Bima basket brigade; Kohn’s new ballpark stand

Shirley Berman has volunteered assembling bimah baskets for JF&CS since 1994.  Photos: Ellen Futterman

Ellen Futterman, Editor

Bima basket brigade 

I’m not keen on doing stories pegged to commemorative months, mostly because so many groups and organizations now have a particular month (or week or day) dedicated to raising awareness of an issue or cause, or celebrating some event. Take April, for example. Did you know that April marks 15 unique monthly observances; among them, Financial Literary Month, Confederate History Month and Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month?

So when I got an email noting that April also happens to be National Volunteer Appreciation Month, I wasn’t exactly running for my reporter’s notebook. But it was the second sentence in the email that got my attention: “Shirley Berman is 90 years old and volunteers in JF&CS’ Bimah Basket Program.  Shirley will be retiring this year after over 25+ years volunteering.”

Intrigued, I arranged to meet Shirley at Jewish Family & Children’s Service on a recent Wednesday morning, which is when volunteers assemble for three hours to make the bimah baskets.

“What’s this all about?” asked Shirley, after entering the room where I was waiting for her. I explained about the email, and then blurted out, “Plus, it’s National Volunteer Appreciation Month.” So much for having such high standards.

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“Well, I’m actually 89,” Shirley said smiling. “And I’ve been volunteering here since ’94, so it’s been about 23 years.” Plus, it turns out, she has no plans to retire from bimah basket making anytime soon.

“If they don’t mind, and I can do it, I’m here,” said Shirley, who uses a walking cane to help her get around but lives independently, drives during daylight and, as my mother would say, doesn’t miss a beat.

She became a widow in 1975, when her husband passed away at 51. She has two grown sons, one who lives here, the other in California, and a 26-year-old grandson. 

After retiring from the University City School District as a secretary and school tester at age 67, Shirley began volunteering at various Jewish organizations. A cousin told her about the Bimah Basket Program, which makes custom-designed baskets, filled with food and hygiene products, to decorate both the temple bimahs (pulpits) and individual tables at celebrations. 

Shirley says she volunteers because “I enjoy being with the people I’m with. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. We have a very nice group of people and we get along very well.”

With that, Shirley led the way to “bimah central,” in the bowels of the JF&CS building. Floor-to-ceiling shelves brimmed with thick spools of brightly colored ribbon while smaller table baskets were lined up neatly in rows.

Hessie Needle, Phyllis Kamenetzky, Ellen Bluestone and Donna Cohen, along with volunteer coordinator Patricia Johnson, sat around two long tables pushed together, deep in work, and deep in kibbitz

“She tells us what to do,” said Hessie, the newest bimah volunteer, pointing to Shirley, the group’s ringleader. 

“Shirley is the heart of this program,” added Phyllis, who couldn’t remember if she’s been volunteering for eight or 10 years. Shirley told her 10 as she resumed her place at the head of the table to put the finishing touches on one of the giant baskets. As she and the others worked, they kindly filled me in on the tricks of the bimah basket trade.

For starters, I learned that the boxes and cans packed into the baskets are empty. Otherwise the baskets would be too heavy to lift.

Once stocked, they’re enclosed with clear cellophane, then adorned with streamers and giant bows. Those ordering the baskets choose a color scheme; near as I could tell, the entire rainbow was represented in ribbons.

Making the giant bows takes skill and time. Shirley is a pro at them, and has taught most of the others.

Also, most all of the baskets are returned after a simcha and the contents recycled. “Some of the boxes might get a little beat up in transition, so we’ll switch them out and freshen the baskets up,” said Shirley. The group takes pride in sending out baskets that look perfect.

Large bimah baskets cost $65 while the smaller table ones go for either $25 or $35. Proceeds benefit the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

The women say they make five or six of the big baskets a week and a dozen or so of the smaller ones. They made a total of about 250 in 2015.

Martha P. Kreipke, manager of human resources at JF&CS, says volunteers are vital to the health of the organization.

“We have four times the number of volunteers than we do staff,” she said, adding that the agency has 56 paid employees. “Our volunteer workforce is critical to us. Without the hours they give the cost to our budget would be tremendous.”

Shirley, as you might imagine, is the eldest volunteer. Recently, she and her bimah basket pals were talking about getting older, when one of them asked her what her best year was.

“I told her any year that I’m living,” said Shirley, smiling once again.

Calling all killer pastrami fans

Expect double the delish as Kohn’s Kosher Meat & Deli opens a second stand at Busch Stadium this season. The new stand will be located outside Section 440. The original stand, which has been operating since 2013, is located outside Section 147.

Lenny Kohn, owner of Kohn’s deli, explains that the new cart will have an identical menu, including pastrami, corned beef, knishes and stadium dogs —  but will not operate under local Vaad Hoeir supervision. 

The original cart actually operates as two carts: One for strictly kosher food as certified by the Vaad, and the other for when games are played on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The kosher cart has Kohn’s signage. The not-kosher cart has “Coney Island Deli” signage.

Lenny explains that the new cart will have the Coney Island Deli signage because it is not certified kosher, even though the food essentially tastes the same as what’s sold at the Kohn’s cart.

And in case you’re wondering, Lenny says the most popular item is the killer pastrami dog, which features a large kosher knockwurst topped with grilled pastrami, onions, sauerkraut and deli mustard. You don’t have to wait long to try one; the Cards will play their home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at 3:15 p.m. Monday, April 11.