Samuel Domsky, a human whirlwind, woke up before dawn on Sunday and drove to Temple Sinai in Dresher, Montgomery County, to oversee 400 volunteers packing up eight days of Passover food for 600 needy families in the Philadelphia region.
Domsky, who has been running his early morning mission for 20 years, said he doesn’t mind losing sleep. “The body says, ‘Enough already! Get up!’ and I’m up at 5:30 a.m.”
Inside Temple Sinai, Domsky, wearing a “Self Made, Philly Made, Temple Made” T-shirt, smiled as he watched a long line of men, women, and child volunteers filling shopping bags from tables piled high with boxes of matzo; jars of borscht; cans of chicken soup, tuna, and gefilte fish; Yarzheit memorial candles; and Jewish calendars.
Each family gets two food-filled shopping bags. Another volunteer army was stationed outside the temple, loading frozen kosher chickens into one bag, and cheese and a dozen fresh eggs into the other. Then 125 volunteer drivers immediately left to deliver their routes.
“This is well-oiled, organized chaos,” Domsky said, smiling. “I’ve been fund-raising since January, raising $30,000. Today, I’ll put out little fires and just soak all this in.”
Passover, which begins Monday at sundown, celebrates the emancipation of ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt and their exodus to freedom.
Inside Temple Sinai, Domsky picked up the mike and started to thank his volunteer army but his voice became suddenly thick with emotion. He took a moment to compose himself.
“I’m speechless,” he said, looking at his 400 volunteers. “Some people have been here since 1997, when we started doing this out of my garage. Some people just started this week.” Everyone, he said, was doing a mitzvah, a good deed.
“The whole purpose of this mitzvah,” he said, “is tzedakah, the idea that one of our responsibilities as Jews is to repair the world, to leave the place better than when you showed up in it.”
He noted the many young volunteers, including his son Alex, 26, who recycled all the cartons as they were emptied; his daughter Sara, 24, who coordinated the bag loading, and his son Aaron, 16, assisted by a friend, Noah Feinberg, 16, registering all the volunteers as they entered the temple.
“This teaches our kids that we have a moral obligation to help those least fortunate,” Domsky said. “My children were weaned on this. It’s part of the fabric of their lives.”
Steve Pilchik, wearing a New York Mets jersey with “PILCHIK” on the back and a Mets yarmulke, has been helping Domsky since 1997, when the two first met, jaw to jaw, during a softball game brouhaha in the Delaware Valley Synagogue League.
Pilchik, captain of the Beth Sholom Men’s Club from Elkins Park, and Domsky, captain of the Temple Sinai Men’s Club, left their benches and rushed to the plate to dispute a close call at home. They can’t remember whose teammate slid into whose.
“We got into each other’s face, nose to nose, yelling at each other for two minutes,” Pilchik said. “Then Sam said, ‘Hi. I’m doing this Passover thing out of my garage. Want to help?’ I’ve been helping ever since.”
Pilchik plans the logistics of 120 food delivery routes in 63 zip codes. Most of the food is purchased at George’s Market in Dresher, which donates 625 dozen eggs and 2,700 shopping bags.
Domsky said Jewish poverty often goes unnoticed and “there are too many people out there who can’t afford to celebrate the eight days of Passover.
“We serve the elderly, including Holocaust survivors,” he said. “We serve immigrant families. We help them celebrate religious freedom in a country that promotes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud to be a Jew who enjoys religious freedom, so I help others celebrate that as well.”
When he started 20 years ago out of his garage, Domsky was collecting food for 75 families. But as the word spread, his Passover mitzvah outgrew his garage, and fund-raising replaced food collection.
The names of needy families come primarily from Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Philadelphia and from the Jewish Community Center Klein Branch in Northeast Philly.
“But every year,” Domsky said, “a rabbi or an organization will say, ‘We have a few more families in need.’ Or someone, often an older woman living by herself, calls. I put them all on the list. I don’t vet them. Who am I to vet them? I never turn anybody away.”
Shortly after 9 a.m., all of the vans were on their way and Domsky planted his cellphone in his ear, troubleshooting problems, keeping his Passover operation rolling.
"I was 36 and I had hair with maybe just a tinge of gray when I started this 20 years ago,” he said, laughing. “And now I’m bald and gray and maybe 20 pounds overweight and my kids are grown. My goal is to serve 1,000 families by 2025. As soon as we finish this year’s operation, we’ll start planning next year’s. It’s been an amazing ride.”