Jewish students and Russian-speaking retirees who fled the former Soviet Union have something in common: They might need help getting the specific foods typically eaten during the Passover holiday.

Their answer: An annual food drive organized in part by Tikun Ha-Ira nonprofit organization that strives to inspire the Jewish community to build a more just Milwaukee through study, action, and civic engagement.

Volunteers at the recent food drive packed and distributed more than 400 brown paper bags filled with Passover staples, said Sami Stein Avner, executive director of Tikkun Ha-Ir.

“It really opens the door to making Passover an accessible holiday,” Stein Avner said.

The food drive exemplifies the work of Tikkun Ha-Ir, whose name means “to repair the city” in Hebrew. Its mission is rooted in the Jewish value of the same name of tikkun olamor fix the world.

The organization, founded in 2003, runs several programs aimed at serving vulnerable people, connecting members of the Jewish community to volunteer opportunities, and providing education on social justice issues. In one of its biggest efforts, the Veggie Chop Shop, members collect hundreds of pounds of unused produce at farmers’ markets and cook it into meals, which they then distribute to area shelters.

In the summer, when the farmers’ markets are open, volunteers cook about 500 meals a week from produce that would otherwise have been wasted. This year, Tikkun Ha-Ir also hopes to expand and donate meals to early childhood education centers.

“We like to think of ourselves as a bridge,” said Stein Avner, connecting food and resources to people in need.

The community Passover food drive is one of the few Tikkun Ha-Ir initiatives that directly benefits those who are Jewish, Stein Avner said. The group’s work often focuses on the broader Milwaukee community.

This year, volunteers gathered at the Jewish Community Pantry, 2900 W. Center St., and filled bags with food items essential to Passover rituals, such as matzo, grape juice and horseradish. Beneficiaries also received items for a meal, including a kosher chicken and gefilte fish.

Passover, which runs from April 15 to April 23, commemorates the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt – literally the “passing over” or saving of Jewish homes on the eve of the exodus to the promised land.

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Sami Stein Avner, executive director of Milwaukee's Tikkun Ha-Ir, stands next to wrapped bags of food to load into cars as part of the annual Community Passover food drive at the Jewish Community Pantry on West Center Street in Milwaukee.

Many of the meals are taken to seniors’ residences that house Milwaukee’s Jewish refugee population who fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.

Before the pandemic, people picked up their boxes of food at Ovation Jewish Home on the east side of Milwaukee. But when COVID-19 hit, the ride turned into a delivery operation to keep older residents safe.

“It’s become a reliable way for people to connect with tradition from the comfort of their own home,” said Stein Avner.

This year the drive was a hybrid, with a few pick-up points in the area, as well as drop-shipping. the Jewish Community Pantrywhich is Tikkun Ha-Ir’s partner in the campaign, has served as the operation’s base since the start of the pandemic.

Pantry manager Heidi Gould said recipients she met this year were grateful for the food because it’s such an integral part of the Passover experience.

“When food is a scarce resource and food is also the centerpiece of a religious holiday, it’s really difficult,” she said.

Gould said the work of the two organizations often overlaps. Both focus on removing barriers to food for those in need.

“Working with Tikkun Ha-Ir is so valuable in part because they have such a vibrant volunteer network and they do such valuable work in the community,” she said.

Heidi Gould, left, manager of the Jewish Community Pantry, Reesa Gottschalk, center, treasurer of Milwaukee Tikkun Ha-Ir, and Sami Stein Avner, executive director of Milwaukee Tikkun Ha-Ir, work in the warehouse as part of the annual Passover Community Food Drive at the Jewish Community Pantry on West Center Street in Milwaukee on April 10.

Gleaning goes back to biblical times

Tikkun Ha-Ir’s focus on hunger reduction has grown in recent years. The Veggie Chop Shop program, where surplus produce is collected from a number of area farmers’ markets, began with collections from residents’ gardens.

The process of harvesting fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, known as gleaning, is a practice that dates back to biblical times. Today, gleaning organizations salvage unused food from agricultural fields, grocery stores, and restaurants.

It’s an innovative way to serve the hungry while reducing food waste, said Stein Avner.

According to an estimate from the United States Department of Agriculture. And at the same time, about 38 million Americans coping with food insecurity.

Gleaning organizations like Tikkun Ha-Ir also claim to provide fresh, nutritious food to people who live in food deserts or areas with limited access to healthy, affordable foods like fruits and vegetables.

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Stein Avner has big dreams for the future of gleaning in Milwaukee. Food recovery efforts are often disjointed and too small to make a difference, Stein Avner said.

“But when you actually put the system together and connect the dots, it can have a major impact on a city,” she said.

Already, Milwaukee has the beginnings of such a network. In a typical week in the summer, Tikkun Ha-Ir collects at least 700 pounds of surplus produce from three area farmers’ markets.

Working in a communal kitchen, volunteers typically chop and prepare food, cooking it into a number of dishes: vegetable lasagna, vegetable soup, fresh tomato sauce, coleslaw and more.

Volunteers then deliver the food to a number of food sites and shelters. Part of the products is also intended for the pantry of the Jewish community.

For a time, the Veggie Chop Shop was composed partly of incarcerated women who were allowed to leave their correctional facility to help in the kitchen at Tikkun Ha-Ir. But when the COVID-19 pandemic started, women who would be eligible for the program were released from prison early.

As summer approaches, Tikkun Ha-Ir plans to hire paid staff in the communities it serves.

The organization prides itself on the fact that it works person-to-person, creating a “direct pipeline”, said Stein Avner, between those in need and those who can help.

“Helping to ensure people are fed is in the blood and soul of Jews,” she said.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.