Manna House, an agency that supports Baltimore's poor and needy, supplies 50,000 meals to the homeless every year, and executive director Saleem Gauhar calls it a privilege to do so.
It's also not easy, he says. It's something his organization could never pull off without help from the wider community.
Help, that is, from places such as Chizuk Amuno Congregation. The Conservative Jewish synagogue in Pikesville dropped off dozens of overstuffed bags of canned goods Wednesday, as it does every year as congregants observe Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, begins at sundown Friday night. And though many Jews fast throughout the day, they also take the opportunity to recognize that plenty of people are going hungry because they have no choice.
Gauhar, as always, was grateful for the largesse.
"It takes a lot of food to do what we do," he said. "Every little bit helps."
The synagogue is one of dozens in the area that run a food drive during the High Holidays, the period of atonement and reflection that begins with Rosh Hashana and ends on Yom Kippur nine days later.
Others include Congregation Beit Tikvah in Roland Park and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Baltimore, which donates about 1,000 grocery bags of food each year to the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation, or GEDCO.
Chizuk Amuno members typically donate about 200 bags to community agencies, says Miriam Foss, director of Gemilut Hasadim — Hebrew for "acts of lovingkindness" — for the synagogue, one of the oldest and largest in Baltimore.
"There's a concept in Judaism called B'Tzelem Elohim. It means acting in God's image. The members of the congregation are embodying that concept by reaching out and giving to others in the community," said Foss, who has run the drive for the past nine years.
The tradition of donating food during the High Holidays has its origins in Jewish teachings specific to Yom Kippur. according to Deborah Wechsler, a rabbi at the synagogue.
While most Jewish holidays involve ritual feasts, observant Jews — at least those who are healthy and older than about 12 or 13 — are asked to fast throughout Yom Kippur to symbolically de-emphasize the worldly side of life and create more room for spiritual reflection.
Deborah Wechsler, a rabbi at Chizuk Amuno, said food drives are in keeping with a biblical passage rabbis read on Yom Kippur.
Scripture suggests that a fast should involve more than simply not eating; it should also mean sharing what we have with the less fortunate.
"Is [a worthy fast] not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?" the prophet Isaiah asks in lines often recited during Yom Kippur services, which are generally the best-attended of the year. "When you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"
Donating food " presents an additional way of fasting and observing the holiday," Wechsler said.
Congregants have been dropping the grocery-style food bags off at the synagogue sinch Rosh Hashana, Foss said, though the bulk of the donations will actually appear on Yom Kippur.
Chizuk Amuno plans to divide the goods among several agencies with which it works throughout the year, including Our Daily Bread downtown, Paul's Place in Southwest Baltimore, and GEDCO.
Most recipients are secular organizations, though congregants make hundreds of dollars in financial contributions to Jewish agencies as well.
When Foss delivered 30 bags to Manna House Wednesday, volunteers moved them to the shelves where they stock their food for the breakfasts they serve to the homeless 365 days a year. The food is to be distributed to needy individuals soon, most likely by the end of Yom Kippur.
Gauhar said the goal at Manna House is to help individuals reestablish their independence — and that usually requires discussing issues few can think clearly about when they've had nothing to eat.
Feed them, though, and they have a chance. And that, he said, is a worthy goal any time of year.
"When people are no longer hungry, you can talk about the things that matter," he said. "They can start getting their lives back."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun