This past Christmas Day, Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley on Albany Avenue in Kingston, partnering with Family of Woodstock, hosted its first annual Christmas Feast, free of charge and open to all who would not otherwise enjoy a special meal on Christmas. Mother Nature delivered a white Christmas this year, but despite several inches of snow, some 70 volunteers — congregants as well as Christian neighbors — ploughed their driveways in time to serve 125 guests food, music, gifts, and human connection.
A microcosm of Kingston, and perhaps the nation, the guests told the story of today’s hardscrabble America. A homeless man had just been released from jail. One young couple and their 9-month-old daughter, recently moved back from Oklahoma, have been living in a motel just outside the city limits until they can get back on their feet and find work. Then there was the volunteer at a Catholic church without family to visit who had been so busy volunteering for everyone else, she’d forgotten to take care of herself on Christmas—that is, until feast co-organizer Joy Weinberg knocked on her door in Rondout Gardens and encouraged her to be part of the celebration. She didn’t have a car and public transportation doesn’t run on Christmas, but these were no deterrents: Kingston-Nissan was providing free feast shuttle services in their vans to all those who needed a ride on Christmas.
A longtime tradition is for Jews to eat Chinese food on Christmas Day, but Santa’s Jewish helpers skipped the egg rolls and General Tso’s to offer brisket (itself a Jewish institution), along with smoked salmon, smoked and roasted traditional turkey, stuffing (Stone Soup), rice and beans, baked potatoes, honeyed butternut squash, sweet potatoes (Health and Nutrition), coleslaw (cabbage: Riviera Foods), string beans, corn (Wallkill View Farms), cranberry sauce, apple sauce (apples: DuBois Farms and Jenkins-Luekens Orchards), braised onions, and homemade bread (Bread Alone, Meredith’s Bread, Deisings Bakery, Cake Box Bakery). Almost everything was homemade by volunteers or businesses. The dessert table was loaded with home-baked cherry and pecan pies, apple crisps, cookies, and other classic Christmas fare, along with chocolate (Lagusta’s Luscious). It was a “no-waste” meal; leftovers were donated to two shelters in Kingston.
Many volunteers sported T-shirts exhorting humankind to pursue righteousness and justice. On the T-shirt front, a human figure broadcasts “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice, [You Shall] Pursue”(Deuteronomy) through a shofar, a wind instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn now blown to start and conclude the Jewish High Holy Days. According to tradition, the shofar’s call to righteousness is so powerful it breaks through the contours of the Earth’s surface. The legend on the other side of the shirt reads, “The strong back of our community’s open heart.” Antler headbands, electronic Rudolph the Reindeer noses, and Santa Claus caps also abounded.
Volunteering their time, three premiere Hudson Valley bands got guests and volunteers alike clapping and grooving to the beat of uptempo songs, from Americana classics to rockabilly to swing. There was celebrated history in these groups. The first band, Cantor Bob & The HV Jubilee, starred synagogue Cantor Bob Cohen, whose street creds in the folk music and protest movement were legitimized back in the ’60s when his first album featured liner notes penned by none other than Bob Dylan. Lara Hope, the lead singer in the second group, the Gold Hope Duo, won the 2017 Ameripolitan Award for Best Rockabilly Female. And Renee Bailey, the lead singer in the closing band, Saints of Swing, used to sing with Louis Armstrong.
At the top of each hour, when the music lineup changed, lucky ticket-holders won door prizes, including gift cards to Walmart and Stewart’s for the men and sterling earrings designed and donated by Israeli jewelers for the women. Meanwhile, as People’s Place had donated some 60 gifts for children, Santa Claus and Santa’s helpers were able to offer presents to every child.
With celebration food so abundant, towards the end of the feast leaders furnished takeout containers and encouraged guests to fill up and extend the celebration into the week. The volunteer team also filled additional take out containers with leftover bread and fresh fruit (Adams Fairacre Farms), plus offered pint containers of milk (Boice’s Dairy) and packed everything into shopping bags. People left with armloads of presents, food, and huge smiles.
“Joy doesn’t do anything in a little way,” says Elissa Bromberg, her wife of five years. This verdict is validated by one look at the spreadsheets Joy Weinberg prepared to co-organize the Christmas Feast with Pat Brakman, another active member of the congregation’s Social Action Committee, working collaboratively with a multitude of congregational and Christian volunteers.
The previous Christmas, Joy and Elissa had volunteered at Family of Woodstock’s free Christmas Day Dinner at the Woodstock town center. Deeply moved by the experience, they thought the Kingston community would benefit from a similar event. One day while walking her dog with her neighbor David Sterman, Joy discovered that David was an active Family of Woodstock board member. The two began discussing the possibility of launching a Kingston version of the Christmas dinner. David and Beth McClendon, Family’s volunteer coordinator, made a presentation to Congregation Emanuel’s Social Action Committee, “which moves quickly,” Joy says. “You come in with a new idea, and they say ‘That’s great. Let’s do it.’
“We are our brothers’ keeper,” explains Rabbi Yael Romer. “Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley considered it an honor to facilitate our neighbors’ celebration of their important holiday.” Family of Woodstock gave the new group pointers on feast organization, put them in touch with experienced feast cooks, contributed turkeys, promoted the feast throughout their extensive network, and more.
Lara Hope wrote in an email that when Joy approached her in August, “it was a no-brainer for us to join in … Hosting a Christmas meal in a synagogue, to bring people together, knocking down the barriers that often separate us … no judgment, no walls, no politics, no hidden agendas. It was just a day of people looking out for other people, lending a hand, doing what we can to be human, helpful, kind.”