Several years ago, Chabad Richmond launched the Light of Shabbat program with the purpose of helping Richmond Jewish seniors celebrate Shabbat and feel connected. At first, the program involved making and delivering a free, homemade, kosher kugel and challah to six or seven Jewish seniors in the community every other week. As the program has grown, more people are receiving Shabbat meals, which now include soup, salad, a main dish, vegetables, dessert, Shabbat candles and grape juice.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the Light of Shabbat has expanded, and now approximately 140 meals are delivered every week to people in Richmond and beyond – an increase of more than 80%. And that number continues to grow. Now, not only seniors, but younger individuals, families and those in need can receive a Light of Shabbat meal weekly. Chabad Richmond hopes to expand the program even more.
A program like this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. More than 44 Light of Shabbat volunteers do everything from shopping, to food preparation, cooking, baking, packing and delivering the meals. Every volunteer plays an integral role.
Reaching out to help those in need is a core Jewish value. As we all know, the pandemic has resulted in people self-isolating, and many have little or no access to stores. Some have difficulty cooking, and others are simply feeling the desperation of social disconnection.
Supported through individual donations and foundation funding, Chabad Richmond’s year-round partner for the Light of Shabbat program is the Kehila Society. During the COVID-19 crisis, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has stepped forward and been supportive. In addition, Chabad Richmond has received donations of goods from Urist Cosmetics (hand sanitizer) and Real Canadian Superstore, Dan-D-Pak (food items), and a donor who wishes to remain anonymous provided facemasks.
Several of the Light of Shabbat volunteers were recently interviewed. When asked about their personal experiences volunteering, many said they deliver the Shabbat meals. The volunteers deliver not only to seniors (some of whom have mobility issues), but also to people who have lost their jobs, people struggling with physical and mental health issues, and those who are grieving alone. As one volunteer said: “You just don’t know what people are going through right now.”
Several volunteers have gotten to know Light of Shabbat recipients quite well, have become part of their lives and have forged strong connections with them. A number of volunteers say they feel like a lifeline for the people they deliver to.
One volunteer started doing deliveries with his son before his son’s bar mitzvah a few years ago. Acknowledging that his own family is fortunate, he said: “It’s a way to show my son the importance of helping others, and expose him to a wide range of experiences.”
Every volunteer’s experience is different, but they all have one thing in common: they all enjoy volunteering and feel that they benefit as much if not more than those receiving the meals. “The socially distanced shmoozing and forming of new friendships is important to the people we deliver to,” said volunteer Jill Topp. “And to me, too.”
While the Light of Shabbat program is primarily for the Jewish community, volunteer Topp said that she delivers a weekly meal to a local Muslim family. The head of the family told her: “I don’t know what we would do without you.”
As for what motivates the volunteers, giving back to the community is key. One volunteer, who chose to remain anonymous, said she treasures celebrating Shabbat with her own family, and wants others to have that experience too, even if it’s only to eat a Shabbat meal.
Volunteer Michelle Zychlinski said, “Not only do the recipients appreciate the meal, but they really appreciate the social interaction,” even if it’s from a safe distance of two metres. “So, if I can help in some way, I’m happy to.”
Volunteer Yael Segal said, “I feel it’s my responsibility, as a part of this Jewish community, to help others. It’s my honour and privilege to do it.”
Yet another volunteer, Shannon Gorski, said she gets back tenfold what she puts into it and volunteer John Samuel said, “It’s so important that people have community support. They deserve to have a kosher meal on Shabbat and to feel connected.” Another volunteer said that this opportunity has “enlarged my life,” and she wants to do more.
The connections made between volunteers and recipients will likely last beyond the COVID-19 crisis, with quite a few volunteers saying that they definitely plan to visit with their newfound friends after it’s all over.
Segal said she rekindled an old friendship when she delivered the Shabbat meal to someone she hadn’t seen in years. “One of the Russian families I deliver to recognized me from when I first immigrated to Canada as a small child. I built a rapport with them and have a little visit each week. They really look forward to the visit and the Shabbat meal. Some of the people feel very isolated.”
In the end, it’s all about building relationships with members of the community. As one interviewee put it, “It’s so important for people in the community to know that they are not forgotten about. And it’s good to know that I’m making a difference. The Light of Shabbat program is a great means to connect with secular members of the community, too, and demonstrate that Chabad cares about them.”
Topp added, “I encourage anybody to volunteer – it’s a great thing for everyone involved.”
If you know someone who could benefit from the Light of Shabbat program, contact Chabad Richmond at 604-277-6427. If you would like to get involved as a volunteer with the program, go to chabadrichmond.com/lightofshabbat.