September 13, 2012
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Bar and bat mitzvah project ideas

Kosher kindness

for The Brooklyn Paper

If there’s one thing that Jews love, it’s food. From apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah to latkes during Chanukah, sharing food is an essential part of Jewish tradition. For many in the Chicago area, though, hunger remains a serious problem. That’s why Stephanie Guralnick of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in Westchester, Illi. took it upon herself to tackle the issue of hunger in a personal, dignified way.

Stephanie recently completed her bat mitzvah project as a volunteer at the Uptown Cafe, Chicago’s first kosher food outreach program. The cafe offers high quality kosher brunch and dinner to Jews and non-Jews alike in a restaurant setting three days a week. The program is sponsored by the Tov Organization and the Jewish United Fund, a Chicago-based volunteer network, and is challenging the stigma and social isolation associated with traditional soup kitchens.

We recently spoke with Guralnick over the phone about her project and how it’s changed her views on food and community.

Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guide: Tell us a little about your project. How did you discover the Uptown Cafe?

Stephanie Guralnick: It all started when I was talking to a couple friends. One of my friends said her brother had volunteered [at the Uptown Cafe] and had a fantastic experience. So, I Googled it and saw it wasn’t just a soup kitchen.

BBMG: How does it work?

SG: Well, I’ve volunteered at a soup kitchen before, but this [Uptown Cafe] is different. You’re a volunteer waiter or waitress. You get there around 5 pm and start serving around 5:30. The guests get a choice of what they want and then at 6:45 volunteers go and sit with the guests and chat. It’s like being served at a restaurant, as opposed to eating at a picnic table.

BBMG: That’s a different model than most soup kitchens.

SG: Yeah. I didn’t know what to expect on the first day. But the first time I was there, I spoke with this interesting guy. He was in a wheelchair and had a number of physical disabilities. We got along great. We were talking about the movies and a bunch of stuff. At the end of the night, he came up to me and said: “I wish I could tip you.”

BBMG: Sounds like you made a connection.

SG: The people there are so kind and so grateful. We [my dad and I] went twice a month from September through February. I go once a month now. It’s a 45-minute drive [from Westchester] but I sometimes do school work on the drive over when there’s traffic.

BBMG: Very smart. How many people have you served?

SG: Oh, geez! I don’t know — a hundred, at least. I remember one girl, though. She was my age, and when I arrived she looked like she wanted to be anywhere but [the Uptown Cafe]. But at the end of the night, we were exchanging middle school stories.

BBMG: So you made new friends?

SG: Yes! But I’m not allowed to keep in touch with them because of confidentiality issues.

BBMG: That makes sense. Did you ever bring your school or temple friends along with you to volunteer?

SG: I did. I went with a friend a few times, but I don’t know if she’s involved still. A lot of my friends don’t really do community service, so their initial reaction was shock.

BBMG: Why shock?

SG: The project is different. You really get a chance to look into their lives. You actually get to interact with people. Some of [the people at the soup kitchen] I would not have realized needed food services. It kind of gave me a new perspective on life, on everything.

BBMG: Would you recommend the experience to other students?

SG: Definitely. I’m still involved and I finished my bat mitzvah. My rabbi [Robin Damsky] said she’d never really seen a student who continued doing the project after finishing the bar or bat mitzvah. I mean, I get to interact with people and have fun.

BBMG: Well, congratulations. Keep it up.

SG: Thanks!

For more information on volunteering at Uptown Cafe and other ways to get involved with the community, visit www.juf.org/tov/.

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