2017 Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner Packing Experience

Sunday was one of my favorite days of the year — it was our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering

Rabbi Kort

Rabbi Kort

and Food Packing Party. The congregations of Temple Beth El, the Orange County Islamic Foundation, and Shepherd of the Hills Church, had come together to give thanks, and to volunteer to help others less fortunate. This was the third year that our Jewish temple members gathered with our Muslim and Christian sisters and brothers, and worked together to feed the hungry.

Each of the clergy, Rabbi Rachel Kort (Reform rabbi) and Rabbi K’vod Weider (Conservative rabbi) from

our temple, Sheikh Tarik Ata from the mosque and Pastor Karl Stuckenberg and Pastor Jon Waterson from the church, greeted us with enthusiasm, love, and words from each religions’ traditions.

Sheikh Tarik Ata commented that “it was a beautiful day outside today, but it was an even more beautiful day inside the walls” of our sanctuary. I had to agree. Over 200 people — adults, teens and kids, gathering together to help ensure that 200 needy families were able to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

Rabbi K'vod Weider & Sheikh Tarik Ata

Rabbi K’vod Weider & Sheikh Tarik Ata

He counselled us that too many people filled with blessings, concentrate excessively on what they don’t have in their lives — the proverbial cup half empty. As he spoke about his Muslim traditions, I looked around the room and saw many people nodding, whether Muslim, Christian or Jew, and it reminded me of how we are all human, and want the same positive things for our families. Today we put aside our differences, and celebrated our humanity.

He advised us to be grateful for our own blessings and to take it further — wish for others the same. I felt cuddled in a warm blanket of love — if only it could be the same for the rest of the world…

It felt good to be amongst everyone — this year, back to my old self and comfortable. It had been three years since our trip and I felt like me — warm and open.

As many of you know in July 2014, our family was in Israel on a family vacation and found ourselves in the middle of war. It’s the subject of the book I’m writing, Blasted from Complacency, a tale of touring, terror and transformation. The missiles landed close enough to blow apart my world as I knew it.

Yet, I had to admit a secret to myself. I remember the first year we did the Interfaith Thanksgiving project in 2015 — I felt pride, but also fear and shame.

Pride, because the project matched my value system. I’d worked with the hungry for years, and it was how I lived as a person.

Being amongst others who were culturally different was also something I always enjoyed. I was born and raised in Gardena, an ethnically diverse city. I had even participated every year as a kid in the Obon Odori festival — a Japanese dance festival.

But now there were other more uncomfortable feelings that before our trip, I hadn’t felt. I had changed, and suspected not for the better. Besides the historically strained relationship between Arabs and Jews, I was confronting a much more recent, festering wound.

Our wartime experience had happened the previous summer, and I had begun writing my book about the events. I felt like I was suffering from P.T.S.D. as I relived the multiple times we cowered in bomb shelters. A strange juxtaposition — one moment seeing fantastic sights, rich with the depth of centuries — and the next running for shelter, scared we might die.

In Israel, we had risked our lives as bombs exploded around us — sent by the Palestinians to kill Israeli Jews. I knew now I was going to be amongst other Arabs, and I was concerned — trying to keep my trepidation at bay. What if there were pro-Palestinian extremist sympathizers among them?

I was ashamed to say I was still frightened. It probably was not justified here at home, yet having compassion for myself I understood the reasons. I wanted to challenge the fear. The extreme terror of having missiles shot at us, the closest landing in our hotel parking lot, had gotten my attention — it left me in a quagmire of distrust. I found myself questioning if I would be safe — was our community being naive?

Shame because these thoughts seemed too close to bigotry — an attitude that seemed anathema to me, especially as a Jew. Our people had suffered centuries of prejudice and even genocide. These feelings were insidious and equally as repugnant to me, if used against others.

Yet I could begin to understand how anger, resentment, even hate could infiltrate otherwise Peace-filled minds. How would we fare if we shared their daily lives of desperation on both sides — probably having lost loved ones, and definitely having seen atrocities beyond nightmares.

I knew I was in the United States, not Israel, but with suicide bombers in the headlines, I have to admit mortified as I was — scary thoughts were poisoning my normally Peaceful existence.

The rockets’ impact, made me want to work on Peace. Yes, I understand the P word is not normally capitalized. But to me, I always do, because Peace is too important in my world view.

Since our trip, I have met and worked with amazing Israeli-Palestinian conflict Peacemakers — I consider them heroes. Both Palestinians and Jews who work at the grassroots level sharing their stories and comparing narratives to bridge the divide — each side has felt the brutality and pain caused by the other.

I confided my feelings to a friend who advised me — that was exactly the reason why I needed to go to the event. I went two years ago, and now and was grateful my reality had been re-set.

I had a blast, surrounded by great people who thought as I did — everyone deserves the right to have their tummies filled and live in Peace.

As I’m writing my book’s last chapters, I’m working on the hardest parts to understand — and then write. Beyond our exciting adventure, how did it change me? One way — it caused me to take stock of my life.

What I realized is I have always been a Peace seeker — most of my life the emphasis has been on internal Peace, whether trying to understand my own inner thoughts, dealing with a less than perfect childhood, or practicing meditation. Now once my book is finished, I know I will continue practicing Peace within, but I’ll expand even further to wanting to work on Peace with others.

