Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stuff Your Face -- and Feed Someone Else's Belly, Too

In my spare time, I work to promote Mama's Kitchen, a San Diego non-profit organization that prepares and delivers nutritious meals for critically ill San Diegans who are physically, emotionally, or financially, unable to provide for themselves. The need for this service became apparent when Mama’s Kitchen predecessor, the AIDS Assistance Fund, observed that immuno-compromised patients were dying of malnutrition before their immune systems failed.  

Since 1990, Mama’s Kitchen has provided three meals a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year, to clients who have been referred by their case managers or physicians, and has now delivered over 5 million meals. The program not only provides balanced nutrition -- for some AIDS and cancer patients, the volunteers who deliver their meals may be the only human interaction.

Mama's Kitchen relies on volunteers and contributions, and one of its most popular programs is the annual Pie-in-the-Sky fundraiser. Over 20 local restaurants, hotels and caterers are donating hundreds of pumpkin, pecan, apple and sugar-free apple pies for Mama's Kitchen to sell for $20 each for Thanksgiving. The pies, which must be ordered in advance, will be available for pickup at 20 convenient pickup sites around San Diego county the day before Thanksgiving. That $20 is enough to provide 6 meals to those individuals who depend upon Mama's Kitchen for their sustenance.

If getting a delicious pie baked by one of San Diego's fine bakers -- including The French Gourmet, the San Diego Culinary Institute, Jenny Wenny Cakes, Twiggs Bakery and Coffeehouse, JRDN and the Andaz hotel among others -- and supporting Mama's Kitchen weren't enough, this year, if you order your pie by November 1, you'll also automatically be entered to win a set of Sam the Cooking Guy's cookbooks, which he will personalize for you.

Make your, or your host's, Thanksgiving a little easier and more delicious with a pie from one of Mama's Kitchen generous bakers by ordering at And while you feast, someone who otherwise wouldn't have food will be able to eat, too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Initiative for Moral Courage

I had the opportunity to sit down with Jackie Gmach, a dynamic woman with a passion for education that can change lives and possibly change the world. This native of Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, founded the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, now one of the largest Jewish Book Fairs in the country.

She 'retired' last year, but in name, only, as she has now brought an even greater vision to life in a new program, The Initiative forMoral Courage (IMC), which is holding its first Symposium from October 24-November 2, 2011 in San Diego. Most of the events of the Symposium are free, and open to the public.

Gmach has assembled an International Advisory Board whose names and affiliations point to the recognized importance of identifying, acknowledging and celebrating the actions of individuals who uphold moral and ethical standards, even at risk to their own lives. Their examples could inspire others to take a stand, too.

The Initiative, whose home is at San Diego State University, includes among its partners SDSU's Jewish Studies Program and Department of Religious Studies, which is offering an Honors program on Moral Courage in what may become a new course of study.

The idea grew out a model at Yad Vashem in Israel, the world center for the documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. Since 1962, Yad Vashem has recognized the actions of non-Jews who, at great personal risk, saved the lives of European Jews. They are honored with the title “Righteous Among the Nations”.

The Initiative for Moral Courage focuses on “The New Righteous”, those who, in the recent past as well as today, saved the lives of the oppressed out of the strength of their convictions and moral courage. Modern history has presented several such opportunities, including the genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia, some of which will be discussed during the Symposium. “It is important for society to recognize those righteous individuals who emerge,” said Gmach, “as their efforts ensure that incidents like the Holocaust can never occur, again.” The Initiative will examine a range of issues related to the subject of moral courage under the broader rubric of contemporary global ethics.

The objective of the Initiative for Moral Courage is both modest and ambitious: "If just one person who attends the Symposium or studies moral courage has the strength to stand up for what is moral and just, whatever the cause, then we will have achieved our goal," said Gmach. Is that intention too humble? No, because a single righteous individual has the power to save many times his own number, as well as inspire others to do the same. At a time in our history when suffering is all around us and we may feel helpless to change the status quo, it is important to recognize those individuals who have the moral courage to take a stand. 

The Symposium opens October 24 with an exhibition of The Rescuers, a photographic exhibit that will be on display on the main floor of the SDSU library throughout the Symposium. The exhibit consists of extraordinary stories about ordinary heroes "who resisted overwhelming tides of prejudice and violence to risk their lives saving members from enemy groups. It helps to understand the presence of rescue behavior during genocide or mass violence.” Wednesday, October 26, will feature a musical program: Music and Resistance, based upon melodies from a 1931 cantor's book that was found in an abandoned synagogue in Romania. The Rescuers exhibit will be available for viewing through November 2. 

The main event, The Symposium on Genocides, Past and Present, will take place on Sunday, October 30, from 1:00-5:15 p.m., and will feature speakers on the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the African Genocide. It will conclude with reflections on the Symposium by Leora Kahn, Fellow at the
Center for Genocide Studies at Yale University, and Dr. Stephen Smith, Director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California.

The Symposium is FREE and open to the public. For further information, please contact: Jackie Gmach, Community Outreach Director,, 858-382-3254, or visit for detailed information.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yom Kipper Reflections

Today was Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, a day on which we conclude 10 days of repentance for our sins of the previous year . It is also a day on which we particularly remember our lost loved one through the prayer, Yizkor.

When I was a kid, parents always shooed their children out of the Synagogue when it was time to recite the prayer because it was deemed frightening for children to see adults cry. And for most of my adult life it was not a prayer I said. This year, in addition to remembering my father who passed away 7 years ago, I remembered my nephew, Ilan Tokayer, who was taken from us this part March, at the age of 25. Although I had shed many tears over him when I learned he had passed away and since then, a poem I read today in the prayerbook brought back the loss that his family and friends still feel:

We Remember Them, by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer,
At the rising of the sun and at its going down
We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter
We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring
We remember them....

When people have real influence in life, their memory never leaves us, unlike the way we sometimes realize that we don't know if certain celebrities who once glowed brightly are dead or alive. But Ilan made a difference in his short life, which was easy to discern by the fact that 1000 people came to his funeral in New Jersey, and another 1000 people came to his burial in Israel.

What made me think about Ilan's legacy was the recent death of Steve Jobs, whose influence everyone has been commemorating over the past few days. The words I heard used most frequently used to describe him were "visionary" and "relentless," and his effect on society is undeniable. Although there were exceptions, few people talked about Jobs' impact as a human being, as a husband, father, or close friend. I don't point this out to detract anything from the famously private Jobs; I only mention it to highlight that the gentle soul who was Ilan left a different king of lasting influence.

Much as Steve Jobs' frequently quoted speech to the graduates of Stanford exhorts us to consider, at every moment, whether we are doing what we want to be doing with our lives, the memory of Ilan exhorts me, and the many people he touched, to ask ourselves Are we living the life of the kind of human being we can be proud to be? Ilan touched many peoples' lives, but he touched them all individually, and on different levels -- emotional, spiritual, creative, and many others. And I suspect that the people who were privileged to know him will keep asking ourselves the question of whether we're living up to the model he exemplified of what a human being can become, and how he changed the world.

In remembering Ilan, I'd like to cite one more poem, this from Hannah Senesh: "There are stars whose light reaches the earth only after they themselves have disintegrated. And there are individuals whose memory lights the world after they have passed from it. These lights shine in the darkest night and illumine for us the path."