“How many of you have food pantries in your home?”
Silver Spring resident and former schoolteacher Susan Koss poses the question to a group of 10 Jewish homeschoolers ranging in age from toddlers to teens, and several hands fly into the air. It’s Monday afternoon, and she’s standing in the frozen food aisle of Shalom Kosher, a kosher grocery store in Silver Spring.
“Well, can you imagine being really hungry, and you open up your pantry only to find there’s nothing inside?”
A young girl’s mouth falls open in surprise.
“There’s so many reasons why families might not have enough money for food,” Koss continues. “But it’s important for us to remember that not having enough food doesn’t say anything about you as a person or about your worth or success in life.”
The children are gathered at the grocery store to buy food items for Yad Yehuda, the only kosher food pantry in the Greater Washington area. Over the past three months, the children have raised close to $800 in donations to spend today—mainly through small change stored in household charity boxes, called tzedaka.
“The most exciting thing for me is how a little bit adds up,” parent Suri Kinzbrunner said. “I think it’s an inspiring thing for people who might not normally give because they think they don’t have enough.”
Kinzbrunner and several other homeschool parents in Silver Spring—members of an offshoot branch of Lubavitch Homeschool Group—hatched the idea for the charity effort in early January after hearing that Yad Yehuda needed donations. The group originally set a modest $100 goal for themselves, but quickly realized they would need to adjust their expectations.
Their homeschool umbrella group consists of around 30 school-age children. Most families live in the Kemp Mill or Aspen Hill neighborhoods. While families are responsible for teaching their own students according to individual learning styles and needs, the group gathers for shared field trips, projects and other outings as much as possible.
Kinzbrunner said most families in the homeschool group are Orthodox Jewish and that all are bonded by their “shared religion, shared culture and shared values.”
Third-grader Vera said she raised $10 to $15 for the food drive by helping parents watch their children. Her parent requested that her last name not be published for privacy reasons.
Vera said she thinks charity efforts are particularly important given the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on people who were already struggling financially.
“A lot of people lost their jobs and things. They need more than usual,” she said. “It’s also just very important that we help people in need.”
Eight-year-old Shayna Treister lives in Kemp Mill with her parents and four siblings. She said saving money for the food pantry taught her to be thankful for her family’s financial stability.
“I thought money was just paper. What’s so good about paper?” she asked. “But it actually is helpful, and it can help us survive our lives. I realized how lucky I am that we have that.”
Treister and her siblings raised over $3 in their tzedaka.
Aravah Treister, Shayna’s mother, said the experience has been a great opportunity to teach her students about where money goes and how it can help other people.
“Some of the kids were learning about currency in our math studies, so it was really relevant for them to actually count all the dimes and nickels,” she said.
Koss has been a volunteer with Yad Yehuda for close to 10 years. The child of an immigrant parent who fled the Holocaust, she had been an educator in Jewish schools for many years before retiring in 2014 and getting involved with the food pantry.
She said Yad Yehuda follows careful kosher guidelines so that recipients don’t have to check every item themselves. The food drive has been an exciting opportunity to help children connect with their faith in a tangible way, Koss said.
“Religiously, everything comes from God. We know that, and so we need to share our blessings with others,” she said. “Whether kids give part of their birthday money or save up from doing chores, it’s a beautiful value to teach them to help others.”
Back in the grocery store, Kinzbrunner and Koss help some of the younger children pile blocks of cheese and yoghurt into their cart, while an older student holds a calculator and keeps track of how much food their money will buy.
“This is part of who we are,” Koss tells students. “We’re here to do good in the world.”
The group’s funds end up covering the cost of 150 cups of yoghurt, 43 bags of shredded cheese and 11 large packages of sliced cheese. After leaving Shalom Kosher, the students are driven to Yad Yehuda where they drop off their purchases.