'Manna from heaven'

Cooking with heart and soul during COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has left more members of the Jewish community in need of extra help. Melbourne-based organisation C Care shares with The AJN how it's responded to the call

C Care volunteers Jeremy Sher and Taryn Abrahams deliver a C Care Shabbat pack to 98-year-old Rose
Sugarman. Photo: Peter Haskin
C Care volunteers Jeremy Sher and Taryn Abrahams deliver a C Care Shabbat pack to 98-year-old Rose Sugarman. Photo: Peter Haskin

ON a chilly autumn Sunday morning in the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava, most activity is contained to the footpaths that lead to the nearest almond milk latte. But tucked away at the end of a side street just a little further south, people gather, giving up their weekend sleep-in for another purpose entirely.

They cook together. They pack goods together. And they fill the stomachs and hearts of those doing it tough. 

Doors open to a flurry of action. Volunteers are abuzz – some chat and bump elbows as they put on hair nets and aprons in the hallway, others share stories of time spent in South America while chop-chop-chopping from diminishing piles of tumbling red capsicums. A couple peek into the oven, keeping a watchful eye on the paprika sprinkled potatoes and sweet potatoes which glisten towards caramelisation on trays stacked high. A green sea of zucchinis hiss on the hot plate as hip hop beats fill the room. 

Community members including Fiona Goldberg give their time to C Care.

And over it all, a jubilant voice exclaims, “Welcome to C Care!”

Elise Tait is C Care’s vivacious volunteers coordinator. A volunteer herself, she took on the role when her beloved travel industry recently came to a grinding halt, a casualty of COVID-19. Now, she spends her days at C Care – every single day – often working in excess of 12 hours in order to meet the sharp increase in demand. 

“But it’s easy to do something when you’re enjoying it, and when you believe in it!” she enthuses.

C Care exists to target social isolation, ensuring that vulnerable members of the community are looked after with a nutritious cooked meal, pantry packs of dried essential goods, fruit and vegetable parcels and freshly-baked challah delivered before each Shabbat. 

Kitchen volunteers in action.

Before coronavirus, C Care’s pool of around 800 volunteers serviced approximately 350 people in need of a dignified helping hand each week. Some are elderly, others are immigrants (some are both, with many recipients being elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union) and others still are young families or single mums. 

“Of course our recipients are the most important, but possibly of equal importance is our volunteer community, and providing them with that sense of belonging as they give up their free time to be here,” says Elise. 

“This is what they are choosing to spend their time doing, and we want it to be a really fun and comfortable place to come, even if they don’t want to do anything, they can come and sit on the couch and have a chat.”

Corinne Goldberg with baked challot.

A key idea of C Care is to use food to nourish, but also as the vehicle to make real connections with those on the margins. The weekly conversations become relationships, with recipients often confiding their concerns with the volunteers. C Care can then facilitate links to other organisations such as Jewish Care or the Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund to help find solutions. 

But the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on the doorstep of the community forced the organisation to take an unexpected pivot. In the initial couple of weeks, an additional 210 people reached out to C Care for assistance. 

The mission became about keeping elderly and vulnerable individuals safely at home. C Care expanded its support, offering shopping from the supermarket, pharmacy or kosher butcher delivering to existing and new recipients who are elderly, self-isolating or ill. 

C Care founder and CEO, Rabbi Shlomo Nathanson.

“The whole existing model was turned on its head,” explains C Care founder and CEO Rabbi Shlomo Nathanson. 

While demand rocketed, many volunteers were part of the higher risk group more susceptible to the virus, and therefore were self-isolating or unable to safely contribute. C Care put out the word for help. Within a couple of weeks, more than 100 new volunteers came aboard.

Rabbi Shlomo calls longstanding volunteer Sharon Lowe “instrumental” in running the pharmacy-related response.

“She guided the organisation to adapt and be in the position to best serve during the crisis,” he adds. 

