Debby Eisner is well-versed in volunteerism.
The longtime University of Pittsburgh audiologist, an observant Jew who attends services at Congregation Poale Zedeck, spent much of her time helping out at food pantries and senior living facilities.
Now, she goes to Our Giving Kitchen.
“When they asked us to come and help, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Eisner, who has lived in Squirrel Hill for more than 40 years. “They have young people and old people there. It’s not like work; they make it so much fun. And it’s such a worthwhile cause — the highest form of tzedakah.”
The Squirrel Hill-based nonprofit Our Giving Kitchen launched last summer when Rabbi Chezky Rosenfeld opened what he calls a “surplus store” on Murray Avenue — in the heart of Jewish Pittsburgh — for families to come and get free groceries, no questions asked. With COVID-19 raging at the time, more than a few families took Rosenfeld up on the kind gesture, and he began seeking (and receiving) private donor funding for the project.
Today, the nonprofit is what Rosenfeld calls a “communal kitchen” — people from all walks of life creating and cooking kosher meals on site for others in need.
“We started a little surplus pop-up store, which ran through August, September, when the food programs started going on at schools,” Rosenfeld told the Chronicle. “Now, volunteers come together to make the meals, and we have hundreds of meals each week. And it’s open to everyone.”
“Our model now,” he added, “is as important as the end result, which is the meals. It’s about how we get there.”
Rosenfeld runs the volunteer-driven operation “from A to Z” with his wife, Bassie, he said. Since they have moved over to the “communal kitchen” model, they’ve even started hosting private sessions, where a family or company covers the costs, and they do the cooking.
Recently, a girl and 20 members of her family marked her becoming a bat mitzvah by volunteering at Our Giving Kitchen: “While they were celebrating a bat mitzvah, they were also doing a mitzvah,” Rosenfeld quipped.
“The beauty of it is that it’s open to everyone — there’s no religious requirements or anything about levels of observance. The food is kosher, but it’s open to all,” Rosenfeld said. “The end result is the food, and that’s very important. But, coming out of COVID, we’re trying to build a community. And food is the great equalizer.”
Small but meaningful details enrich the experience. Every week, while volunteers prepare chicken and rice dishes or make meatballs from scratch, they also bake a sheet of chocolate chip cookies. The purpose? At the end of the session, each volunteer takes a pouch of two or three cookies and is told to share them with anyone they please.
“One good deed leads to another,” Rosenfeld said. “And it brings a smile to people’s faces.”
Eisner said she tries to save the cookies for someone who is sick. But she is enthralled with the whole process, which she called “a well-oiled machine.”
“It’s great, it’s a good time — you don’t feel like you’re working,” Eisner said. “It’s a great mitzvah to be part of, and it makes you feel good. You feel appreciated. And they do such a great job; they should get all of the credit.”
Our Giving Kitchen holds 90-minute volunteer cooking and food preparation sessions on alternating Sundays every month. Rosenfeld said each session yields about 150 to 200 kosher meals, cooked, packaged and ready for those who need them.
Information on how to volunteer can be found at ogkpgh.com. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.