It’s Sunday morning in January and despite the brutal winter weather, Temple Jeremiah in Northfield is bustling with activity. Young children are lined up outside of the sanctuary for a sing-along with the cantor, clusters of teens gab about their weekend before gathering for a lecture on voting rights, and adults make their way through the halls to get to Hebrew class.
Right in the middle of the chaos, executive director Danny Glassman breaks down a giant pallet of groceries shrouded in plastic. Dividing the contents between two work stations, he and a team of eight congregants will grind away for the next few hours to construct six-pound care packages full of nourishment: cereals, fruit, pasta, and other shelf-stable goods. Next, the bags are transferred to bins, loaded onto a truck, and driven by a volunteer to Highland Park, where they will be distributed to recipients among two local public schools.
This initiative, known as Backpack Blessings, provides two days’ worth of food to neighboring children who qualify for free or reduced price school breakfasts and lunches. The backpacks serve as a supplement for weekends, when students are at home and lack access to cafeteria meals.
“When we first started, we went out to our neighboring communities and saw that there was a large number of children on the free lunch program in Highland Park,” explains Barb Miller, Temple Jeremiah’s president. “When we announced that we’d start the program in that city… well, we had many members of our congregation who grew up in those schools and had no idea about the statistics.”
According to welfareinfo.org, 1 in 15.5 people in Highland Park live in poverty. Poverty rates for children in nursery and elementary schools are just above 10 percent, and a 7.8 percent rate for middle schoolers is considered high enough to impact the community due to lower expected graduation rates. Backpack Blessings partners with the Northern Illinois Food Bank to provide anywhere between 35 and 60 packages per month to kids in need. Five dollars can feed a child for the weekend, and $140 can provide enough food for an entire school year.
It is no coincidence that Backpack Blessings’ assembly line is organized in the lobby of the synagogue—the purpose of being on full display is to inspire action from members of the congregation. “We’re blessed that people not only provide financial resources, but dedicate their time to keep this program running,” says Miller.
“The first thing Senior Rabbi [Paul] Cohen said when he started here 20 years ago was, ‘I want this building to be a receptacle for doing good,’” she adds. “If you haven’t noticed, we keep food and clothing donation boxes in plain sight, and we have multiple pick-ups a month to clear them. We want it set up so that every time you walk into the building, you think about giving back.”
Miller, a former speech therapist, has been a member of Temple Jeremiah for 25 years. She started as a volunteer with Feed the Hungry, a program that packs hundreds of bagged lunches for those in need; eventually, she oversaw the development of all social justice programs at the temple. There is currently a total of eight, including Eat and Be Well, a medical food pantry for underprivileged outpatients with chronic conditions, and an inclusion initiative that designs holiday services and special events for people with different abilities. To Miller, establishing Backpack Blessings 15 years ago was the least she could do to express gratitude for her own circumstances.
“Barb and so many others here want to use their blessings and privileges to help others,” says assistant Rabbi Rachel Heaps. “But we can’t keep doing the same things without addressing the root of the problem. One of the ways we can heal the problems we see is to partner with our immediate community—to know who we are giving to and make real connections with them.”
Miller says that in addition to assembling care packages for Highland Park students, she and her team have worked with other schools, PTAs, and synagogues to help them establish their own Backpack Blessings.
Backpack Blessings is just one of many social justice programs promoted by Temple Jeremiah. Miller refers to the synagogue as a “destination temple,” attracting congregants from more than 35 zip codes because of its unique commitment to advocacy efforts. Criminal justice reform, gun safety, hunger advocacy, immigration, inclusion, and mental health are among the issues they address—many of which are intertwined.
“For us, participating in these programs ties back to the Jewish value of tikkun olam,” explains Miller. “It is our obligation to repair the world.”
Children lend a hand in assembling care packages.
To donate, volunteer, or for more information
on Backpack Blessings, visit templejeremiah.org.