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Repair Interview: Julie Bender for the Thanksgiving Project

When Jill Smokler founded Scary Mommy – a blog that chronicled her experiences as a stay-at-home mom in Baltimore, she had no idea that it would grow into a massive online community of parents. She also didn’t realize what a huge impact the site could have. But in 2011, a brave comment from a parent about her struggles to afford Thanksgiving dinner morphed into something big: The Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project.

Today, the site enables thousands of people to donate money to provide a Thanksgiving meal to a family in need, and build community along the way. Recently, Julie Bender, Executive Director of the related non-profit, Scary Mommy Nation, took some time to tell Repair the World more about The Thanksgiving Project, its impact, and how you can get involved.

1. What was the inspiration behind The Thanksgiving Project?
The Thanksgiving Project came about in 2011. One of the unique things about Scary Mommy is that we encourage moms to share both the up sides and down sides of parenting. This makes for funny, honest, and inclusive dialogue among moms, regardless of their differences. One part of the Scary Mommy community is a Confessional, where moms can share comments anonymously without worrying about being personally judged by other members.

Jill Smokler, aka Scary Mommy, recognized a trend on the Confessional of moms who were having trouble putting food on the table, let alone a holiday dinner. She did some research and discovered that the average Thanksgiving meal cost approximately $50 for a family of 10. Jill decided to provide $50 grocery gift cards for 2 families and asked any community members who were able to give just $25 and she would match them up and give the gift card to a family in need. The response was overwhelming. In 2011, Scary Mommy community members provided 400 families with a Thanksgiving meal they would have otherwise gone without. And Scary Mommy Nation, a 501c3 non profit, was born. Last year, The Thanksgiving Project helped close to 3,000 families and this year we have helped over 1,100 families and have over 1,000 families on the waiting list currently.

2. Can you share a story that demonstrates the project’s impact?
The stories Scary Mommy gets from the applicants are often heartbreaking and inspirational at the same time. These are families who have experienced so many challenges but still appreciate the generosity of strangers providing them with a Thanksgiving meal. Here is one example:

“I am a single mother to three amazing children, ages 8, 10 and 12. I have asked my oldest not to mention Thanksgiving multiple times in the past few weeks because its another day I know food will be a stretch to provide or promise. She loves to help cook and it pains me to face another unknown. I have been struggling with health issues for several years, and I have gone without food more often than not so my children eat. I was losing hope and literally prayed through tears last night, ” God, could you please give us a Happy Thanksgiving” I can promise you we will deeply appreciate this gift card and be grateful for every bite. I truly believe you and your donors are gently unveiling the shame and tragedy of hunger in our nation. I have felt hopeless and alone as others undoubtedly do, but am lifted up by the kindness of this precious gift.

I just read your email informing me of being chosen to receive a Thanksgiving gift card. I am totally in tears writing to thank you from the deepest part of my heart. Today was an especially hard day, and this good news has truly touched and overtaken me. I am so very thankful to be chosen and receive this help. I can now know in advance we will have food and a Thanksgiving meal. I know you are helping myself and the other recipients beyond just the food. You are helping us all have some hope, some strength, relieve a little of the stress, to feel some peace and for that we are all so deeply grateful.”

3. How has it helped to build community – within the Scary Mommy network and beyond?
One of the things that is so great about The Thanksgiving Project is that it helps families that are part of the Scary Mommy community. These are moms who may be on Facebook or the blog and no one has any idea how much they are struggling to feed their families. The project isn’t necessarily helping people who are homeless or receiving food stamps (although some certainly are) but rather people who could be in your circle of friends and for whatever reason (illness, divorce, recently laid off or spouse serving overseas) have fallen on hard times. This gift enables them to celebrate a holiday that would most likely have been another night of eating cereal or noodles. The luxury of a special meal isn’t easy to come by when bills aren’t being paid.

Another unique aspect of The Thanksgiving Project is that each donor, whether they give $10 or $1000, receives personal information on the family or families whose Thanksgiving meal they have provided. This personal connection between donor and recipient has led to relationships being formed between the families and holiday and birthday gifts being donated as well. Members of the Scary Mommy community live all over the country and come from every religious, racial and socio-economic background. Scary Mommy and The Thanksgiving Project connects every member in such a deep and meaningful way, because at the end of the day, we all want our children to be cared for and safe. And what better way to ensure that happens than by lifting each other up in times of need?

