This past Wednesday night, Tomchei Shabbos of Queens (TSQ) held their fifth annual Volunteer Appreciation Evening. The TSQ warehouse on Metropolitan Avenue, which is usually lined with shelves of food boxes, had been transformed into a colorful event space. Tables were decorated with balloons and a stage alluded to the forthcoming entertainment. Approximately 150 volunteers gathered for a fun, light-hearted evening that was graciously sponsored by Seasons. Dinner was, of course, plentiful, and raffle prizes were donated by numerous local businesses. For entertainment, the “Twins from France” performed a 45-minute acrobatic show, including participants from the audience and amusing all.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz stopped by to congratulate the leaders and all of the volunteers and declared August 24th “Tomchei Shabbos Volunteer Day,” presenting a certificate to TSQ leaders Shimon and Adina Pelman and Yitzchok and Aaron Katz. According to Yitzchok Katz, Melinda Katz (no relation, by the way) has been a “staunch supporter of TSQ ever since her days on the City Council. She has always championed our cause and frequently looks for ways to benefit us and organizations like us. She is incredibly helpful to have as a friend and ally.
According to Yitzchok Katz, Tomchei Shabbos of Queens had organized volunteers for over 30 years and they realized they had never shown enough appreciation or acknowledgment. In truth, there are many volunteers who have been part of the regular workings of TSQ for over 30 years and they may or may not really need or want recognition. Nevertheless, it became important for the leaders to express some hakaros hatov. At last week’s event, one driver, Avi Ringelheim received special recognition. He is going to be moving out of the community soon, and his 35 years of regular deliveries are coming to an end. TSQ knows they wouldn’t exist without this type of long-term, dedicated volunteers. They want others to see his level of commitment as an aspiration. Ringelheim is just one of a core group of steady volunteers; Katz was able to name a handful of others who have had a consistent presence for 30+ years. These long-term volunteers know that their consistency is critical; there’s an awareness that if a driver simply doesn’t show up, the recipients will suffer.
It is a tremendous mitzvah for a small time expense. What a bargain! How could anyone pass it up, especially with Elul approaching?
Wednesday night’s event helped volunteers get to know one another better, too. Oftentimes, we see each other in passing on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, but many of the other volunteers are just familiar faces. At the appreciation dinners, we got a chance to get to know one another and make new friends. And that’s one of the major goals that TSQ is working to achieve. there’s a desire to make the volunteerism in TSQ more friendly and less tachlis. The change of mentality can be seen in the weekly chulent, kugel, and water bottles that are offered each week. More volunteers stop and chat with one another in the warehouse, and the overall atmosphere has become more jovial. The idea is to help create more friendship between volunteers.
Tomchei Shabbos of Queens began as an informal effort to feed those who could not put sufficient food on their table. These households are members of our Queens Jewish communities, our shuls. The packages contain all the basics needed to make Shabbos meals – generally the most expensive meals of the week – with challah, grape juice, chicken, eggs, some fruits and vegetables and dessert. Every so often, dips, cheese, and other tasty treats are included.
Over the years, the operation has grown from four families to over 400 families who receive weekly boxes of food. Food is delivered to every neighborhood, from Rego Park to Fresh Meadows, Jamaica Estates, and Little Neck. Volunteers come from all of these areas, as well, so Tomchei is careful to try to have volunteers deliver in communities other than their own, to preserve the anonymity of recipients and prevent any awkward situations. Currently, there are between 70-80 routes, with about 4 families receiving packages on each route. A handful of volunteers were lost over the summer, with people’s schedules changing in the fall, so TSQ is currently looking to fill at least 5 routes. Requiring nothing but a partner, a car, and a fairly small time commitment of about an hour every two weeks, it is a tremendous mitzvah for a small time expense. What a bargain! How could anyone pass it up, especially with Elul approaching?
Drivers get the most publicity – and possibly the most gratification – because they get to interact with the recipients of packages, but they are only a small part of the operation. On Wednesday nights throughout the year, groups of volunteers descend upon the unassuming Tomchei Shabbos warehouse on Metropolitan Avenue in Kew Gardens. The building fills with packers and drivers, focused and ready to make the night’s deliveries. There’s hardly a parking spot available outside, as volunteers load their cars. The main room of the warehouse is filled with rows of shelves and boxes that overflow with Shabbos foods. Drivers sign in and load carts with the boxes they’ll need, and stop by the fresh & frozen foods area so another group of volunteers can add chickens, cheese, and dips to the stash. As soon as the shelves begin to empty, a new shift of volunteers arrives to label and restock the shelves with boxes of dry goods, ready for the following week. The logistics for all of this are tremendous and require a whole team of leaders and volunteer coordinators to be sure that enough boxes have been filled and all of the routes are covered each week.
For the volunteers, participating in the Tomchei Shabbos operation is about more than just boxes of food. Many volunteers have expressed the fulfillment they receive from participating in Tomchei Shabbos. As one two-year driver, Halle Goldblatt expressed to me the night of the dinner, “Volunteering for Tomchei Shabbos is one of the most gratifying things that I do. I deliver to families who I can see are in need, and it’s extremely rewarding to know that I, first hand, am doing something to help them. The Volunteer Appreciation night shows the volunteers that their hard work does not go unnoticed, and it shows that the organization goes above and beyond not only for the families and individuals that they help but the volunteers that help them as well.”
In my own personal experience, I can say that as we’ve been delivering to some of these families for six or seven years, and over that time, we’ve made personal connections with some of them. We worry about their health and other life concerns and check in with their relatives if things don’t seem right. They give us so much joy, too. A steady stream of Wednesday night “good Shabbos wishes” gives me a chizuk that lasts through the rest of the week. When the relationship with beneficiaries, as with the organization, is so familiar, volunteerism no longer seems like a chesed project but simply helping out one’s family. Isn’t that how it’s should be amongst klal Yisrael?