As the temperature hovered around freezing on a recent Saturday night, kids and adults lugged bags of clothing and boxes of food and toiletries into Waxman High School and Youth House at Temple Israel in Great Neck. Once inside, the clothing was deposited in a sitting area just inside the entrance, the food and toiletries carted downstairs to white folding tables arranged in a U-shape.
At the center of the activity was Elana Eyal, 17. The Great Neck South High School senior was carrying on a tradition begun by her sister, Jordan, as president of the Midnight Run Club at the high school. The students gather four to five times a year at the temple's Hebrew school to make a "run" helping the poor who live on the streets of Manhattan.
The students, part of some dozen groups on Long Island, participate under the umbrella of Midnight Run Inc., a nonprofit group begun in 1984 in Dobbs Ferry that is "dedicated to finding common ground between the housed and the homeless." Midnight Run organizes about 900 relief missions a year into Manhattan by a variety of groups. The destinations, where supplies are handed out, are varied, depending upon where the homeless are found.
Eyal said she's been doing "the run," as it's known, about eight years. Temple Israel has been doing it for 10 to 12 years.
"It's an eye-opening experience," she said. "It lets you see and help people firsthand - it makes you see firsthand what the reality is of being homeless."
At the temple for the next three hours, children, youth and adults would pack 150 brown-bag meals. Peanut butter-and-jelly on bread or a bagel, cereal bars, applesauce cups, bags of chips - one of each to a bag.
Most of the food was donated by temple members, but the bagels are regularly donated by Hand Rolled Bagels in New Hyde Park, said Kara Innella, 18, a student Nassau Community College who began doing runs when she was in high school. "We get two large cans full of bagels for each run," she said. "They make extra for us."
"This is my first time," a glove-handed Sara Gottlieb, 14, said as she made sandwiches. "I want to help out. It's a really good cause." The freshman at Village School in Great Neck was accompanied by her father, Sam, 49. Six youths and adults made sandwiches for the brown-bag meals that would be packed into large, shallow cardboard boxes.
Avir Waxman, 13, an eighth-grader at Great Neck South Middle School and grandson of the temple's founding rabbi, Mordecai Waxman, sorted clothes: men's, women's, pants, shirts, coats, socks, underwear. There were towels and blankets, too, purchased through a bake-sale fundraiser at the high school.
"These people really need the help," Waxman said, "and it feels good to give them what they need."
Dozens of bags of these clothes, labeled by type and gender, would be packed into other minivans alongside the brown-bag meals and cases of water and juice and toiletries.
First at the brown-bag assembly line and then at the toiletry-sorting table was Sam Gottlieb.
"This is one of the first things people ask for," Gottlieb said as he sorted travel-size containers of shampoo, soap and hand lotion with Geoffrey Mazel, 48, another member of Temple Israel.
After the meals were packed and the clothes and toiletries sorted, Eyal gathered everyone in a classroom where participants crouched on kindergarten-size chairs set in a circle. It was time for the roll call and pep talk. Starting at one end, kids introduced themselves. Then Eyal talked about what the group would be doing.
Eyal explained to the participants how they would park the cars and take out clothing and food. "Be friendly, be outgoing," she said. "Help people find what they need, everyone's really nice."
When it was time to depart for Manhattan, Rob Panzer, 49, assisted by his son, Ari, 14, loaded two tall 10-gallon hot-water dispensers into a van. "These are for making coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soup," he said. The Great Neck orthodontist began overseeing Temple Israel's Midnight Run operation six years ago.
At about 9:30 on that Saturday night, everyone filed outside and packed into six vehicles loaded for their trip into Manhattan, where they would make five stops.
They'd also be making connections, the most important aspect of Midnight Run, according to its executive director, Dale Williams.
"It's not just about feeding and clothing people, it's about making the connection," said Williams, who was himself homeless for two years. "A lot of people who go on our runs are people who see homeless every day and feel they can't do anything about it. It [the run] humanizes people. It also tends to make people more active in working toward a permanent solution."