4. What is the best way for people to get involved?
The best way to become involved with The Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project is to go to www.scarymommy.com and donate whatever you are able to a family in need. Checks can also be sent to Scary Mommy Nation P.O. Box 20866 Baltimore, MD 21209. You will receive personal information on the family whose Thanksgiving dream you’ve made a reality. As Mother Teresa so eloquently said “If you can’t feed a hundred, then feed just one.”

In addition, you can also spread the word about The Thanksgiving Project in your community and on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. If you own a business and make a tax-deductible contribution, we have opportunities to showcase your company on Scary Mommy to our over 1 million followers.

Repair Interview: Sabrina Malach on Shoresh

Over the last two decades, the Jewish environmental movement has grown from a fringe afterthought, to an important aspect of the mainstream Jewish community. Organizations like Hazon and programs like the Jewish Farm School, Teva, and Adamah have made a big impact in the States. Now, an awesome organization called Shoresh, founded in 2009 in Toronto, is helping to expand this awareness to the Canadian Jewish community. Repair the World recently spoke with Director of Community Outreach, Sabrina Malach, about Shoresh’s programming, gardening across the generations, and realizing the dream of land-based Judaism in Canada.

What was the inspiration behind starting Shoresh?
Both the founder, Risa Alyson Cooper, and I are from Canada but lived and participated in programs at The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. We were fellows in Adamah, the Jewish farming fellowship, and Risa was also a Jewish environmental educator with Teva. We talked a lot about what it would be like if we could bring programs like that to Toronto.

When Risa came back to Canada, she had the great idea of starting a community garden in the suburbs, and that was the beginning of Kavannah Garden. At the same time, there was a huge new Jewish community center in development in the northern part of the city, and she had the foresight to approach them about starting the garden there. Most of our other programs stem from there – overall, Shoresh’s success has centered on offering the right programs at the right time.

What types of programs do you run?
Kavannah Garden is our flagship program. Each spring and fall, dozens of day school groups come to visit. Shoresh developed a curriculum for kids from kindergarten to grade 5. It weaves in Jewish and ecological teachings, but is based on Ontario’s curriculum, so it allows teachers to justify field trips. One program example is, we have this bike-powered blender that the kids love. They’ll go and harvest edible weeds and herbs, then go on the bike and turn them into pesto. So it teaches them about plants and nutrition, and helps them learn to see a world where food is everywhere and everything is valuable. It also draws from the Talmudic teaching that it is forbidden to live in a city where there is no vegetable garden.

In addition to the school groups, we have have a family farm drop-in program, and a CSA running out of the garden. It has been so restorative to build this ecological place deep in the heart of the Toronto suburbs. Our hope is that people take the ideas they learn and that they ripple out into their backyards and neighborhoods.

Do you have educational programs outside of Kavannah Garden as well?
Yes, definitely – we work with participants from kindergarten age to people in their 90s. We partnered with the Baycrest geriatric center to develop three gardens. We’ve trained the staff their and also go in every other week to work with clients. It is amazing to sit with bubbes and zaydes there, many of whom have Alzheimer’s or other forms of Dementia, and talk about growing food. We do a lot of sensory workshops with them, like having them smell herbs. Working with them is a reminder that a lot of the work we do with gardening and food is not new, and that we have a lot of wisdom to glean from our elders.

We also started a new program at the Kensington Market called Maxie’s garden. Kensington was once the center of Jewish food and communal life in Toronto – it was where all the kosher butchers and bakers were located. That is mostly gone now, but there is a man in his 90s who has been living in this house there since 1927. His backyard has some of the best soil I’ve ever seen! We partnered with Toronto’s Jewish Family & Child Services to create a program in his backyard where women working below the poverty line come and grow food. It is amazing to help revive some Jewish food culture in Kensington, while actively bringing social justice into our programming.

What do you have planned for the future?
Our next big project is the creation of Bela Farm, a 114-acre rural center for land-based Judaism, education, and farming in Ontario. Expanding from a quarter-acre garden to a huge farm an hour outside of Toronto is a big jump, so we have spent the last three years visioning with our creative team to think about what we want, and how to make it our own instead of just replicating other farm projects. We hope to fully launch in 2016, but have already started an apiary there, started a small orchard of 17 fruit trees, and planted 300 garlic cloves (originally from Adamah!), which we hope to double this year. We are taking it slow and weaving permaculture and Jewish values like shmita into the design of the space.

