April 8, 2024
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Stamford’s Congregation Agudath Sholom Holds Mitzvah Day

The congregants who participated in Mitzvah Day on MLK Day.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the schools were closed, the Stamford shul Congregation Agudath Sholom (CAS) held one of its frequent “mitzvah days.” These mitzvah days work to support the Freedberg Family Kosher Food Pantry, which provides food and personal care items for those in need, both Jewish and non-Jewish. On this morning, shul families with young children went to a supermarket with $100 gift cards, bought loads of groceries, and then drove over to the pantry facility, where they unloaded them.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen has been the rabbi of Agudath Sholom for the past 18 years. During this time, the community has grown considerably. “One of the deepest values that I live by and try to instill is ‘making mitzvah moments,’ ” he said. “If we are given strength from God, we need to use it to help the people around us. For example, every week when you go to the supermarket, there’s no reason not to buy one extra item for a food pantry.”

The mitzvah day supermarket runs began as the brainchild of Amy Sroka, the chesed chair of CAS, with each family spending their own money at the supermarket. Rabbi Cohen came up with the idea of getting donors to provide the families with $100 gift cards each to spend in the supermarket. That way, the uncertainty of how much to spend is taken out of the experience. Moreover, this way people could participate by giving money, or by spending it. Rabbi Cohen explained that when he asks people to donate funds for the cards, he is not really asking them for money, but giving them the opportunity to make an “eternal investment.” He elaborated: “Financial portfolios go up and down. But this investment is eternal.”

The food pantry requires a capable staff. Victoria Parruccini is the marketing director of the Freedberg Family Kosher Food Pantry at the Elayne and James Schoke Jewish Family Service of Fairfield County, which has existed for 23 years. What started out as a CAS bar mitzvah project now welcomes needy clients on a monthly basis. Each month, the Schoke JFS serves between 600-900 families, representing about 3,000 individuals. Parruccini explained that in addition to CAS’s ongoing mitzvah day, a number of CAS families are “Mitzvah Matches,” who distribute food to two to three clients every month, shopping at the pantry and then delivering groceries to the client.

The people who participate in these mitzvah days are usually young families, Rabbi Cohen said, because they want to model chesed for their kids. Amy Sroka is the main organizer of this initiative. Having been a teacher for many years, she tries to infuse an educational component into the events. “When we get to the supermarket we talk about the kosher symbols to look for, and how to find them. We also discuss nutrition, and balancing food groups. The kids each get a sheet of paper with different food groups, and they have to go around the supermarket finding the appropriate foods.”

In the summer, the kids are given popsicles when they are finished delivering the food, to further sweeten the experience. Sroka explained that on the first few mitzvah days, the families went to the supermarket and then simply dropped the food off at the shul. Later, she came up with the idea of having the families go directly to the food pantry and bring the food inside, so they could see the shelves and the inner workings of the pantry. “It’s good for kids to feel helpful. They enjoy that feeling,” she said.

Sroka added that she organized one mitzvah day right after October 7, and a much larger crowd than usual showed up. She decided to take them to a different supermarket that carried more Israeli products. “For the older kids who could read, it was exciting to see the labels ‘Made in Israel’ right in our supermarket.”

Rabbi Cohen explained that Pirkei Avot teaches that we will be evaluated by the opportunities we seize. The rabbi’s book “What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone?” is about leading the best life possible, not only by doing good deeds during a crisis, but also by helping others during “life as usual.” The book further discusses discovering one’s “Elijah moment”—realizing that we don’t have to change the whole world, but if we can change it for even one person for one moment, we are bringing light into the world.

“In today’s climate,” said Rabbi Cohen, “the Jewish people have an even greater responsibility to amplify our mission of kindness. God said to Avraham that through him all the people on the earth will be blessed. We have to do all that we can to re-energize our mission in the world and be a blessing.

“One of the greatest obstacles in the world we are living in today is that we can get so overwhelmed by the darkness and negativity that it can lead to despair. It’s easy to throw up our hands and say, ‘What I do won’t matter.’ But Judaism believes that we can each make a difference. We shouldn’t spend our time lamenting about yesterday, or worrying about tomorrow, but seizing today.

“We are each a ladder from the earth that reaches the heavens. Going to a supermarket and getting food that provides a meal for someone in need is a tipping point to make our world worthy of redemption.”

 

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