Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase that means repairing the world. As co-chairs of Huntington’s Temple Beth El Social Action Committee, Carol Werblin and Sue Seiler endeavor to do just that — by helping others in need.
"In healing the world, it’s really just one person at a time," Seiler said.
Life, as Werblin sees it, is short, we must be here for a purpose and strive for more than just thinking about ourselves. "I felt my reason for being here was to reach out to others — to try and make a small difference in their lives," Werblin mused.
A retired special-ed teacher, Seiler, 65, of Huntington Station started a leadership club to demonstrate to her students and Smithtown fourth- and fifth-graders the value of giving back to their community. Club members volunteered to help senior citizens, veterans and animals, and many started similar clubs when they got to middle and high school.
"I believe that all children enjoy putting smiles on other people’s faces, but they just didn’t know how to do it or they didn’t have those opportunities to do charity work," Seiler explained.
Along the way, Seiler said, she’s seen the gratitude and satisfaction from volunteers and recipients alike, "and feel so proud that I was able to inspire so many to make a difference together."
Altruism for Werblin, 68, of Centerport began after she joined Temple Beth El. Wanting to feel more connected to others at the temple, Werblin, a retired teacher assistant and community advocate for South Huntington schools, joined Beth El’s newly formed Social Action Committee, and before long was running its annual Thanksgiving dinner.
Realizing that there was a greater need in the community for such communal meals, Werblin added a spring spaghetti dinner and a summer barbecue.
From volunteering with her leadership club at Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook’s soup kitchen, Seiler got the idea to start her own soup kitchen at the Huntington temple.
Aware that St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Station had been hosting two dinners a month through Project HOPE (Helping Other People Eat), Seiler reached out to Dan Diviney, who ran the program, to see if the temple could take on one of the dinners.
"They jumped at it, because it’s exhausting and it’s a lot work," Seiler said.
Over time, Project HOPE, founded in 2004 by St. Hugh’s youth ministry, has responded to the shifting levels of need in the community, explained Diviney, 60, former youth minister at St. Hugh who lives in Huntington. Early on, there were Sunday suppers and feeding about 50 day laborers once or twice a week. With the 2007 recession, that increased to feeding 200 day laborers six days a week for a couple of years. By 2016, the need had significantly abated, other organizations had gotten involved and St. Hugh had tapered off much of its outreach addressing hunger in Huntington.
In August 2012, Seiler and Werblin introduced Temple Beth El Project HOPE dinners. Held monthly at the Moose Lodge in Greenlawn, the dinners, serving between 100 and 150 people, including seniors from nearby Paumanack Village, have been funded since 2015 from annual $5,000 grants from Dentists for Better Huntington, a group of about 30 dentists who donate to various causes, and temple congregants who support the Social Action Fund or adopt a month in memory of a loved one.
Until he got involved with the temple’s social action, Howard Schneider, one of the Dentists for Better Huntington and a temple member, wasn’t aware of how much hunger exists in seemingly affluent Huntington.
"For a lot of us it’s under the radar, unless you’re experiencing it," said Schneider, 61, of Huntington. "And there are a lot of people in Huntington that are experiencing various different levels of need."
With the COVID-19 outbreak, Temple Beth El Project HOPE dinners stopped in March 2020, and Werblin, Seiler and Diviney pivoted to distributing truckloads of groceries and restaurant meals at St. Hugh and other locations three times a week from April to December 2020.
"Carol really moved me out of retirement," Diviney said. During the peak of the pandemic, Diviney spent $7,000 to $10,000 a week for staples of milk, eggs, rice, beans and oats, much of it funded by the dentists’ fund and government grants.
"Between us, Assembly of God, Helping Hands and Tri CYA, we were covering six out of the seven days," said Werblin, who is not surprised by the need in the community. "I see how many people I have to turn away from my dinners."
Still, Werblin was struck by how bad got things during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I had people getting on line three times a week for the same thing," she said.
In 2020, Temple Beth El Project HOPE held a drive-through pre-Thanksgiving Day dinner at Manor Field in Huntington Station, distributing about 250 meals of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and vegetables provided by Red Restaurant in Huntington, which has donated the holiday meal for the past 20 years, cookies baked by temple members and students from Walt Whitman High School’s Interact Club and apples from Richter’s Orchard of Northport.
Since January 2021, about a half-dozen temple volunteers have cooked 20 hot meals each month for Tri CYA, a Huntington Station-based community-youth organization, and 30 hot meals for residents at Paumanack Village. Bread donated by Emilia’s Bakery in East Northport and pies from Kerber’s Farm in Huntington Station round out the meals, which Seiler and her husband, Rob, deliver to both locations.
