This April, the Sunday Lunch Program will celebrate its 40th anniversary. In that time, it has not missed a Sunday. Members gather on the weekends to make and distribute food to many in our community who are in need, continuing even when the pandemic has restricted in-person access. Miriam Reines, a temple member of 77 years, has been with the program since its beginning and now serves as its chair. The program is one of the temple’s longest-standing volunteer efforts.
When you head down to the Wise Hall kitchen, you’ll see a wall covered in photographs representing dozens of participating members, a testament to our members’ involvement since 1982. Miriam has been committed to the program’s growth since its inception.
One of many temple programs funded by donations, it was first created to serve the hungry of New York under Rabbi Dr. Ronald B. Sobel and his wife, Joanne. As Reines remembers, “We had 27 volunteers each week because we waited on tables,” serving hot soup and coffee. Floral arrangements in the temple were repurposed as centerpieces. At some point, Miriam noted, the temple moved from seating guests to distributing bagged lunches.
“At first, the temple redid the floor downstairs, so we couldn’t use the Wise Hall for a while. That’s when we started doing bag lunch,” where beneficiaries would line up outside as the temple security staff distributed the meals.
Volunteers prepared and distributed about 150 to 175 lunches every Sunday at noon. Much of the food was ordered from a distributor each week, although some of it was donated. Leftover food from other programs held at the synagogue was also included, as were collected toiletries. In 2019, the program started preparing 50 extra lunches to be distributed through City Harvest.
“When the pandemic hit (in March of 2020)…the temple was intent that we still feed people, even though our volunteers could not come into the temple to prepare it, as they had in the past,” Miriam said. Instead, they ordered prepared food from vendors who would deliver the food to the temple. Here, the temple’s security team gave the food out at the door — just as in the past. A year later, as the intensity of the pandemic eased and members were allowed to come back inside the temple, a limited number of volunteers returned to assemble the bags for distribution outside.
At present, Miriam estimates that up to 95 volunteers participate in the SLP. “Angels,” as they are known informally, are willing to come in on short notice or during a holiday weekend when more people are needed. Over the years, the SLP has folded in other temple outreach efforts. The Stitch’n Time group knits scarves and hats throughout the year for the program. Once a year, on a certain Friday, students in Emanu-El’s Teen Group do a Midnight Run, where they travel through the city distributing sack lunches provided by them. (This year’s Midnight Run occurred on January 28, 2022.) Every year, seventh-grade students in the Religious School come into the kitchen and work with the volunteers. Members contribute ongoing donations—“extra things to add to the lunch bags”— as mitzvot.
The Sunday Lunch Program will celebrate its anniversary in April of 2022 with a special Shabbat service. In the meantime, Miriam and Sunday’s “angels” plan to keep this essential food-distribution program going, getting bagged lunches and other essential items into the hands of those who need them during these very challenging times.