On the day after Yom Kippur, an intergenerational group of about 25 people from the Or HaLev havura gathered at the Chester home of David Glassberg and Beth Pletcher.
Teens Jason Cohen and Tyler and Jason Volk, all from Randolph, were in the kitchen tossing salad. Nearby, Bernice Billig of Hackettstown, some years their senior, was chopping fruits and vegetables, while in the garage, Roz Steinberg of Byram Township and a group of middle-aged women were preparing sandwiches from whole grain bread, honey, peanut butter, and cinnamon.
All worked under the direction of Zamir Hassan, founder of Muslims Against Hunger and the Hunger Van, a kind of mobile soup kitchen.
Hassan and his Hunger Van had arrived with all the necessary supplies from mixing bowls to food packages to put together meals for 200 homeless people. Later in the day, he took a small group with him in his van to deliver the food to people in need at Penn Station in Newark.
The social action project is part of a larger interfaith effort between Or HaLev and the Muslim community. Deb Smith, who leads the havura, met Hassan at an interfaith dinner during Ramadan and was so impressed with his work that she invited him to speak at her congregation on a Friday night in early August.
The community immediately decided they wanted to participate in his work, and chose the day after the Yom Kippur fast to help relieve food insecurity in the area.
It also marked the first social action project for Or HaLev, which officially launched earlier this year.
“It’s a hands-on way to build community. We want to be engaged in outreach with other cultures and communities,” said Smith, a rabbinical student at ALEPH — Alliance for Jewish Renewal, based in Philadelphia. She also pointed out that the initiative serves as a kind of prequel to The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s annual Weekend of Twinning between Jewish and Muslim communities in November, in which they plan to participate.
Billig called the work “very gratifying,” and added, “I like to feed people.”
Pletcher, a physician who works at University Hospital in Newark, said, “I see a lot of need in that community and I’m really excited that today we can go back and give people the meals they need.”
While Jason Cohen, 16, came because “it’s a good way to help people,” the Tyler brothers pointed out that it wasn’t their first interaction with feeding people in need. Their mother, Randi Volk, had taken them to the soup kitchen to help out in the past.
“My father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, often talks about what it was like to really be starving. I’ve taught my children they have to give back. This is just one way to give back,” she said.
Hassan, an IT and telecommunications consultant, got involved in faith-based anti-hunger work almost by accident, after visiting a local soup kitchen for the first time in 2000.
“I was shocked at how much poverty there is right here in my backyard. There were 225 people at that time who came,” he said. “I went to my mosque — the Muslim Center of Somerset County — and talked about it.”
Fellow congregants there had the same reaction he’d had, and he soon started mobilizing people to come with him to the soup kitchen. Over time, his effort caught on. He named it Muslims Against Hunger, and developed a kit to train other Muslim groups to fight hunger using the same model, now in place in many cities around the country.
But it was always an interfaith effort; he said he will bring any group that wants to go to a soup kitchen.
Two years ago he created the Hunger Van, which holds everything needed to make 200 meals.
“I realized that soup kitchens only help those who live near the soup kitchen,” Hassan said. “What about the people who live under the bridge, or at the train station?”
Asked why she had decided to participate, Steinberg said, “Because it needed to be done. And it’s time Muslims and Jews work together. We need peace.”