Gleaning’s Jewish connection drives Federation’s Food Bank effort

Gleaning’s Jewish connection drives Federation’s Food Bank effort

These volunteers are all smiles after spending a day in West Newton, Pa., harvesting corn — two tons’ worth — as part of the Volunteer Opportunity of the Month program. (Photo courtesy of Amy Cohen of the Volunteer Center)
These volunteers are all smiles after spending a day in West Newton, Pa., harvesting corn — two tons’ worth — as part of the Volunteer Opportunity of the Month program. (Photo courtesy of Amy Cohen of the Volunteer Center)

Thirty miles outside of Pittsburgh, 12 volunteers gleaned. As part of Volunteer Opportunity of the Month (VOOM!), a program hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Volunteer Center, regular and first-time volunteers traveled to West Newton, Pa., to partner with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Greenawalt Farm. With hats, sunglasses and shirts with rolled-up sleeves, the volunteers spent several sweat-filled morning hours amid rolling fields of corn.

“We picked corn, put it in bags, loaded it in the wagon and into the Food Bank truck,” said Kendra Coyle, a first-time volunteer who brought three of her daughters to the event. “It was hot, but good.”

By the program’s end, the group harvested two tons of corn — enough to feed 400 families — said Jeralyn Beach, food resource manager at the Food Bank.

“It was a beautiful day,” she said. “We got a lot of corn that we’ll be able to give to people.”

The corn will be available to recipients either via local food pantries or Produce to People, a large-scale direct distribution program administered by the Food Bank.

Although the Food Bank has worked with Greenawalt Farm for the past five years, it was the parties’ first collaboration with the Volunteer Center.

Amy Cohen, Volunteer Center manager, came up with the idea and reached out to contacts at the Food Bank for help setting up the logistics, said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing at the Federation.

Once the details were in order, Cohen worked with Vicki Holthaus, chair of the Volunteer Center, to ensure that the program had an extra Jewish component.

After riding a wagon out to the corn fields, the volunteers gathered around. Holthaus then delivered a d’var Torah on the importance of gleaning and its connection to Judaism.

Throughout the Bible, references are made to gleaning. According to Leviticus 19: 9-10, “When ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.”

Holthaus acknowledged the biblical imperative of providing for the poor.

Gleaning, she said, “fits into our Jewish roots. We’re providing food for people in need.”

Cohen appreciated Holthaus’ remarks and stressed the importance of connecting Jewish learning and Jewish action.

“It’s important to be able to relate what we do to why we do,” she said. “We want to be able to create a strong, vibrant, Jewish identity. That way, people understand a sense of giving back as a Jewish obligation.”

Cohen called Holthaus’ dvar Torah “a really positive experience. It’s good to have a Jewish learning component piece — a piece that we wanted to bring to our volunteer opportunities.”

“We try to infuse our events with Jewish content of some kind — either Jewish learning or other elements related to our core Jewish values (charity, prayer and acts of loving kindness) — to help our event attendees relate the particular event to the broader work of the Federation in helping to repair the world,” said Hertzman in an email. “In the same way, Vicki’s dvar Torah connected the volunteer work to its Jewish roots, helping our volunteers to understand in a small way what motivates us at Federation to support the organizations and causes that we support every day.”

Reflecting upon the positive experience at Greenawalt Farm, Cohen said she would like to make gleaning an annual event; however, for now, she is most focused upon the next volunteer opportunity.

On Tuesday, Sept. 8, volunteers will bake, wrap and label 500 challahs for donation to the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry. The event will take place at Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill. Volunteers will work with Deena Ross and Moishe Siebzener from Creative Kosher Catering. More information is available online at

Coyle, whose involvement with the Volunteer Center began with gleaning, said that she has already registered for the next event.

“I like to bake challah, and it’s a mitzvah — and I like to meet people.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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