Peanut Butter & Jazz: Soup Kitchen Reopens for Sit-down Guests

January 3, 2024

Group of students at soup kitchen

For the first time in almost three years, the soup kitchen at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion began once again welcoming sit-down guests for meals on October 9. The soup kitchen has been in continuous operation for over thirty years but had switched to sidewalk distribution at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

The switch to open-air distribution allowed the facility to maintain its 30-plus year tradition of providing meals every Monday to guests from the Washington Square Park community. Throughout the pandemic, it provided upward of 60 bagged meals, which might include tuna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit cups, and cookies, to anyone who turned up.

HUC-JIR Students Working at Soup Kitchen

HUC-JIR Students Working at Soup Kitchen

The return to the indoor space offers the hospitality and warmth of a sit-down meal and allows the soup kitchen to provide a wider menu that incorporates hot food. The reopened indoor service also enables the soup kitchen to better meet its secondary purpose of connecting action with Jewish education and providing future Jewish leaders with opportunities for tikkun olam: acts of kindness that help heal the world.

Largely run by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical and cantorial students, the soup kitchen is draws volunteers from Hillel organizations and colleges, as well as local middle and high school students. Volunteers are not automatically thrust into service roles. Before they move tables or serve food, they discuss the purpose behind the soup kitchen, and why a seminary might host such a facility.

Evan Traylor headshot“They’re pretty quick to make the connection around mitzvot we see in the Torah and the inherent connection between Judaism and serving other people,” Evan Traylor, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and member of the soup kitchen’s leadership team said. Volunteers are also encouraged to connect with guests through conversation. “They take that experience of being able to look someone in the eye and provide dignity to someone who, for a whole host of reasons, has been stepped on by society,” Traylor added.

The soup kitchen draws inspiration from Isaiah 58:7-10, which contains two explicit references to feeding the hungry. “Isaiah is one of the texts we study with religious school groups when they come in,” Traylor said. “Isaiah explains that the point of fasting is not just so you feel the effects on your body. It’s to do something within our bodies that brings us to realize that there are people who do not get to choose to fast.”

The newly reopened facility is designed to nourish the soul as well as the body. In addition to providing meals, the space often hosts student or local musicians.

Spencer Mandell“People have been able to donate their time and share their gifts of song with the guests and volunteers,” Spencer Mandell, a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR who is also on the kitchen’s leadership team said. Music selections tend to run toward coffee-shop playlists rather than religious music. On Mondays when there are no live performers, Mandell, a singer who plays guitar, often pipes light jazz through the facility’s intercom system.

For Mandell, participation in the soup kitchen reflects the comparatively secure position Jews in America have experienced. “We are blessed with the ability to be sustained on our own,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to sustain those who have not been able to sustain themselves, and to provide them with the life-saving and critical, compassionate support that only a Jewish community can provide.”

The kitchen is housed at 1 West 4th Street in Manhattan. For more information about it, as well as volunteering and other support opportunities, contact: