A Thanksgiving mitzvah

In this file photo, Jayme Fingerman (left) co-chaired Temple Israel’s 2017 Thanksgiving Dinner for Those in Need and joined Creve Coeur police officers and volunteers such as Dee Mogerman in packing food for guests.  Photos: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Guests at Congregation Temple Israel’s annual Thanksgiving Dinner for Those in Need typically just head to the auditorium for a meal with the usual holiday spread. But on Wednesday last week, after they finished eating, they were also invited to go to the chapel.

It was not to pray.

Rather, when they entered, volunteers told guests where to find clothing and shoes for girls, boys, women or men. 

Ben Rich had taken over the room for his “Mitzvah Market.”

As has become customary at some synagogues, Ben decided to complete a charitable project as part of the process of becoming a bar mitzvah. The 13-year-old organized a clothing drive and market for people who might not be able to purchase new or used clothing. 

“I just wanted to be able to help out people who need it, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it,” said Ben, a Ladue Middle School student who had his bar mitzvah ceremony on Saturday.

There is certainly a need for free food and clothing in the city of St. Louis, where 27 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares to 12.7 percent nationally. 

More than 400 guests came to the Reform congregation’s 31st annual dinner from homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, subsidized housing developments, and churches, among other places. 

Ben had wanted to donate a collection of his pajamas but when homeless shelters wouldn’t take them, he and his mom approached Temple Israel leaders, who suggested a clothing drive. 

Ben then reached out to the more than 100 people coming to his bar mitzvah and ended up with a bedroom full of clothes. He and his family folded and organized the new and gently-used clothes by gender and size. Ben estimates they made 15 trips back and forth last week from their home to the synagogue at the intersection of Spoede and Ladue roads. 

As guests arrived, Ben and his family members answered their questions and helped kids try on shoes. They asked each person to take no more than three items to ensure that there was enough for everyone to get something. 

Ann, a 34-year-old mother of four, heard about the meal through her children’s elementary school in south St. Louis. The family picked out shoes and shirts, “things these children are really needing. I’m very happy and blessed.” 

Ruby Kendagor works for International Students Inc, a Christian organization that helps foreign undergraduate and graduate students. She brought about a dozen people to the dinner, most of them from Kenya. 

“This is my third time at the dinner and we love it,” said Kendagor, who is from Trinidad and has worked for the organization for 32 years. “I like that [Rabbi Michael Alper] has a chance to speak to the students. Some of them are theological students, so it’s good for them to get another perspective of what God is saying.”

One of her students had picked out a bag of shirts, “which is wonderful,” said Kendagor. “It’s needed; it’s winter and we want something warm on our backs.”

The dinner cost about $12,000, according to Temple Israel organizers. More than 90 people came from a subsidized housing development that has an issue with mice, which makes it difficult for residents to store fresh food. 

“It’s heartbreaking to hear that children, young ones are not be able to eat more than just through the school day,” when they receive free or reduced price breakfast and lunch, said Jayme Fingerman, who co-chaired the dinner with Sarah Falkoff. “I know this is a long weekend, which is why it’s really important that we feed as many people as possible.”

And this year, provide them with a new set of clothes. 

“For a lot of people, this is the one night they get a special meal, so they are dressed nicely,” said Ben, a seventh grader. “But a lot of other people aren’t able to dress nicely and it’s nice to be able to give them these clothes.”