The clang of the metal pans hitting the stovetop erupts from the kitchen. The effervescent blue fire allows the diced onions to sizzle as my mother swirls them around with her wooden spoon. I carefully crush a clove of garlic and dice it up to add to her mixture. The aroma permeates the kitchen and I feel an immediate sense of comfort and nostalgia, as I have helped her prepare for dinner for so many years.
When I was younger, every Friday night my three siblings and I gathered to share Shabbat dinner with family and friends. The table was always surrounded by people, piled with platters of food, and adorned by two lit candles, flickering over heated discussions. Some nights these dinners ended happily with dessert, while other times, huge arguments erupted. I learned that fighting for your beliefs and values is incredibly important, even if they differ from those held by the ones you love. Ultimately, I learned the value of convening around the dinner table to share food and opinions.
Coming from an observant Jewish family, tikkun olam — Hebrew for “repairing the world” — was central to my upbringing. My family regularly participated in social justice projects, including preparing meals for homeless shelters and packing food boxes at Manna, a community pantry in Potomac, Maryland.
My parents made sacrifices to send us to a private Jewish day school, and my Jewish identity certainly shaped the person that I am today. Yet, as I grew older, I began to struggle with this identity. I questioned why traditional Judaism did not treat men and women equally. I became aware that my school, synagogue and youth group were incredibly homogenous, composed almost entirely of white, affluent and educated people. We seemed to have such strong values, yet we were so disconnected from communities that we “helped.”
In college, studying sociology and global development, I delved deeper into learning about the structures that lead to inequity in order to develop strategies to tackle these challenges. I learned to struggle with confronting my own unconscious biases, work toward utilizing my privilege to be a better ally and learned the importance of cultivating a diverse network of friends. I became involved with and later led many programs on campus addressing food security, educational equity and homelessness. In this country, access to food, a basic human right, can be dependent on one’s income, education and race. This is unacceptable. I wanted to be a Repair the World Fellow to learn to combat food injustice and to ensure that good quality food is available to all.
I aspire to pursue a career in a social-justice related field, so Repair seemed like a perfect next step for me to take after college. I packed my bags and headed to Pittsburgh, a city that I only passed through once before.
I have been pleasantly surprised by this city. I love working with local farms and gardens, my hands stained with soil from planting plants and harvesting crops. I have been welcomed so graciously and immediately into communities, festivals and synagogues. I see first-hand how Repair the World Pittsburgh pulls the Jewish community together while simultaneously pushes them to look deeper into power and justice and not just “talk the talk” but “walk the walk.” We don’t “help” communities — we partner with them.
The Pittsburgh Repair team emphasizes that each identity we hold is central to who we are, and as a community, we are strongest when we come together to embrace these differences through solidarity. Here we understand that justice does not mean justice for only the Jewish community, but justice for all marginalized groups. Until all historically oppressed groups are valued in society, we as a Jewish community will not sit idly by.
Though I had limited knowledge about the Pittsburgh area before arriving, I see ties to my heritage everywhere I go. I see where my mother, who grew up in the neighborhood of East Liberty where I now live and work, went to school, spent time with friends and attended youth group meetings. I see so much pride in embracing culture and history in all of the communities that make up this city. I see people realizing that in order to create progress we must address the past.
Through the Cooking Matters Program with 412 Food Rescue every week, we discuss healthy and affordable food options and cook with an amazing group of people from all over the area. I know from my past, with family and friends, the power and importance of a meal with others. It’s a moment to sit, talk and both explore other cultures and share our own. Together, we are creating a community where everyone can access nutritious and culturally appropriate food, and share thoughtfully prepared meals with the people they love. pjc
Maya Bornstein is a 2019-’20 Repair the World Pittsburgh Fellow. She graduated from Emory University, where she studied sociology and international development.