Members of Young Israel of Southfield feel connected to Stevenson Elementary School, their closest neighbor. The K-5 school has 400 students, including one Jewish family.
Members of Young Israel of Southfield have always helped their own, reaching out to homebound seniors and others who need help. In the past two years, they’ve also developed a special relationship with the school next door.
Young Israel is a small congregation — only 140 families — but its members feel very connected to the neighborhood, where almost all of them live so they can be within walking distance of the Modern Orthodox synagogue.
Most of the congregation’s children go to Jewish day schools, but the congregation feels connected to Stevenson Elementary School, their closest neighbor. The K-5 school has 400 students, including one Jewish family.
Congregants were helping the school community before the COVID shutdowns by funding food packages for low-income families through the Blessings in a Backpack program, headquartered in Rochester Hills. The program aids students who receive in-school meals on weekdays by providing food boxes to help their families through the weekends. The congregation underwrote the cost of packages for families that included 50 Stevenson children.
Research has shown that as many as 5 million American children have food insecurity — meaning they are often hungry, said congregation member Andrea Gruber. “Hungry kids just pull at my heartstrings,” she said.
The congregation was planning to expand its support to two additional schools when COVID hit in early 2020. Blessings in a Backpack went on hiatus. At the start of the current school year, Young Israel of Southfield decided to provide its own food boxes.
Contributions poured in as soon as the food drive was announced. “My basement looked like a Meijer warehouse!” said Gruber, who coordinated the drive.
Through September and October, synagogue members prepared food boxes that they placed in cars as the families drove up to the school. Then they decided a food pantry would be more efficient.
They’d already been doing something similar internally. Many synagogue families with children received weekly kosher KiwiKids boxes, with a weekend’s worth of breakfast and lunch foods. Those who didn’t want a particular food item left it at the synagogue; others came in the next day to take what they wanted.
For the Stevenson families, congregants placed a large metal office cabinet outside the school. Donors leave food in the cabinet, and those who need food can take it.
When word got out, other community organizations started bringing donations.
While the program is promoted primarily within the school community, anyone who needs food is welcome to take items. The pantry is open 24 hours a day and is constantly being emptied and replenished.
As the December holidays approached, the congregation took their generosity a step further.
The school’s principal, Tonya Hickman, identified 15 families who were struggling financially and unable to provide Christmas gifts for their children. She gave the synagogue a wish list encompassing needs from computers and bikes to underwear, said the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yechiel Morris.
“It was really eye-opening,” he said. “This is a nice neighborhood; we don’t normally think people here may be in need.”
Some congregants went shopping for gifts; others contributed cash. School families that could, including several alumni, chipped in. The synagogue raised enough to not only provide everything the children requested but also to add gift cards to the packages. A nearby Trader Joe’s donated a gingerbread house kit for every family.
Before Christmas, synagogue members loaded the decorated gift packages into family members’ cars in front of the school.
“Those families were truly grateful for the outpouring of love and the smiles that were placed on their children’s faces on Christmas morning,” Hickman said.
After the successful food and gift distribution efforts, some congregants wanted to do even more. Ten synagogue members, from college students to retirees, now serve as tutors for Stevenson students.
“They Zoom into classes, and the teacher sets them up in private sessions to work on reading and math skills,” said Gruber.
Principal Hickman praised Andrea Gruber, saying she is the hero in this story. “She is truly committed to Stevenson and this community,” she said.
Hickman says the school community feels blessed and fortunate to have partnered with the synagogue.
Gruber and Morris say Young Israel of Southfield is “the Little Shul that Could.”
Almost all of the synagogue families participate in the community outreach efforts. “It’s a way for our community to reach out to others, a way to connect. It’s people taking care of each other, realizing we’re all in this together,” said Morris.
The school and the shul have named the overall effort “Neighbor to Neighbor.”