When things seem impossibly dark and sad, it's nice to be reminded that there is still good in the world. As we noted already, there are ways in Los Angeles to help feed the hungry. One example takes place Christmas day, when, for the 18th year in a row, Temple Adat Elohim will be serving several hundred people a free community holiday dinner at Thousand Oaks High School.
"If you need a place to spend December 25th with good food, music, laughter and a chance to make new friends, we have the perfect place for you. It's completely free and you're already invited," says a widely distributed flyer.
There will be turkey and all the trimmings, but, more than that, there will be companionship and care, something missing in the lives of many of the homeless and elderly who attend the event.
Attorney Robert N. Greenberg, long-time temple member, is organizing this year's dinner (as he has for the past five years.) The Simi Valley resident is quick to credit the many volunteers who donate time, food and services. As Greenberg describes the preparations, it's clear there is a chain of compassion that makes it all come together.
"The first phone call I make every year is to Thousand Oaks High School. They are so gracious in allowing us to use their cafeteria and kitchen," says Greenberg.
Next on the list of unsung heroes is Larry Vad, president of Ideal Meat & Provisions, which donates 10 cases of turkey breasts. The meat is sent to chef Jonathan Weiss, owner of Big Mango café and catering company.
"Jonathan cooks it up. On Christmas morning he arrives with trays of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, salads, gravies," says Greenberg.
Another person with a big heart -- and a big store -- is Scott Jacobs, warehouse manager of the Costco in Westlake Village, who makes a very sweet contribution. Any baked goods that haven't sold by the end of the day on Christmas Eve are donated to the community holiday dinner. Greenberg says there typically are a "truckload" of breads, muffins, cookies, cakes and pies.
An additional key player in this meal of many mensches is Richard Villafan, operations manager of Durham bus service. "Here's the great thing. He donates, meaning free of charge, two buses and two drivers," says Greenberg. "So we can provide bus service. For one, we send a bus up to Leisure Village and those people can get on the bus and the bus will bring them to the high school. We feed the driver and the driver waits around and he drives them back."
A second bus is sent to churches and other places where homeless people congregate. Greenberg says getting the word out to that population can be challenging, but a temple volunteer makes the rounds in the weeks before Christmas, trying to let people know. Also, when the congregation hosts a "winter shelter" on Sunday nights in December, giving homeless people a place to sleep, they are encouraged to attend the upcoming holiday dinner.
One positive problem Greenberg has had to deal with is making sure there is enough work for the dozens of temple and community volunteers who want to help out. He solved this by organizing the day into precise shifts and tasks, such as decorating, parking lot duty, greeting, serving food and cleaning up.
"The first shift I basically reserve for young families, parents and their kids, so they can decorate. We have placemats that children have made. We put up lights, we decorate the cafeteria," says Greenberg.
We should have known better than to ask if there's always enough to eat. In the tradition of Jewish cooks everywhere, Greenberg says: "We've never run out of food."
In fact, guests are encouraged to take extra food with them. Even with that, there often are leftovers at the end of the day, allowing the temple to donate to local food banks. And Greenberg himself takes baked goods to homeless people who hang out behind the Simi Valley Target store.
Greenberg declines to take credit for the day's success, saying only "it's a mitzvah to help others," in keeping with a goal of Judaism to help repair the wrongs in the world, or "tikkun olam."
Adds Greenberg: "It's not me, I just take names and tell people what to do. It's everyone else giving their time and energy to come and have a good spirit and lift up these people who would otherwise not have any place to go, they'd be by themselves."
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The dinner will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 25 at Thousand Oaks High School. For more information call Temple Adat Elohim at (805) 497-7101.
Thousand Oaks High School: 2323 N. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks.
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