This summer, I had the meaningful experience of volunteering with and learning all about Popsie's Pantry – the food pantry program run by Jewish Family Services (JFS). It took just a few minutes of conversation with JFS' Executive Director Lori Moss and Assistant Director Rachel Katz, to understand what a small-but-mighty powerhouse Jewish Family Services is in general.
I had been inside of the Jewish Family Services' Popsie's Pantry space just once before as a high schooler before I arrived for a volunteer timeslot in early June, this time as a summer intern at the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis.
JFS works out of the Albert & Sara Reuben Senior and Community Resource Center, a small ranch-style house adjacent to the Jewish Community Campus. Every inch of the space is used. The pantry itself, which I learned only makes up about 15 percent of JFS operations, is by far its most visible resource – literally, as stacks of food products, toiletries, and other home goods line most of the rooms and hallways of the space. As I learned more about the history and structure of Popsie's Pantry, it became clear to me just how unique and compassionate a pantry operation is being run at JFS by its team of devoted staff members and volunteers. And by far the most remarkable thing about JFS is how respectful they are of clients' dignity and privacy.
The procedural structure of Popsie's Pantry is a clear testament to the agency's core values of one-on-one support,
human connection, and dignity. Having volunteered at various food pantries in the past, I was used to the common approach of distributing identical pre-packaged bags of food. However, at Popsie's Pantry, there is a clear focus on individual client needs and preferences that blew me away. Clients order exactly what they want through an efficient ordering system. As a volunteer, my task was to fill one order at a time, carefully and correctly. This system ensures that clients receive the food and home products that they want, just as any person who places a grocery store pick-up order would. There is a clear understanding within JFS that every single person deserves to have their preferences and desires met. (This system also helps to minimize food waste!)
On top of this, JFS and Popsie's Pantry place the utmost importance on client privacy, and the pantry's order pickup
system is designed specifically with this in mind. Clients select a time slot to pick up their order from the JFS office or
to have it delivered to their home, and each time slot is dedicated to one client or family alone. The organized schedule also ensures that no volunteers are present when clients arrive for pick-up.
At a Jewish Federation staff meeting in June, Julie Sondhelm, the Clinical Director and head social worker at JFS,
perfectly summarized JFS' responsibility of confidentiality, "we work to maintain the privacy of clients, because that is a basic tenet of social work, and within a small Jewish community, we have to work extra hard to do so." The pantry's history and namesake are also reflective of these core values. This October marks 13 years since Popsie's Pantry's inception, which was founded in honor of a local Holocaust survivor, Anton Berkovitz, whose grandchildren lovingly
called him "Popsie." The pantry was originally funded by his daugther, Liviam Klain Russell, a program that she and her children continue to support to this day. “He was a person who understood what it meant to go without food, a basic human necessity," Rachel Katz said.
I also learned from Katz that "Popsie" Berkovitz was a grocer, who would oftenallow people who could not afford food, to take items without charge. On top of this, since its opening in 2010, the pantry also has and continues to serve Holocaust survivors in the Indianapolis area.
"Popsie" knew what it was to experience poverty, and the threat that it can pose to someone's sense of being an equal member of society who deserves respect that goes beyond meeting their basic needs. This sense of deep
understanding is present in all that JFS does, and especially in Popsie's Pantry.
As I look back on my experience with the pantry this summer, I witnessed firsthand the significance of this dignified and thoughtful approach to food assistance. Beyond providing sustenance and essential items, the pantry provides a sense of empowerment and dignity that is priceless.