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Jefferson Awards: SF Rabbi Inspires Congregation To Fight Hunger

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Stephen Pearce, Jefferson Awards

Stephen Pearce (CBS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – A San Francisco rabbi has changed a century-old tradition and as a result, countless families have food on their tables.

When Rabbi Stephen Pearce became Congregation Emanu-El’s senior rabbi in 1993, he challenged a 150-year-old synagogue tradition during the sacred holiday of Yom Kippur.

“I thought, I’m gonna take a risk, because I was new, and that’s always dangerous,” Pearce remembered.

Congregation Emanu-El, the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Mississippi, did not solicit donations during its worship services. That is, until Rabbi Pearce gave the people food for thought.

“I put a bag of groceries on the pulpit and I said, ‘There are people here who are fasting not because they’re Jewish or want to fast, but because they don’t have any food. They’re at risk,'” he explained. “I asked them to come back with bags of groceries, and there were several tons actually that were donated at that time.”

Under Rabbi Pearce’s leadership, the congregation has donated more than 19,500 pounds of food to the San Francisco food bank.

Over the years, Rabbi Pearce has galvanized his congregation of 8000 in a number of service projects.

For example, a year round food drive. a turkey dinner drive for Thanksgiving, and cooking shelter meals.

At one point, he planted the idea to grow vegetables at a Jewish cemetery. It generated thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the food bank every year.

“Rabbi Pearce leads by personal example,” said congregant Terry Krause. “It’s become so normative here that, of course you contribute time, money, and food to the food bank.”

Thanks to another of Rabbi Pearce’s ideas, more than 100 low income families receive food bags once a week at a pantry set up at San Francisco’s Roosevelt Middle School.

“I’m recently retired and this is the highlight of my week,” said volunteer Jamie Kendall.

Kendall and her teenaged son are thankful for the chance to serve.

“He’d volunteered at the Food Bank a number of times before, but when he first started working here, he connected the dots that this was the face of hunger,” Kendall continued.

Rabbi Pearce said it’s very simple to lead when people want to make a difference. “People often need to be asked, and once you ask them, they say ‘Gee, why didn’t I think of this?’ And they jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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