If you went Tuesday to the back of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill’s Irene Kaufmann Building between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., just behind the loading dock, you would have seen a bizarre sight: Jewish children eating lunch in a sukka — in June.
It’s a free meal, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. These “open site” programs offer school lunches to anyone under 18, Jewish or not.
Similar programs exist throughout the state, including local programs run by Jewish organizations, like the JCC of the South Hills and at J&R Day Camp in Monroeville. But this is the only Vaad-certified kosher site in the region.
Fitting the guidelines of kashrut into the guidelines of the state creates unique challenges. For instance: the program requires milk to be a part of every meal, but many of the lunches include meat products. To keep from mixing milk and meat — a foundation of the kosher diet — the JCC serves milk separately at 10 a.m., starts lunch at 11 a.m., and offers a small snack at 2 p.m. The program runs Monday through Friday, except for July 3, until Aug. 14.
The challenges aren’t just strategic, according to program founder and director, Alexis Winsten Mancuso, who is also the assistant executive director of the JCC.
They’re also financial.
With the high cost of kosher food and Cholov Yisroel milk, “we’re fortunate to stay in budget,” Mancuso said, adding it would be impossible to tell whether serving sizes might suffer if the program were forced to scale back its budget.
On Tuesday, June 30, more than 10 children ate chicken, carrots and peaches with a side of mashed potatoes so big it needed its own plate, and a big glass of grape juice to wash it all down. The patrons unanimously rated the meal “good.”
Kids aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program.
Mancuso calls the program “an intergenerational opportunity.” Uneaten food is given to the Jewish Association on Aging groups that eat lunch at the JCC daily. The volunteer staff running the program range in age from seniors to students.
“It lets seniors give back to the community,” Mancuso said.
The program is as generous to its volunteers as it is to its patrons.
“We volunteers get a very high salary,” said Loretta Kinger, one of the senior volunteers.
Kinger’s responsibilities include keeping track of the area, informing the kitchen when someone shows up and making sure the meals are eaten in the area.
Her love of children and enthusiasm for her work are palpable.
“When there is so much going on with finances in the world, this is so good to have to provide food for younger kids,” she said.
Kids aren’t the only ones who appreciate the meals.
“It’s a treat for the kids, it really makes their day and it makes my life a lot easier,” said one woman who brought her daughter and grandchildren. “It sure beats peanut butter and jelly.”
“This program keeps in with the mission of the JCC in terms of Abraham’s tent, filling a need in the community for everybody,” Mancuso said.
And whether she had this in mind when planning the program or not, the best possible place for young and old to work together, to share laughter, community, warmth and an abundance of warm food with all children who pass by, in a Jewish community, could only be under a sukka. Even in July.
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)