Reuven Poupko wears many hats, aside from a fur-clad shtreimel. A rabbi, lawyer and psychologist, the Baltimore native also served as chief rabbi of Curacao from 1998-2001, and has taught in colleges, rabbinical seminaries and day schools. But this Thanksgiving, Poupko is going to swap his bekeshe for an apron as he takes his wife and children to the streets of downtown Baltimore to share a Thanksgiving dinner with some of the city’s most downtrodden residents.
Poupko scoffs at the notion that the meal will take place in a meeting room or a social hall.
“We are going to eat where they eat,” said Poupko. “On the streets. We will bring tables, chairs, paper goods, tablecloths, and all the finery. We will eat with them, sing with them, and let them know there is someone who cares enough to share a meal with them and join them.”
Poupko’s mission to feed the homeless came about by accident about 10 years agowhen he and his wife attended a Muslim colleague’s wedding in downtown Baltimore. The chef went out of his way to accommodate the Poupkos, preparing gourmet plates of what he deemed to be kosher food. Afraid to offend the chef, the Poupkos apologetically told the chef that they had to rush home due to an unexpected issue with their babysitter. Undaunted, the chef wrapped up his culinary creations for them to enjoy at home.
The Poupkos thanked the chef for his thoughtfulness and left with the food. Having no non-Jewish neighbors, they planned to dispose the food at the nearest opportunity, but when they stopped at a downtown trashcan, Poupko’s life changed forever.
“Here we are,” recalled Poupko, “all dressed up in our wedding finery, about to throw two beautiful plates of food out in the garbage. After all, who could I possibly give it to in my neighborhood? All of a sudden I see maybe 10, 12 pair of eyes, sitting on benches. A voice inquired hopefully, ‘Is that food?’ I gave them the two plates of food. My wife and I felt so bad we went to a convenience store, bought sandwiches and gave them out.”
After that, Poupko was a man on a mission. The man who until now opened his home to numerous friends who were going through difficult times and felt Jews were more caught up in the intricacies of Jewish law than in showing compassion for their fellow man, opened up his heart to the destitute. It didn’t matter if they were gentiles or African Americans. What mattered to Poupko was that these were human beings, many of whom were as hungry for human kindness as they were for food.
Every Thursday night, Poupko prepares food that will be distributed the following day to the hungry and homeless. And every Friday, when the Poupko children come home early from school, they join their father for the drive downtown to distribute food to the less fortunate. In fact, Poupko says, his children seem surprised that their classmates don’t also feed the homeless.
Poupko found that his campaign to feed the homeless and show them some compassion had an unexpected fringe benefit. His Jewish friends who were going through difficult times saw Poupko’s demonstration of kindness as clear proof the there were Jews who really did care for other people. Combined with Poupko’s message that Judaism is about doing good and caring for others, they slowly came around and many are once again practicing, religious Jews.
Over time, Poupko, son of the former chief rabbi of Mexico, began to dress and consider himself a chassidic Jew.
“The chassidic lifestyle lends itself less to scholastic accomplishment,” explained Poupko, “but instead stresses the concepts of being happy and satisfied.”
In an effort to promote those ideas, Poupko founded Congregation Shevivei Ohr in 1998, an institution that prides itself on offering opportunities for prayer, personal development and performing acts of loving-kindness in order to improve the world. With minyanim every Friday night and Shabbos morning, the open and friendly atmosphere includes singing, dancing, and a traditional Shabbos morning kiddush.
This Thanksgiving Congregation Shevivei Ohr will serve traditional food of a completely different sort.
“Until now,” explained Poupko, “it was just putting my arm around them, giving them food, and offering a kind word. But it just wasn’t enough. I drop off food and then I go back to my home, just a few miles away, feeling good about myself. But it’s just not good enough.”
Congregation Shevivei Ohr will be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at 10 a.m. for Baltimore’s homeless. On the menu? Because of the difficulties involved in transporting the food, turkey roll sandwiches will replace a traditional turkey and there will be hot turkey gumbo (also known as cholent), cranberry sauce and, of course, dessert. Aside from the culinary delights there will be singing, conversation, and the knowledge that there are people who want to share a meal with the homeless.
Aside from the obvious benefits of feeding the homeless and performing acts of kindness, Poupko has discovered that his actions have an added bonus.
“This is a tremendous chinuch tool for my children,” said Poupko. “You can talk about chesed from today until tomorrow, but it can’t compare with going out there and actually doing something.”
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who has written for various Jewish newspapers, magazines and websites in addition to having written song lyrics and scripts for several full-scale productions. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
In the best tradition of the pilgrims and Indians, Rabbi Reuven Poupko helps the downtrodden in the inner city.