Reimagining Tikkun Olam for Thanksgiving

2020 is a year like no other and it quickly became apparent that this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations would be very different as well. WHC has a long tradition of tikkun olam surrounding the holiday, and we were determined not to let the COVID-19 pandemic prevent us from helping our greater community.
We worked over the late summer and fall to adapt our two signature Thanksgiving programs to make them socially distant and as safe as possible, while still fulfilling a need that was perhaps greater than ever before as we all navigate through this pandemic together.

Sunday Stuffing

by Rich Gordon, Program Manager

The question of how we could still do something impactful and meaningful for the DC community and WHC members was first discussed as early as July.  We knew it had to be different, and yet we wanted it to feel so much the same – like Washington Hebrew was doing something as a Congregation.  We would have to think in terms of how one of our earlier Journal covers put it – “Alone Together.”  It didn’t take long before we realized that we’d have to focus solely on our popular All the Fixin’s project…  and I have to say, we were stunned with the amazing response.

For a typical All the Fixin’s project, the TOV Fund arranges for most of the items that go in the grocery bags, which are distributed every year to the Abram Simon School, Friendship Place, N Street Village, Carrie Simon House, and (new in 2020) the National Capital Area YWCA.  But if we couldn’t bring people together to pack the bags, we quickly realized that the safest way to accomplish this goal was to provide our members and community with as many resources as possible to pack the bags themselves, at home.  The need was great – 475 bags.  The WHC community stepped up and met that need — and then some! By the end of our socially distant, smiling-behind-our-masks Drop-Off Day, we had collected 570 bags!

WHC added a $25 grocery gift card and a full-sized sheet pan for every bag, too, so that recipients could purchase and cook a turkey.  Each bag is enough to feed a Thanksgiving meal to a family of four, meaning this year’s event will help feed almost 2,300 people in need in DC!

Sunday Stuffing – All the Fixin’s chair Emily Kishter said it best, “I am beyond thrilled and grateful at the overwhelming response and generosity from our community to surpass our goals for our reimagined event. The WHC staff made planning and executing this efficient and fun!  Best of all is knowing how many people we were all able to help.”

Additional thanks go to congregant Robert Schott for donating a truck and driver to pick-up bags and deliver to Abram Simon School, the TOV Fund, the volunteers who helped sort our online donations and replenishments, our teen WHECTY members for their Drop-Off Day volunteering, and to our many generous donors for helping to make this years reimagined Sunday Stuffing an absolute success!

View our Sunday Stuffing 2020 Photo Gallery

WHC’s Community Thanksgiving Meal

by Rabbi Aaron Miller

There was something different about Abraham and Sarah.

Unlike their neighbors, who closed their tent to keep out the sun, sand, and other people, our tradition teaches that our first patriarch and matriarch kept their tent open so that they might invite guests and those in need into their home. The Jewish story, and our Thanksgiving season, begin with hospitality.

This is why, for well over a decade, the Interreligious Council, comprised of Washington Hebrew Congregation, Annunciation, and St. Albans, have invited our neighbors for an community-wide Thanksgiving meal. Dozens of volunteers would fill our kitchen, and two busy hours later, we would prepare enough for the hundreds of people who join us in our building every year. The tables were beautifully set, a professional pianist played music on our grand piano, and the social hall was filled with the smells of turkey, stuffing, and apple pie. Our volunteers would not only cook and serve, but also eat and share company with our neighbors. With blessings by rabbis, pastors, and priests, a Thanksgiving meal with the Interreligious Council was exactly what hospitality should be.

With COVID surging through our region this year, we knew that hospitality- inviting others in- would be impossible. We also knew that the need was greater this Thanksgiving than any time in recent memory. So we got to work.

  Over the past many weeks, Mohan Mistry, an engineer by training, and our WHC maintenance crew, devoted themselves to addressing each detail and solving every logistical hurdle that a safe and socially-distant Thanksgiving demanded. Covered in PPE, our crew made enough turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, gravy, rolls, and apple pie to feed 300 people and, for safety, packed each item safely in individual containers. In a finely-tuned assembly line, volunteers carefully arranged to-go meal bags. Recognizing the need of this season, we made sure that each meal could feed at least two people. A rabbi could have never pulled off this kind of efficiency, and I have never been more grateful to have an engineer on staff.

While we could only safely accept a small number of volunteers to assemble bags, community members coordinated to distribute our meals to homebound or non-mobile neighbors in need. Community listservs organized to identify and distribute the dinners WHC had prepared. Donations came in to help offset the cost of the program, which was generously underwritten by WHC’s Tikkun Olam Values Center.

We could not be hospitable this year, but this Thanksgiving reminded us that we could still be generous. We saw this generosity as neighbors picked up meals for neighbors, as people made sure that the homebound in our community had food on the table, and as volunteers gave their time and donations to help heal our small corner of Ward 3. Thanksgiving in this time of COVID showed how generosity can help guide us through this difficult time, and we all pray that, next year, we can invite our community back into our sacred space.

View our Community Thanksgiving Meal 2020 Gallery