Poplar: Repairing the Poplar Community One Piece of Food at a Time

Congregation Rodeph Shalom is the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and it currently serves the Poplar neighborhood of Philadelphia by holding weekly food drives.

Ellen Poster and Alex Mayro handing out books and collecting families phone numbers at the Green Street entrance of Rodeph Shalom for the Breaking Bread on Broad Program.

In Judaism one of the main values is tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase means “repairing the world” and that is exactly what Congregation Rodeph Shalom is doing in the Poplar community.

Rodeph Shalom, located at the corner of Mount Vernon and Broad Streets, has been tackling food insecurity head-on with its Breaking Bread on Broad initiative. It started in 2017 as a summer program to provide children in the neighborhood with free breakfast and lunch along with educational activities while their parents were at work. With the increased need brought on by the pandemic, Rodeph Shalom expanded the program to be a year-round food and necessities drive, according to Ellen Poster, one of the co-leaders.

“Immediately bordering Rodeph Shalom there is a whole community of folks that are severely food insecure,” Poster said. “They don’t have the money to feed themselves and their children.”

Every Wednesday morning volunteers for the Breaking Bread on Broad program give out food, diapers, books, and feminine hygiene supplies to about 100 families in the Poplar community. All items are donated to Rodeph Shalom from community members and through their partnership with local organizations and businesses like No More Secrets non-profit, Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, and Treehouse Books

Volunteers give out different-sized diapers and wipes to Poplar families.

The families Rodeph Shalom serves are facing other issues like poverty in addition to food insecurity and leave them to having to choose between basic necessities. Many are also undocumented immigrants who aren’t able to receive federal assistance for food or for their children. 

“That lack of legal status means they’re outside the social safety net,” Poster said. “That’s a major issue.”

Poverty in Philadelphia is widespread but found most prominently in North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau

“If you look at the Spring Garden, Poplar, and Northern Liberties neighborhoods you see all this construction going on,” said Dan Seltzer, another co-leader of the program. “It’s certainly a great place to live and commute to work in Center City but frequently, people don’t see a population that is food insecure. The need is great.”

Breaking Bread on Broad volunteers lay out donated produce, bread, and canned goods for residents to choose from.

In the 19122 and 19123 zip codes, where the Poplar community is located, 30 to 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Many of the families who rely on the Breaking Bread on Broad program speak only Mandarin or Spanish, “which makes communicating with one another difficult,” Poster added.

Alex Mayro, who graduated from Temple University in 2020 with a degree in Mandarin, sought to fill that gap. His sister, who also attends Temple, told him about Rodeph Shalom’s search for Mandarin speakers for the Breaking Bread on Broad program, he said. 

“I thought that it would be a good use of my time because I wasn’t getting any practice after graduating and I was helping people,” Mayro said.  

Mayro sits at the sign-in table at the front of Rodeph Shalom’s Green Street entrance every Wednesday, greeting the Mandarin and Spanish speaking families. 

“You can tell just how wonderful it is for them to have someone who is able to communicate with them in their own language,” Poster said. 

In addition to making an impact in their community, the volunteers for Breaking Bread on Broad also enjoy the social aspect the program offers, especially during the isolating pandemic. 

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who volunteer who I probably wouldn’t have been connected with normally, mostly because they’re much older than me,” said Hector Kilgoe, a University of Pennsylvania PhD student and Rodeph Shalom congregant. 

Breaking Bread on Broad and its volunteers see a bright future for the program. Seltzer and Poster hope to keep expanding the work they are doing to help more families in Philadelphia. 

Jerry Arnold, a volunteer for Breaking Bread on Broad, hands out milk at the front of the line.

“We still see the program continuing,” Poster said. “The families’ needs have not changed. We will continue until there’s no longer a need. We are also hoping to be able to start English as Second Language classes at Rodeph Shalom for many of our community members down the road.”

Volunteers, both congregants and non-congregants keep coming back each week because of the dedication and pride they have in their community. 

“It’s something I look forward to doing and helping make an impact in people’s lives,” Seltzer said. 

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com

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