Systemic Racism and Inequity are Real. Jewish Service is Part of the Solution.

This originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week on July 31, 2020. 

Passing the historic brownstones that line the streets of Hamilton Heights, I arrived at my 143rd Street apartment for the first time in August 2019. I had recently graduated from the University of Southern California and was brimming with excitement to begin my year serving as a Repair the World Food Justice Fellow in New York.

As I began to cook spiced chicken and vegetable rice, serve clients patiently waiting for a hot plate of food, and package healthy, nutritious groceries daily at the Community Kitchen and Pantry in West Harlem, our main partner organization, I realized I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect in the year ahead, but I was grateful to get started.

Over the next eight months, I harvested peaches at a local community garden, sorted through food scraps to make compost, and rescued thousands of pounds of fresh produce that would have otherwise been wasted. I also trained and mobilized hundreds of volunteers to support these initiatives, organized several community Shabbat dinners focused on food justice issues, and facilitated groups in learning about the prevalence of hunger in New York City and the Jewish values that drive us to serve.

Through this service, I gained a better understanding of the institutional racism that causes so many to live under “food apartheid,” the inequities in the education system, and gentrification that left many of our clients without proper housing and food security.

Suddenly, just as I settled into my place as a newcomer to the Harlem community, Covid-19 hit New York and began to spread like wildfire. As the line of people waiting to receive emergency food assistance grew longer and longer, donations of food and the number of volunteers signing up to serve started to dwindle. Within weeks, a staff member tested positive for Covid-19 and the Community Kitchen that so many residents relied on was forced to shut its doors. When it reopened weeks later, the pantry and kitchen were no longer able to accept volunteers due to the heightened risk it posed to staff and clients.

Leveraging My Privilege

In early March, I traveled home to my family in Colorado. Once home, I reflected daily on my privilege, and the guilt I felt for having it. I could easily leave New York and did not have to worry about showing up to work in-person. I had a comfortable place to live, access to a fridge filled with healthy food, and space to socially distance. I had so much and yet many of my friends, neighbors, and clients in Harlem, and the country at large, were fighting for their livelihoods and survival.

Jewish tradition and the value of tikkun olam (repair the world) teach the importance of showing up for others, particularly in times of sickness and crisis. Inspired by this teaching, I was determined to find ways to leverage my privilege and experience to create meaningful change and to support my partners from afar. I was not alone. Although we were spread out across the country, the New York team at Repair came together virtually and began creatively reimagining what volunteering and showing up for our community could look like in this challenging, unprecedented time.

Zoom calls, Slack and community Mutual Aid Facebook groups quickly emerged as we worked to figure out how we could best mobilize our volunteer networks to meet our partners’ urgent and rapidly-changing needs. Within weeks, we transformed our office space in Brooklyn into a donation distribution center, collecting and distributing over $8,000 worth of non-perishable goods like hygiene supplies and baby products to pantries throughout Brooklyn. We leveraged our networks to recruit in-person volunteers to drop off meals to isolated seniors, support urban farms and pantries, and redistribute PPE for community members in need. Our team is currently mobilizing 500 volunteers a week to support these urgent needs.

As the scope and complexity of needs grew enormously, so did the number of people who wanted to get involved and help. Our team pivoted to organize virtual involvement. I began to call and encourage others to check in with Harlem community members and seniors who were experiencing social isolation. I hosted weekly card-making workshops with individuals and families around the country on Zoom, where we wrote notes to clients receiving emergency pantry bags and discussed the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Latinx communities. The Community Kitchen then expressed an urgent need for increased donations to continue putting food on the tables of New Yorkers. I fundraised to provide 13,500 meals to the community through Repair the World’s Spring Into Solidarity campaign, raising over $35,000 to support our partners on the frontlines of Covid relief across the country.

While service alone cannot root out the systemic racism that contributes to issues of hunger, poverty, and public health disparities, to name a few, I believe that the need for service has never been greater.

I’ve been inspired by how we’ve confronted these issues at Repair, and encourage you to get involved yourself and check out more on Repair the World’s website to find meaningful volunteer opportunities near you.

Volunteering, paired with finding new ways to continue showing up during this time, building bridges and relationships, learning and listening, and serving in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other folks of color, can be an important first step to dismantle the racist structures contributing to inequity.

Haley Schusterman is a 2019-20 Repair the World Harlem Food Justice Fellow. This fall, she will be pursuing her Masters in Food Studies at NYU. She plans to continue working to cultivate a more equitable food system where a person’s identity, race or zip code, does not determine their access to a selection of affordable, high-quality, culturally appropriate food.