Kosher Pantry Opens at UPenn Hospital

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From left: Rabbi Simcha Zevit and administrative chaplain Denise Statham (Photos provided)

The kosher pantry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) has been decades in the making.

On Dec. 6, the long-awaited addition finally opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The pantry allows the hospital to better meet the dietary needs of kosher-observing patients and their families.

Those patients and families will now be able to conveniently enjoy Amazing Meals Glatt Kosher products, granola bars, Jello-O, Cholov Yisroel ice cream and even challah and potato kugel for Shabbat.

“It’s not only the food,” staff chaplain Rabbi Simcha Zevit said. “It’s really about supporting observing Shabbat. … It’s also about taking away a layer of worry. When someone is in the hospital because their loved one is sick, the last thing you want them to have to do is to worry over, to wonder where their food is going to come from.”

The pantry was a joint effort between hospital staff and volunteers.

Bikkur Cholim of Philadelphia, a volunteer organization that services kosher-observing patients at Philadelphia hospitals, has been lobbying for the pantry for about 20 years, but bureaucratic issues, particularly the challenge of finding space for the pantry, stalled the project.

But the heads of Bikkur Cholim didn’t stop trying.

“I’m very persistent,” said Malkie Schwartz, co-head of Bikkur Cholim, “and the patients were upset.”

For decades, kosher-observing patients who came into the hospital relied on Bikkur Cholim volunteers to bring them kosher food. Over the years, Zevit had begun coordinating with the organization.

The refrigerator in the kosher pantry.

During the summer, an incident occurred that highlighted the need for the pantry. An Orthodox patient came in just before Shabbat, and though Schwartz got someone to bring food from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) next door, which did have a kosher pantry, CHOP wouldn’t let someone in just to take food.

“That was one of those incidents where it was like, ‘Wow, we really need to do better,’” Zevit said. “That incident sparked a renewed commitment to doing everything we could to serve those who observe kashrut.”

Around Passover, Mindy Oppenheimer, an extern in the clinical pastoral education program who has been involved with setting up other kosher pantries in the past, had gotten involved as well.

“A hospital the magnitude of HUP should, just in its general function, have a kosher pantry,” said Oppenheimer, who said she is traditionally observant. “I was a patient at HUP over 10 years ago. I probably would have appreciated it then. My husband would have appreciated it then. I’m just sensitive to the role of something like this as a public good for the Jewish community.”

Oppenheimer got to work researching other hospitals’ kosher pantries, and she even visited a few, including one in New York. She looked into resources that exist for observing patients at other top-tier hospitals. A chaplain collected testimony from kosher-observing staff, and Oppenheimer asked Schwartz to collect testimony from observing patients and their families whose needs would be served by this pantry.

She presented her research to CEO Regina Cunningham. Oppenheimer said she found that the hospital was interested in the pantry. They just needed the research to give it a little push.

“We tried to come from all angles,” Oppenheimer said.

The turning point for the pantry came when Pastoral Care Director Jim Browning offered some of the department’s space. Finally, the biggest hurdle had been cleared.

A meeting between Schwartz, Oppenheimer and Chief Operating Officer Carolyn Jackson marked the conclusion of 20 years of efforts to create a kosher pantry at HUP. The purpose of the meeting, Oppenheimer said, was just to work out some details. Still, she said, the meeting was “phenomenal.”

Within a week of the pantry opening, families were already taking advantage of it.

“We’re excited about being able to offer this,” Zevit said. “It really fits the overall mission of meeting the needs of a truly and religiously diverse population. Myself as a rabbi, but also our department as a whole, feel really grateful about being able to do that.”

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