Through Jewish Community Partners, Jewish Memphis Delivers Smiles to the Most Vulnerable Memphians
When the call was sent to all corners of the Mid-South that Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA) was celebrating a milestone with a campaign to bring different parts of Memphis together to do good on a massive scale, Jewish Memphis went above and beyond to deliver.
Jewish Community Partners (JCP), a long-time collaborator through Memphis Jewish Federation’s partnership with MIFA to provide Jewish seniors with nutritious hot kosher food, rallied fifteen other Jewish organizations to fill 1,000 Birthday Gift Bags in honor of CommUNITY Days, a citywide service initiative celebrating MIFA’s 50th anniversary.
These sixteen organizations mobilized their congregants, supporters, staff, and volunteers in an effort that reached all corners of the Memphis Jewish community, producing a stunning volume of gifts for our city’s most vulnerable citizens.
“The incredibly generous response to this community service project from all segments of the Memphis Jewish community is a testament to the love, warmth, and respect the community has for MIFA and its critical work in serving vulnerable seniors and those in need,” noted Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein, JCP’s Chief Strategy Officer and lead professional on the Birthday Bags project. “Once we had the idea to pack 1,000 Birthday Bags, all we had to say to the community was ‘this is for MIFA’ and the outpouring followed. When we learned that these birthday bags were the only gift that many of the seniors would receive on their birthdays, we became even more determined to reach our goal. Coincidentally, falling right before Rosh HaShana, this project became an ideal lead-in to the High Holiday season by uniting us in performing an act of chesed (loving-kindness) for the greater Memphis community.”
Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Congregation, Baron Hirsch Congregation, Beth Sholom Synagogue, Bornblum Jewish Community School, Chabad Lubavitch of Tennessee, Hillels of Memphis, Margolin Hebrew Academy/Finestone Yeshiva of the South, Memphis BBYO, Memphis Jewish Community Center, Memphis Jewish Home & Rehab, Memphis NCSY, Or Chadash Synagogue, Plough Towers, Temple Israel, and Young Israel of Memphis joined JCP by recruiting donors to purchase items and by encouraging volunteers to sign up to help pack the 1,000 birthday bags with items. These Jewish agencies joined faith-based groups across our metro area, forming a mighty cohort of more than 70 organizations committed to celebrating MIFA’s 50th with meaningful acts of generosity.
“We put the call out as soon as we had the details organized on our end, but it took a while before we were able to see how well we had mobilized the community,” said Courtney Shemper, JCP’s Executive Support and Governance Coordinator, and a key staff member on the MIFA project. “As the days passed and the collection boxes sat unfilled, we almost allowed ourselves to get worried we would fall short of our 1,000 bag goal. But then the shipments and drop offs started coming, and it simply did not stop.”
The Memphis Jewish community donated just shy of 13,000 items, from shampoo to socks, warm blankets to board games. With this outpouring of generosity from their agency partners and community members, JCP volunteers were able to fill more than 1,000 birthday gifts bags, loading them onto a bulging truck and sending them off to bring comfort and happiness to Meals on Wheels recipients.
The Jewish community’s passionate involvement in the 50th anniversary celebration is fitting, said Zev Samuels, MIFA’s District Long-Term Care Ombudsman.
“It’s important for the Jewish community to know that we were involved from MIFA’s very beginning. (Temple Israel Rabbi) Dr. (James) Wax was part the moving force within the community to establish the organization after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said Samuels.
“This participation with JCP and all the volunteers, it really goes to a great need. These Birthday Bags, I think, are a remarkable way of saying ‘We remember you, you are part of a community that cares,’” he said.
While the incredible generosity was organized by JCP and its fifteen partner agencies, it was families, individuals, and local businesses that supplied the items to fill the 1,000 bags. Many bought items from an Amazon wish list set up by JCP, while others shopped on their own and delivered the items to JCP’s offices, or made cash gifts which were used to buy items in bulk.
Others found different ways to contribute. The Knitting Ladies of Plough Towers surprised JCP with bags of hand-knit winter hats and colorful, cozy blankets. Local dentists Michael Blen, Irv Cherny, Marc A. Cohen, Robert Goldwin, Todd Gruen, and Todd Singer collectively donated thousands of toothbrushes, dental floss, and other dental hygiene products, as did dental products supplier Greg Siskin. Cooper Hotels had their regional hotels send cases of shampoo, soap, and body lotion. The JCP, Memphis Jewish Federation, and Jewish Foundation of Memphis boards spontaneously ended a board meeting by pooling over $1,000 for items. And a 12-year-old Temple Israel congregant donated her Tzedakah bag filled with coins and bills.
“The Jewish community’s gracious, generous, and compassionate contributions to MIFA’s CommUNITY Days were remarkable,” said Linda Marks, MIFA’s Inter-Faith and Community Outreach Officer. “The stunning partnership of sixteen Jewish organizations is one of the most powerful demonstrations I’ve seen of MIFA’s vision of uniting the community through service.”
The community also lent its support as volunteers, visiting the JCP offices in shifts to pack mountains of goods into gifts bags, which were lovingly decorated by children at Beth Sholom, Temple Israel, Bornblum Jewish Community School, the MJCC, Margolin Hebrew Academy, and PJ Library, as well as Plough Tower residents. The bag-packing volunteers came from across the community, and carefully sorted and inventoried items, tied socks and t-shirts with ribbons, and packed and decorated bags, including large groups of volunteers from Bornblum, Margolin Hebrew Academy Junior High, Cooper Yeshiva High School for Boys, MJCC, NCSY, Plough Towers, and Temple Israel.
Bag-packing volunteer Judy Moss, who also regularly volunteers as a Meals on Wheels delivery driver, took a break from stuffing gift bags at the JCP office to discuss the impact of MIFA’s meals and gifts on recipients.
“Some of these people are so needy, and they don’t have anyone in their life. By delivering a meal to them, sometimes we’re the only people that they see that day. These birthday gift bags maybe even go a step further,” Moss said.
“I think this kind of thing is maybe addicting. It’s not because it only makes you feel good for doing good. It’s because it’s a comfortable feeling to know that you’re making an impact, working with others, doing a selfless thing,” she said, before rejoining the new friends she’d made among the other volunteers. “I’ve never met them before. It’s wonderful to sit and have a conversation with these people, and make new friends. It makes me want to do this kind of thing more often.”