How has working with Shoresh impacted you personally?
Personally, it has been so amazing to be able to work with a small organization that does so much amazing work. My own personal interests have been nurtured, and I have had the space to learn and explore while making a difference.

Learn more about Shoresh, Kavannah Garden, and Bela Farm – and see lots of great farm and garden pics! – at Shoresh’s website and Facebook page.

Repair Interview: Naomi Friedman Rabkin on Food Justice at the Leichtag Foundation

Here at Repair the World we’re celebrating National Volunteer Month and the change makers and thought leaders who make the world a better place. Recently we caught up with Naomi Friedman Rabkin, who is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Leichtag Foundation in Southern California. (That’s her in the photo hanging out with Jewish Food Justice Fellowship Director, Rabbi Andy Kastner.)

She launched Leichtag’s wonderful new Jewish Food Justice Fellowship, is helping to create a vibrant working ranch (complete with a farm, an edible forest, and a vineyard!) for the foundation, and is meanwhile building strong, socially-active Jewish community in her community. She also is a lifelong service learning-junkie, and proud of it! Learn more of her story here:

What inspired you to get into the service and social change field?
I was raised in a family where people’s professions focused on helping others – as educators, activists, and social workers. My grandmother was one of my biggest inspirations. She was a proud socialist and a teachers union organizer. Some of my earliest memories are of her taking me to Pete Seeger concerts and anti-nuclear marches. That really oriented me to believe that people’s work was very much tied to doing good in the world.

In college in Washington DC, I got involved with service learning. All of my coursework had some service component. For example, if I was taking a women studies class and learning about violence against women, I volunteered at a battered women’s shelter. It captivated me, and from then on I got hooked into that approach to learning and experiencing the world. I ended up going to Israel and participating in Project Otzma where we did very intense service work. That spring boarded me towards focusing on Jewish service learning right as that concept was first coming into its own. Now Jewish service learning is fairly common, but back then it was new and all of these amazing programs like Avodah and AjWS were just beginning.

How has the field of service learning changed in the Jewish world over the last decade?
I think the focus is shifting, or at least the terminology is changing. There hasn’t been a departure from teaching teens and young adults about doing good, but it has become more focused. Instead of service learning broadly defined, you’re seeing programs focus on specific things like immigration, the environment, or organizing against homelessness.

What drew you to join the Leichtag Foundation?
The path started while I was in Atlanta volunteering with Hazon. Since being a participant in Otzma, I hadn’t really thought about how Jewish communal life could enhance my life. But with Hazon I was helping to develop a CSA and organize people in the Jewish community around food issues. During that time I developed a loving and unified community in Atlanta, and I started to expand beyond the CSA to create larger scale environmental and food events.

When my family moved to San Diego I had the opportunity to meet with the executive vice president at Leichtag, Charlene Seidle, and found out that Leichtag was planning to purchase a piece of land to develop food and environmental programs. I hadn’t worked for a foundation before, but I was excited about their mission and they were excited about my background and experience in the Jewish food world. It’s really a dream come true to work at a foundation that has the vision of creating a vibrant community and a farm.

Tell me more about Leichtag’s Jewish Food Justice Fellowship?
We are in our first cohort now – they started last September and will stay with us for 15 months. We wanted to invest in people in their early to mid-20s who had already gotten their feet wet in the worlds of environmentalism and agriculture and help them grow while contributing to the community. They work for food justice-related organizations for 25 hours a week doing everything from leading the North County Food Policy Council to working in an afro-ecology center. Additionally, they consult with local Jewish schools, synagogues, and senior care facilities to help build gardens or do other agriculture-related programs. And they spend 10 hours a week at the ranch developing programs, working on our composting system, planning an edible forest, and helping conceive of and lead conversations around the farm planning process.

The Leichtag Foundations Jewish Food Justice Fellows with Mark Bittman

The Leichtag Foundations Jewish Food Justice Fellows with Mark Bittman

How can people get involved?
They should check out our website and the fellows also have their own website. And if people are in the area, they should absolutely come see the ranch. We do public tours a few times a month. There is so much going on there, and it is a fantastic place to visit.