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Amid pandemic, Project Isaiah and Mitzvah Magic continue to help needy Tucsonans

Community Food Bank team members load provide food supplies at the emergency food distribution center it operated at Kino Sports Complex for nine months. On Jan. 7, the food bank moved drive-up distribution to its building at 3003 S. Country Club Road. Project Isaiah, the Jewish community's annual anti-hunger campaign, benefits the Community Food Bank. (Photo courtesy Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona)

Through Project Isaiah and Mitzvah Magic, two longstanding programs organized by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and community partners, members of the Tucson Jewish community have helped put food on the table and meet other needs for local families this fall, despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In previous years, Project Isaiah, the Southern Arizona Jewish community’s High Holidays food drive supporting the Community Food Bank, focused mainly on non-perishable food donations. In 2020, due to COVID-19, the emphasis was on monetary donations. Committee members and synagogue social action leaders in 2019, L-R: Judith Weiser, Rabbi Batsheva Appel, Marc Sbar, Susan Kasle, Beverly Sandock, Nanci Levy, Steve Slaff, Mary Ellen Loebl, Carol Fabrizio, Rabbi Ruven Barkan, Lisa Schachter-Brooks, and Diane Katz. (Photo: Debe Campbell/AJP)

Project Isaiah, the annual High Holidays food drive, in the past called on community members to drop off bags of food at synagogues or local Jewish agencies, to be donated to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. The project, a local tradition since at least the early 1990s, is named for the prophet Isaiah, who when asked why we fast on Yom Kippur, responded, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?” (Isaiah 58:6).

This year, organizers pivoted to focus on monetary donations and the project raised $6,242. The Tucson Jewish Community Center served as a drop-off point for those who chose to donate food items.

“Every $2 donated to the food bank is an equivalent of seven meals distributed, which means that the funds donated by our community alongside the nonperishable food items dropped off at The J, resulted in over 22,000 meals for those in need,” says Lindsey Baker, COO of the Federation and Jewish Community Foundation.

“This is in addition to the $25,000 received by the Community Food Bank from the Pandemic Relief Fund” that JFSA and JCF established last year, Baker says.

“As a long-time anti-hunger advocate, I am touched by the generosity of our community to address such a critical, and basic need, especially in the midst of the pandemic,” says Baker, a former director of program development at Feeding America.

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Deborah Kalar-Crowder, emergency financial assistance manager at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, receives packages for Mitzvah Magic in 2014. In 2020, due to COVID-19, Mitzvah Magic volunteers from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona provided gift cards to needy families identified by JFCS. (Photo courtesy Jewish Family & Children’s Services)

Mitzvah Magic, a program of JFSA Women’s Philanthropy in cooperation with Jewish Family & Children’s Services, also switched up its strategy this year. For Mitzvah Magic, volunteers typically provide holiday baskets three times a year, combining hand-picked items and gift cards for needy families or individuals identified by JFCS. This year, to minimize potential exposure to COVID-19 during shopping, wrapping, and delivery, the program is using only gift cards, says Andra Karnofsky, who is co-chair of the program with Iris Posin.

Mitzvah Magic also created an emergency fund this year.

“This allows us more flexibility with regard to contributor and recipient participation. People who recognize the need to help at the Jewish holidays, but don’t want to join a formal group, can contribute whatever they like to the emergency fund,” says Karnofsky, who adds that some circle members make additional contributions to the emergency fund. “Families and individuals who find themselves in need during the year after the circle/family matches have been made are still able to get help.  This year, we had more requests for help than we had circles so the emergency fund was critical for meeting this need.  We were able to provide gift cards with messages of support to all who asked for help.”

The program currently has some 245 volunteers in 19 circles. At Hanukkah, they served 34 families, with a similar number at Rosh Hashanah. The program also provides gifts at Passover.

A thank you note from one recipient at Hanukkah sums up the program’s impact:

“Baruch HaShem you guys are such a blessing. I am not only talking about the fact that you are mailing me out a gift, but honestly it is the thought that really moved me. We live in a time where many people are struggling to make ends meet, and your kindness has sincerely moved me. I used to be in foster care so sometimes the holidays can be really hard and a bit difficult for me, but this has sincerely moved me. Thankful for the Jewish Federation looking out for me! And our people. Not only for our necessities physically but also for our heart and soul.”

While recipients remain anonymous, the Mitzvah Magic Circles typically receive information such as how many people are in the family, their ages, clothing sizes, and food and entertainment preferences, Karnofsky explains.

“We plan to go back to the tradition of shopping for requested items for the families as soon as COVID is under control and it is safe for us to get together,” Karnofsky says. “We believe that it is a more personal experience to gift items rather than gift cards only.”

JFSA staff member Suzanne Amador assisted with Mitzvah Magic logistics.

“Suzanne has been very helpful in keeping things moving this year and in responding to the operational changes we needed to make because of COVID. She has been key in updating our information about the families we serve and in coordinating the receipt and delivery of the gift cards.  She has been a delight to work with,” Karnofsky says.