Forging connection through food

PHOTO: Chabad of Northeast Portland's Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm drops matzo balls into soup destined for Chesed Connection's weekly deliveries Thursday, Oct. 19. (Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)

The Jewish Review
On a Thursday afternoon in late October, the smell of fresh challah wafted from the kitchen at Chabad of Northeast Portland. A group of volunteers chopped cucumber salad and dished hummus into containers, while Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm slipped matzo balls into a pot of gently simmering stock. 
They’re all together for a purpose – something bigger than just making food. They’re forging human connections, one meal at a time. 
Chabad’s Chesed Connection, which takes its name from the Hebrew word for kindness, brings people together to make and distribute Shabbat meals for those in the community who could use not just a meal, but a point of loving connection with their fellow humans. 
It’s the brainchild of Rabbi Wilhelm, and its origin story goes back to 2017 when the rabbi was in Houston during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Handing out Target gift cards to survivors, he questioned what good he was doing with what felt like token assistance to people whose homes were uninhabitable due to flood damage. 
Eventually, Rabbi Wilhelm said, “I saw that really, the gift card was just a symbol of people saying they care. There are people out there saying ‘we’re here for you, we care.’”
What Rabbi Wilhelm saw was that having a network in place that could mobilize when need arose was crucial. He returned to Portland and started building such a network, compiling a list of vulnerable seniors to check in on in case they needed medicine or anything else. He described the program as “bare-bones” as Passover approached in 2020 – and the COVID pandemic began.
“The problem was that people simply couldn’t get food. It wasn’t a money issue. You couldn’t get what you needed,” he said. “So, we did this Passover-To-Go. We assembled everything and then volunteers delivered that.”
The food deliveries continued as the pandemic wore on, and Rabbi Wilhelm noticed that the program wasn’t just benefiting those who were receiving the deliveries, but those making them as well. 
“It’s the empowerment of ‘I can make a difference,’” he said. “When you think on a global scale, it’s hard, but we should think on a more local scale; ‘I am making a difference in this person’s life. I’m bringing this person food.’”
And while the aspect of kindness is an important part of the program’s name and work, so is the connection. Rabbi Wilhelm pointed to a report from the Surgeon General stating that loneliness has become an epidemic in the United States, with serious consequences for both mental and physical health. 
“The increased risk of premature death associated with this social disconnection is comparable to smoking daily and maybe even greater than the risk associated with obesity,” the Rabbi read. “As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and tearing our country apart.”
Barbara Petrie, a regular volunteer who started delivering food during the pandemic, explained how just delivering food forges the bonds that break that cycle of loneliness.
“You get to know them. They look forward to talking to you, you look forward to talking to them,” she said. “You know, you don’t realize how you impact other people’s lives, and it’s really wonderful.”
Those connections pay dividends. Rabbi Wilhelm explained that delivery volunteers have let him know about people in the community who are having a hard time so he can check in on them, and that volunteers who have common interests have struck up friendships through the work of Chesed Connection. 
While Chesed Connection relies on a cadre of regular volunteers, an offshoot called Giving Kitchen opens the doors the third Thursday of each month to a broader community to come in and contribute. 
Isaac Babus was one such volunteer; a student in Chabad’s Sinai Scholars program, he and some of his classmates were ladling soup into containers as part of a tikkun olam project. Babus saw the power that food has to forge connections.
“I think food is a way to connect not only just between people, but between different groups of people that may not necessarily be getting along in time,” he said. “It can always just be a connector. People love to eat.”
With Chabad of Northeast Portland’s new quarters on NE 9th Avenue, there’s now space for the program to host birthday and b’nai mitzvah parties where people can celebrate by giving back to the community. These can be scheduled with Rabbi Wilhelm by emailing
“What I’m seeing more and more is the value of people experiencing the joy of giving to others and connecting with others,” Rabbu Wilhelm said. “That’s really what the Giving Kitchen is about.”


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