don’t believe in coincidence. What has been brought to our attention through the connection (between Cooperman and Schudrich) is the opportunity to listen to a story and participate, and not one less can of food or one less box of matzah will be distributed to our local clients. It is truly a win-win proposition.
“If not for Roz, I would have never known that there was the start of a kosher food pantry in Warsaw,” Luger continued. “Rabbi Schudrich knew nothing about me and just a little bit about Yad Ezra. He just knew I was Roz’s friend. Sometimes, conditions have to be just right to make something happen, and that is why I believe in the power of connections. There are no coincidences.”
A Perfect Pairing
The story of this perfect pairing between Yad Ezra and the Jewish population of Warsaw goes back 25 years, when Cooperman first met Schudrich as she and her camera crew were in Poland researching for her yet-to-be-released independent documentary called Faith of Our Ancestors. There, she not only met with Holocaust survivors; but, at the invitation of Schudrich, also visited a Jewish summer camp for children and their families funded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. There she interviewed Poles who only recently discovered they were Jewish by being told by older relatives in their final days of life.
At the time, Schudrich was a Conservative rabbi from New York who had newly arrived in Poland on behalf of the Lauder Foundation. He was rabbi of Warsaw and then Lodz before becoming the Chief Rabbi of Poland in 2004.
The years went on, but Cooperman never forgot her experiences in Poland or the people she interviewed who were rediscovering their Jewish roots. So, this year, Cooperman reconnected with Schudrich and they met in New York in May. When he told her of the need of the hungry Jewish population in Warsaw, she told him of the promotional videos she was making for Yad Ezra and that it was worth it for him to make the trip to Detroit to tour the facility.
Cooperman arranged for Schudrich to visit Yad Ezra in July. She orchestrated the special day where about 70 Yad Ezra supporters and a camera crew joined Schudrich on a tour of the facility and sat in the warehouse to listen to his stories and the needs of Warsaw’s Jewish community.
During his visit, Schudrich explained that the journey back to Judaism comes gradually. It is not linear, and years may go by before a person discovers he is Jewish and then actually actively pursues this fact about his family history into an actual Jewish practice or observance.
Often, a sign that someone in the family may have been Jewish is if they had a separate pot or pan to prepare dairy dishes. Food, he said, is a very important component in teaching Judaism to this emerging population.
As far as numbers go, when taking a current census of Polish Jewry, Schudrich in an August 2017 interview with Polish Culture.PL magazine said it is tough to say. This is because only after the fall of Communism in 1989 did people find out they had a Jewish parent or grandparent. Now, as they come to their Judaism in fits and starts, Schudrich said his goal is to nurture them on their journey and much of that journey is through education.
“Some people say 20,000, some say 50,000. I say, ‘Who cares?’,” he said. “What’s more important is to create engaging educational, social, intellectual and religious programming to give them a chance to become connected to the Jewish people.”
One thing he knows is there are elderly Holocaust survivors and Righteous Gentiles who need food assistance and an emerging population of Jews who are interested in learning about kashrut.
Learning from Yad Ezra
For years, Schudrich has been distributing food to the Jewish needy in Warsaw. However, during his visit to Yad Ezra, he said he has much to learn about creating a system.
“I knew I had a lot to learn and Yad Ezra could teach me,” said Schudrich. “It is amazing the system and organization they have developed to identify the poor, how to locate sources of food and how to coordinate volunteers. We have no such system in place yet, and that was why I thought this visit to Detroit was so essential to my efforts back in Warsaw.”
During the visit, he explained that Holocaust survivors live on about $400-$500 per month, not nearly enough money to cover living, healthcare and food expenses. There is also a need to help about 45 remaining Righteous Gentiles as well as Jewish disabled, plus provide an educational resource to those recently uncovering their Judaism.
Luger said Schudrich will be working in small steps. The Warsaw food pantry will not resemble what Yad Ezra has evolved into its current state — a food distribution center that provides an average of 1,300 families (almost 3,000 individuals) with food, health care items and household goods every month.
It will most likely resemble the organization’s humble beginnings in 1990.
Back then, it indeed was a food pantry and office operating in a basement at 10 Mile and Greenfield with the purpose of providing kosher food to vulnerable Jewish families in Southeast Michigan. In its beginnings, Yad Ezra served an average of 250 families every month.
The founders of Yad Ezra learned that there were impoverished Jews living in the community who relied heavily on government assistance programs, including food stamps.
Now in its third location, Yad Ezra operates out of a 16,000-square-foot facility on 11 Mile in Berkley and has been there since 2001. It has robust volunteer programing and offers educational and Jewish cultural programming as well in its warehouse and greenhouse spaces. In recent years, Yad Ezra, along with Bais Chabad of West Bloomfield, sent a truck of with thousands of pounds of food to Houston after Hurricane Harvey and helped food pantries in Ann Arbor, Inkster and Flint. Yad Ezra also provides resources to JARC and Kadima homes as well as food assistance to 1,000 children in Jewish day schools in Metro Detroit.
Luger said Schudrich will need to get the green light from local Warsaw authorities as well as lay leadership in the local Jewish community to make the Polish food pantry happen. What Yad Ezra can do, in addition to putting out a call for funds on its website, is to continue consulting with Schudrich on Yad Ezra’s best practices on how to grow a sustainable food distribution operation.
This includes identifying clients and their individual needs, establishing a point system to determine fair allotments, identifying the supplies and equipment needs, such as shelving, sources of food, creating job descriptions and how to recruit professional and lay leaders and volunteers.
Luger said that Schudrich will have a way to go — including establishing a board working with local authorities and raising the funds to evolve the project to the level Yad Ezra now enjoys.
“Many small details go into running a food pantry, and the Yad Ezra board and I are more than happy to provide best practices advice and help raise funds to see this project come to fruition,” Luger said. “This project fits our compassionate vision in helping Jewish families and individuals in need, here and on a global capacity.”
Upon his return to Poland, Schudrich wrote Yad Ezra a thank-you letter that appeared in the journal for this year’s fundraising dinner.
He wrote of the demonstrated pride and dedication of Yad Ezra’s staff and volunteers and was inspired to take what he learned in Detroit and bring it back to Warsaw.
“One of my important responsibilities is to connect people to Judaism,” Schudrich wrote. “If we are teaching young and old about Kashrut, we must have kosher food available, even for those who can’t afford it … We have a large task, at hand, and your mentoring and assistance has opened our eyes to all that can be accomplished.”
Yad Ezra has dedicated a web page for donations that will go specifically to the development of the food pantry in Warsaw at www.yadezra.org/helping-hand-of-warsaw