This year’s altruistic partner for feeding the hungry was Families Forward — a non-profit organization committed to helping local Orange County families who are homeless or at risk of being homeless…because there is no place like home. They help families to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. They support people getting into permanent housing, provide food, career and counseling programs as well as facilitate the yearly Thanksgiving basket program.

The goal was to collect the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving meal which would be delivered to Families Forward, to share with our neighbors they serve, to enjoy with their loved ones in the privacy of their own homes.

The representative from Families Forward first thanked us for our work again this year and also admitted she was quite relieved that by our generosity, it had made her job lighter — their goal was to provide 900 meals, one for every family that showed up at their door.

She recalled how last year during the deliveries to their organization, it had been raining and that although they got soaked as they ran from the trucks to shelter, there was a delicious joy in the air.

As she described how Families Forward has helped locals since 1984 and that their food pantry alone serves over 7,000 children and adults in Orange County — some surprised gasps from the audience were heard. I know, it’s shocking, it’s not the reality of our home environment — or is it?

Approximately 48% of the children in Orange County qualify for free or reduced lunch programs in our schools! There is a huge need. I was familiar with these statistics, having worked with Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County for years… there but for the Grace of God, go I.

During last year’s banner distribution, every family that signed up was able to be helped. She wanted to share one story of the many lives impacted by 2016’s project.

A single-mother had hurriedly come by on Wednesday after work, to pick up her package. She had been coming to their food pantry for the past couple of years. The woman had lost her husband, and she had two children.

Her oldest daughter was the first to go away to college. This had been her freshman year, and she had just returned home for the Thanksgiving holiday. The mother had been concerned that she wasn’t going to be able to provide her family with a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

After work, the mom rushed by to pick up the ingredients in the final hour. She was in tears of gratitude and excitement that she now would be able to provide her daughters with a traditional Thanksgiving meal. With this donation, she would be able to offer a family centered, home-cooked meal, sorely missed in the dorms.

A story sure to make each of us happy we had taken the time out of our busy holiday schedules to help.

To get to know the other participants, we were given a game — Human Bingo. I had fun meeting new friends. We were armed with happy, yellow smiley face stickers and asked to inquire of people that we didn’t know, if the squares on their bingo cards were representative of them. If so, a cheerful sticker was affixed to the box.

Do you have a dog or cat? Have you enjoyed watching a sunset this week? Do you have a tattoo?

I have to admit, being an author the question Inspired by a book recently? caught my eye. It was lots of fun playing this game, which provided an incentive to break into a stranger’s “space” and in a short time ask them a personal question. At the end of a few minutes, my gregarious nature had achieved 15 of the 25 bingo card boxes being filled.

What was more important was the comradery I felt toward meeting new people with varying backgrounds. I have to admit, I loved approaching a sweet young girl, asking if she had a dog…her response was yes, and we compared notes — I have a whoodle, what kind of dog do you have?

Weeks before the event, each congregation was asked to bring typical Thanksgiving meal items…stuffing,

Food for Thanksgivng Basket

Food for Thanksgivng Basket

cranberries, cans of veggies and boxes of cake mix for dessert. Grocery cards would be given to collect their turkeys at their local stores.

We filled bags as we walked around to the various stations — 2 boxes of stuffing, 3 cans of veggies, a cake

mix, etc. Mine was a plastic grocery bag and I wondered if it would withstand the weight of the cans…no problem.

When our bags were filled with the ingredients, they were put in an aluminum baking tin and gift wrapped in clear cellophane, finished off by a red ribbon bow. A card that volunteers decorated with stickers and thoughtful messages finished off the food basket.

Making Thanksgiving cards

Making Thanksgiving cards

In a couple days, it will be Thanksgiving. A day when most overstuff ourselves with all our favorite foods, lovingly prepared. It’s a day of excess.  For us, this is a wonderful, fun time of the year.

The first step in correcting any problem is to become aware there is one.  Take a few moments this holiday to consider your blessings. Hug and kiss and hold your kids close.

Thanksgiving is an interesting word.  Thanks-giving. It’s a day when we take time to take a pause and be grateful for the blessings in our lives.  When we put into the forefront of our minds appreciation for the opportunity to be blessed we can give back.

Everyone can be thankful and give back. Giving isn’t only monetary. Even if all you can afford is a smile and thank you for the clerk at the grocery store.  With that simple act, you have strengthened the love in your heart. You have made the world a better place. I know of no other way I would rather have spent my Sunday. L’ Chaim!  (To Life!)

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

Recent Comments

  • Sherry Seto
    November 21, 2017 - 8:51 am · Reply

    Inspiring sentiments–you have a loving and honest heart. Coming together, regardless of who you are or where you are from, is the first step toward Peace. What wonderful friendships can grow across seemingly impossible boundaries with simple, sincere, generous gestures and actions.

  • Theresa
    November 21, 2017 - 9:07 pm · Reply

    Oh, sweet, Penny! You are such a gift…truly. With each word you write, you have allowed me to see a bit more of who you are. Thank you for your vulnerability, for being so real, and for sharing your passion. Your journey is beautiful and has been inspiring to watch. Each experience has shaped your amazing heart and fervid soul. I am blessed to know you. Happy Thanksgiving, Friend!

  • Cathy Huseby
    November 22, 2017 - 6:12 pm · Reply

    I love what you wrote! Thanksgiving is certainly a time to be grateful for the blessings in our lives. Thank you for blessing my life! Happy Thanksgiving. I also happen to see a writing gene in your family .

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