About a year ago, I got a phone call from someone I didn’t know. Like me, Rae Grad was a member of DC’s Adas Israel Congregation. Would I be willing to talk to her about chairing a new committee at the synagogue, the Hesed Cooking Team? She and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt had been “cooking up” the idea for a several months as part of the rabbi’s vision of expanding hesed, usually translated as loving kindness, in the synagogue community.
While I wasn’t looking to squeeze more activity into my own busy life, I couldn’t resist at least hearing out Rae. After all, food was involved! What has ended up happening since then has again proven the power of food to bring people together in friendship, caring and community.
“Hesed is a movement, not a project,” Rae explained to me. “It becomes part of the fabric of who we are as a synagogue community, not a program we schedule.”
The Hesed Committee itself wasn’t a new idea. For many years, volunteers had been making home visits for sick and bereaved members as well as occasional food deliveries, although all the items were purchased. When Rae took over chairing the committee in 2015, she and Rabbi Lauren began talking about making Hesed more robust throughout the community. By January 2016, the committee had grown to four subcommittees—visits, phone calls, meals and baskets for holidays and new members. In February, cooking was added along with a young family committee that was requested by several young families.
“Cooking was on the table pretty much from the beginning,” Rae said, “but it couldn’t happen so quickly because there were so many other new things to set up with Hesed,” Also, I needed a co-chair to help make it all happen. So, Rae found Kristen Carvalho who, along with her husband Elias, was new to DC and to Adas Israel.
After meeting with Rae and me, Kristen said yes to co-chairing the committee. “Not only is this a great way to get involved at Adas and give back to our community,” said Kristen, “but it is a fun way to meet other people.”
Starting in the summer of 2016 through February 2017, the Hesed Cooking Team has had seven cooking events with nearly 100 people of all ages participating, about 20 each session. Cooking has become so popular (and fun) that when registration for the March cooking event opened, it was half full in the first 24 hours without synagogue-wide publicity yet.
An important part of Hesed cooking and something we talk about each time we meet is doing it with intention. I like to think of it as loving hands and open hearts. Each session also includes a special Torah teaching with one of the Adas rabbis and time for socializing over tea, cookies and fruit.
The cooking teams have made honey cakes for the Jewish new year, vegetarian lasagna, vegetable stew, kugel, pumpkin bread, cake pops (with Baked by Yael) and, of course, challahs, which is a favorite to make. Cooking skills vary widely, with no cooking experience required to participate. Each cooked item goes into the freezer labeled dairy or pareve with the ingredients listed for people with allergies or other food issues.
The Hesed Meals Team, Adas clergy and staff and anyone who has volunteered to cook can all access the food to bring to people who are bereaved, ill, recovering from a medical procedure or injury, parents with a new baby and anyone who requests help. After six months, because of its growing popularity and need to make and story more food, the cooking team had to purchase our own freezer, rather than relying on space available in the synagogue freezer.
Kristen said it’s an indescribable feeling when she gets an email from someone who has been incredibly touched to be on the receiving end of Hesed food. “This is how a community grows,” Rabbi Lauren wrote in the March congregational newsletter, “by individuals realizing that they are a part of a greater whole that is endlessly affected by acts of hesed. And when one is on the receiving end of an act of kindness, she only wants to give back so that the next person or family is held just like she was.”
Rae added, “Is there more kindness in our community? Who can measure that? There’s more awareness, which is the first step to action or to anything. The fact that the food in the freezer keeps getting used is proof positive that something good is happening.”