Tucked into a lightly wooded area just outside of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiyot one can find a small compound of buildings that are home to one of Israel’s most innovative and enterprising volunteer tourism operations: Pantry Packers.
The program is an initiative of Colel Chabad, the charitable arm of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, and the longest-running charitable organization in Israel. Colel Chabad was founded in 1788 by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe with the goal of supporting the then small Jewish community living in Palestine. Today, it runs a growing network of programs, including a series of food banks and food delivery programs and other services for the needy, widowed and elderly.
Pantry Packers makes volunteering both fun and accessible, something beyond the scope of typical food-service organizations. By making the food packaging an “experience,” the facility has attracted both Israelis and a large number of tourists and visiting groups who want to help. The program is an initiative of Rabbi Menachem Traxler, who maintains a slight Texas drawl combined with distinctive Southwestern hospitality and warmth – all of which make clear his origins are far from Jerusalem.
Rabbi Traxler conceived of Pantry Packers as a way to engage tourists to help Israel’s needy and allow them to give during their time away from home. “The idea is that people want to have the chance to give back. While spending a few weeks in Israel, it’s good to take a few hours and be involved in an act that will benefit others,” he said. “Many of our groups are here to celebrate a family simcha or just a vacation, so our program allows them to add a sense of meaning to the overall Israel experience.”
Once inside the warehouse, which is maintained to the highest of food-safety standards, guests are outfitted with hairnets, aprons and gloves. The Pantry Packers experience begins with a short video telling guests about the hundreds of thousands of meals provided by Colel Chabad each year all over Israel. Then there is a brief tutorial so visitors learn how to operate the very basic machinery. Safety rules are taught and stressed.
From there it’s off to the food packaging floor where guests are directly involved in preparing packages that will be delivered to Israel’s needy. The items are primarily dried foods with longer shelf lives like rice and grains or dehydrated vegetables. The guests take the items which, via a system that can involve children as young as four years old, are then individually bagged, sealed, labeled, boxed and prepared for distribution.
Each Pantry Packer group receives personalized stickers with the group’s name on them. The stickers are affixed to the packages so that the recipients can be aware of the kindness and caring behind the food they are receiving.
Individual and group entrance to Pantry Packers is completely free of charge, although all guests are respectfully encouraged to make a donation and offset the very substantial food purchase and distribution costs.
Because of its long-standing work in the food distribution field, in February of 2017 Colel Chabad was tasked by Israel’s Ministry of Welfare to coordinate the National Food Security Project designed to benefit 10,800 needy families across Israel. Food Security is a welfare approach designed to provide recipients with both the resources and education to avoid hunger – and escape the downward spiral of poverty.
Colel Chabad is responsible for coordinating and managing the logistical operation necessary for delivery of food and resources with fresh fruits and vegetables provided by Leket Israel.
Thirty-six local municipalities across the country have already joined as partners and will assist in identifying families and managing the local distribution.
“In 2016, we allocated two hundred and twenty-five million shekel worth of food for schools, employment centers for the disabled and senior citizen centers in addition to the 55 million in food packages. We are now embarking on an initiative whose purpose is to provide needy families with food security throughout the year in a respectful way,” said Welfare Minister Haim Katz. “This is a project that includes all segments of our society – North, South, Center, Ultra Orthodox, Secular, Jews and Arabs. I hope that these activities are successful and hope to expand the program to more families across the country.”
Families participating in the program have been identified as lacking in basic food materials. Each family is provided with dedicated credit cards automatically filled with 500 shekel per month. Two hundred and fifty shekel of the money is to be used on food items only (no alcohol or tobacco) at approved supermarkets and the remaining two hundred and fifty shekel for fruits and vegetables provided by Leket and dry goods. People around the world looking to sponsor an individual family can do so by visiting pantrypackers.org/aaf/.
“As the oldest continuously-run organization in the country providing food and support for those in need, we are honored to have been chosen to embark on this major first step in revolutionizing food security across Israel,” said Mendy Blau, Israel Director of Colel Chabad. “This is the first time that such a large scale program has been initiated by the Ministry, working to help those suffering from food insecurity in a meaningful and respectful way. Our ultimate goal is not just about giving handouts but inspiring these families to change their habits to become more self-sufficient and escape poverty. We thank the minister for his sincerity and for bringing this important project to the forefront of public concern.”
To find out more or to register for a visit to Pantry Packers and to support the work of Colel Chabad, visit pantrypackers.org.