Rabbi Alan D. Fuchs, who was installed Sept. 9 as senior rabbi of the 1,800-family congregation, said he asked his congregants to bring groceries for the needy as a way of fulfilling the spirit of Yom Kippur and keeping the traditional fasting from becoming "empty ritual."
"The High Holy Days are especially conducive to thinking about what we can do for people who are less fortunate than we are," Rabbi Fuchs said.
It is a time to promote "social action and social justice," he said. A food drive "fits so well into the theme of the High Holy Days," he said.
He pointed out that the prophet Isaiah declares, in one of the Biblical passages read each year at Yom Kippur services, that fasting must be accompanied by acts of charity. Those who fast should also give bread to the hungry, according to the ancient prophetic book.
Many Jews approach the High Holy Days "looking for something to do that's meaningful," Rabbi Fuchs said. The food drive offers that chance to the entire congregation, he said.
Rabbi Fuchs said that his former synagogue in Cincinnati had a Yom Kippur food drive and that he brought the idea to Philadelphia with him.
Congregants who arrived for services marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year on Sept. 12 found empty shopping bags at all the seats in the Reform congregation's Center City branch, at 615 N. Broad St., and its suburban branch, at 8201 High School Rd. in Elkins Park, Rabbi Fuchs said.
They were instructed to fill the bags with nonperishable canned or packaged food and bring them back when they come to Yom Kippur services.
Rabbi Fuchs said he hoped the request would bring in "thousands of pounds of food." But he emphasized that the obligation to do charitable works is in force throughout the year, not just at the High Holy Days.
At Rodeph Shalom and several other congregations throughout the area, the yearlong commitment takes the form of programs aimed at helping Jews who are in need, most of them elderly.
Rodeph Shalom initiated a program seven years ago called "Sharing Is Caring" that has spread to several other congregations.
For Yom Kippur, volunteers from the synagogues prepare holiday meals for distribution to the poor. Rodeph Shalom cooks for about 60 poor families in South Philadelphia, according to Elaine Labe, who coordinates the program at Rodeph Shalom.
"Sharing Is Caring" also provides services throughout the year, "all types of services, free of charge," said Dolores Solomon of Congregation Beth Or in Spring House, Montgomery County.
Solomon said Beth Or, also a Reform congregation, began its "Sharing Is Caring" program about four or five years ago and provides help to elderly Jews living in the Logan section of Philadelphia.
The program helps needy Jews with whatever problems they have, from purchasing a new hearing aid to paying utility bills, Labe said.
During the holidays, program volunteers try hard to provide "traditional things" that will make the holidays happier for the poor, according to Labe.
Recipients of the program's aid - most of them with incomes of about $325 a month - are people who are "isolated, lonely, sick," according to Solomon.
"Sharing Is Caring" helps them feel they are "not forgotten," she said. ''It is like there is a helping hand out there."