"We’re always listening and we’re always looking at how we can help the community and then create something that can answer that need," Seiler said.
In another Social Action Committee initiative Werblin, volunteers weekly with members of The Congregational Church of Huntington to make sandwiches children at Tri CYA and seniors at Paumanack. Through HIHI (Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative), a consortium of about three dozen congregations including Temple Beth El, homeless individuals are fed, clothed and given respite during winter months.
"I always appreciated how people have worked in an ecumenical way amazingly in Huntington," said Diviney. "Because it’s always been this way, when it came to the pandemic, it was seamless."
Potpourri of giving
Through Project Hospice, the temple in 2016 began donating healthy snacks for family members of the Visiting Nurse Service of Suffolk’s Hospice House patients.
Seiler said the snacks help sustain family members who are often afraid to leave their loved one’s side. "They really don’t want to leave because they think the second they leave, that’s when the person’s going to die," she said.
Lori Street-Ames, a Temple Beth El Project HOPE and hospice volunteer, conceived Project Hospice as a way of letting patients’ loved ones know the community cares about them. Each week, volunteers bake cookies and fill baskets with granola bars, chips, fruit and other snacks.
"It’s a little less isolating to see there are people from the outside who are aware that you’re here and you’re struggling," said Street-Ames, 66, of Northport.
Birthday in a Duffel, the committee’s latest initiative, operates under the umbrella of Birthday Wishes, a Hicksville-based nonprofit that throws birthday parties for children in shelters. Birthday in a Duffel typically serves children in transient homes or hotels who aren’t reached by Birthday Wishes.
Since January 2021, Birthday in a Duffel has presented 13 duffels to students at Harborfields, South Huntington and Commack schools, using a two-year $5,000 grant. Volunteers tailor gifts to recipients’ specific interests, including books, games and personalized presents, such as a drum pad for a boy who loves music.
"I believe if we can make everybody, one at a time, smile, it just makes you feel so good that you will then pay it forward to the next person," Seiler said. "I’ve seen it over and over."
Jewish and Christian Scripture repeatedly calls us to be attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable, explained the Rev. Robert Smith, pastor of St. Hugh, who quoted a parable attributed to Jesus, "When I was hungry, you gave me food; thirsty you gave me drink; naked you clothed me."
More than a meal
To make her sit-down dinners a little extra special, Werblin had introduced raffles and a boutique with clothing, books and housewares available free to guests.
Werblin said she gets numerous requests for specific clothing and housewares through social service agencies, school districts and shelters. The donated items, which Werblin stores in her garage and basement or in a shed at the temple, come from individuals and organizations.
"I get phone calls from Manhattan telling me they have furniture, and I’ve delivered all the way out to Islip," said Werblin, who will resume the boutiques when in-person dinners return.
Social action should be part of a temple or church’s mission statement, said Mitch Kittenplan, 73, president of Temple Beth El. "That’s what it’s all about: helping others."
Noting that he and his wife have volunteered at Project HOPE dinners, Kittenplan said, "You feel like such a small part of what’s going on. It’s almost like a little army they create that helps feed people, clothe people, take care of people."
As part of her Give and Receive, an initiative that delivers food, furniture, medical equipment, housewares and school supplies to people, many of whom live alone, Werblin spends time with them, checking in to see if they need prescriptions filled or have other requests.
"People need to know that you care about them and it’s not just I’m dropping off a bag of food."
Calling Werblin "a beautiful person," Judy Lawrence, 82, a recipient of Give and Receive who lives in Huntington Station, said she relishes Werblin’s visits. "She helps us with when we need it," said Lawrence. "We appreciate her very much. I do; my kids do; my grandkids do."
Werblin admitted a bit of selfishness in her practice of tikkun olam. "I always felt that I got back more than I gave," she said.
How to give
These organizations accept donations that go toward feeding the hungry and more in Huntington:
Temple Beth El Social Action Fund, 600 Park Ave., Huntington, tbeli.org (donors may specify Project HOPE, Birthday Wishes or Birthday in a Duffel)
St. Hugh Project HOPE, St. Hugh of Lincoln, 21 E. Ninth St., Huntington Station, projecthopeny.org
Visiting Nurse Service Hospice House, 101 Laurel Rd., East Northport, visitingnurseservice.org
Tri CYA, 809 New York Ave., Huntington, tricya.org
Helping Hands Rescue Mission, 225 Broadway, Huntington Station, helpinghandsrescuemission.org