“And for all the criticisms that is given to generations X and Y, they have been shining through.”

Chef Avi Azoulay.

But the challenges were widespread.

With supply shortages, the organisation worked hard to foster new relationships in order to source particular goods. Partnerships were developed with Woolworths, Chemist Warehouse, Chef’s Pantry and Coles.

“And we had to relearn what food security looked like in COVID times. We had Cabrini Hospital’s quality assurance manager come down and look through the processes and give recommendations for implementation,” tells Rabbi Shlomo.

“Making meals became complex. And deliveries became complex because aside from finding and training the new category of volunteers, we needed a system of tracking to ensure that if a volunteer was later found to be a carrier of the virus, we would be able to retrace their steps in order to minimise the exposure.”

Elise Tait sorting through care packages.

Meanwhile, for those volunteers who were forced to isolate, a buddy system was set up to check in on them and ask if they too needed anything. 

“It’s been a huge output on a skeleton staff,” Rabbi Shlomo continues, “but knowing the sense of happiness that has been brought to people, particularly those facing such immense challenges at the moment, is something of which we are most proud.”

THE notion of giving back to community was something that was ignited in Rabbi Shlomo from a young age. 

Raised in Los Angeles, he reflects on Shabbat weekends of his youth spent at newly sprung shules nestled in the Hollywood Hills where he helped with community programs and summer camps.

“There was a very strong push and value for community and outreach – and I loved it”.

Rabbi Shlomo Nathanson and his wife Rivki.

Recognising this passion, in his late teens, he spent three years at a yeshivah in Rustov, in western Russia, where he would visit and connect with Jews in far flung towns and cities. After marrying Melburnian Rivki Graj in 2008, the couple decided to further pursue their united love for outreach work.

“We took out the census and a map of Melbourne, and asked, where are the pockets where there are Jews but no Jewish infrastructure,” tells Rabbi Shlomo. They settled on Port Melbourne, and in 2009 launched Chabad Jewish Community Centre, Port Melbourne. On a Friday afternoon visit to an elderly community member, he vividly remembers the pivotal moment that would shape him.

“My son Yossi and I were standing at her door, about to go, and she just looked at us in the eyes, and said, ‘Thank you for not forgetting about me.’

Lending a helping hand.

“That had a really profound impact. And the thought was, this lady felt forgotten, and all it took for her to feel included was a social visit. That is not hard for us to do as a community – to make sure everyone feels included always.”

In 2011, C Care was established.

WHEN petite 98-year-old Rose Sugarman opens the door to her small flat, her face lights up when she sees C Care volunteers Taryn Abrahams and Jeremy Sher. 

Covered with masks and gloves, today the duo are delivering Shabbat packs, including fruit, a handwritten note, a new challah cover, and two loaves of the traditional braided bread, baked in the C Care kitchen that morning. 

“You’re so generous, you people!” says a gracious Rose, her fine grey hair delicately pinned. 

C Care volunteer Jeremy Sher.

“You make me feel so humble because you work so hard on your days off, and in all weathers you come!”

Standing in Rose’s kitchen, she unpacks her bag – and stories from her past. She was born in England, and migrated to Australia – “what a fantastic country of endless opportunities!” – in 1961. 

Before then, she worked for the British government on “secret missions” in Germany. 

“I was looking for Nazis,” she declares matter-of-factly. 

“You’re so generous, you people!” … Rose Sugarman with Jeremy Sher and Taryn Abrahams.

“They got me because I could speak German. I had a great yearning to catch the Nazis. And we did catch a lot of them – and sent them to Nuremberg for trial,” her voice trails off as her attention turns back to her care package. 

“But after all these years, I’ve learnt to be honest. Say it as it is. And I am saying it as it is: What C Care does for me is an amazing miracle.

“It is an absolute joy to welcome you and to say thank you from the bottom of my heart because I really am sincere. You people are manna from heaven.”

To volunteer or donate to C Care, visit ccare.org.au.

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