The Woman of Valor – Debbie Winderman
Trying to keep up with Debbie Winderman as she describes her weekly schedule is akin to watching a high speed train rocketing down the railroad tracks. There’s no stopping Debbie, and just when you think she’s done detailing all of her whirlwind activities, she picks up speed and launches into new territory. Her dedication and spirit are inspiring, indefatigable, and nothing short of amazing!
Debbie’s childhood was not what you might call a typical east coast, Jewish upbringing. Raised in Long Island , New York , by a Jewish mother and Roman Catholic father, she remembers Jewish holidays, Easter, Xmas and the tooth fairy all regarded as one and the same. Judaism wasn’t actively present in Selma and John Venuti’s home, and whatever Jewish identity she had, was in name only.
After her family moved to Los Angeles , Debbie attended Beverly Hills High School . But it wasn’t until after she was married and the birth of her eldest child, Erika, that Debbie surprised herself (and her first husband) by insisting that their daughter attend a Jewish day school. Having been deprived of a Jewish education herself, she was eager to embark on a course that could ensure her family’s Jewish future.
Several years down the road, Debbie found herself divorced and in need of a break. A planned trip to Europe fell apart and in desperation, she walked in to her travel agency and asked them for an alternative getaway. They suggested Jamaica , and Debbie gladly allowed them to plan every detail of her stay. However, she would soon find out, that it was actually G-d who was orchestrating her plans, and boy was she in for a treat!
It was on her Jamaican vacation that Debbie met Larry Winderman, a charming, modest and delightful Jewish man from Queens , New York . They would soon discover that in addition to having grown up a few miles from each other, their lives had crossed paths several times, and it was finally bashert that they actually meet for the first time.
After returning to her job at the May Co. in Los Angeles, Debbie was flattered when her assistant handed her a phone message from some “Larry in New York ”. He had tracked her down and their long distance relationship soon turned to matrimony, with Larry moving west to join his lovely bride.
Debbie was now working as a party planner when one of her clients wanted to donate all the books, which were to be incorporated into their centerpieces, to Kadima Hebrew Academy. “I liked what I saw at this school so when Rebecca was entering kindergarten, we enrolled her there,” she explains. Before long, the ever-active Debbie became the PTA president and Larry was voted school board president.
Larry jokes that he felt caught in the middle. “My parents and grandparents would speak Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand, and now my daughters were doing the same, but in Hebrew!” When Rebecca entered Calabasas High School , her parents also had her join Los Angeles Hebrew High School to advance her Hebrew language and Jewish education.
At the time, LAHHS was having difficulties finding adequate space for their classes so Debbie suggested they contact Chabad, which welcomed the school and the bubbling teenagers. One day, while perusing Rebecca’s hebrew materials, Debbie found a bookmark, which turned out to be a flyer advertising a Wednesday Lunch ‘N Learn class with Rabbi Bryski .
“When I attended my first class I was disappointed when I realized they were up to the 5th commandment of the Ten Commandments," Debbie laughs. "After class I walked over to (the late) Irwin Weissberg and asked him if I could purchase the tapes for the commandments I had missed. He looked at me incredulously! “You want all 250 of them?! It was then that I appreciated the scrutiny and care that the Chabad rabbis applied to every nuance in the Torah.”
Debbie was so enthralled with her new learning experience that she insisted everyone in the family choose a Torah class to attend. And with her passion, love and total devotion, Debbie began steering her family on a path of discovering the warmth and beauty of Judaism firsthand, by turning her home into a hub for Jewish activties.
The more involved she got with Chabad, the more she liked what she saw. When she learned that the Friendship Circle needed people to solicit funds, she raised her hand. “I can sell stuff on e-bay,” she volunteered, and indeed she was so successful that her children quipped “Mom is selling our entire house on e-bay!” When the Evelyn Overton Sunshine Club opened, Debbie immediately signed up as one of the volunteer coordinators, planning programs and visiting senior homes throughout the year.
She figured she had some time to spare, so when she learned that the Conejo Jewish Day School could use some pro bono office help, she undertook that assignment as well. All of the above is accomplished without fanfare and with humility, and while still maintaining an active social life.
“Our home is always filled with guests,” explains Larry. “Not only does Debbie cook delicious meals and bake challah, she permeates each festive gathering with insightful thoughts on Judaism and the weekly parsha or holiday. I’m amazed with the pearls that flow effortlessly when she speaks. You’d think she grew up with an orthodox bubbe and zeide.”
Debbie's contagious spirit affects her friends. “I tell them candidly; you want your children to graduate with more degrees and be more successful than you in every area of life. So why should Judaism be different? Embrace them when they come home and ask you to light Shabbat candles! You don’t have become orthodox. You just have to bring a little yiddishkeit into your home!”
Her husband’s business success and her own busy schedule have not precluded her from always looking out for the next person in need. Debbie gets teary-eyed as she recalls hearing about a little girl in a local public school who would wait on the side for her friends to finish their lunch so she could eat their leftovers. “We’re not talking about a school in a slum area of LA. We’re talking right here, in the affluent Conejo Valley. Can you believe that?”
She immediately contacted Chabad and was delighted to hear that Rabbi Levine had already begun a small scale food distribution service as part of the Oscar Overton Chabad Social Service Program. “He told me he was personally delivering meals on a weekly basis to homeless people in the community. With the encouragement and help of my dear friend Sheila Fenster, I decided to help by making the Food Bank my special mitzvah!”
“Debbie and her incredible team have taken the program to a whole new level,” explains Rabbi Yisroel Levine. “Together we’ve created a system which affords dignity and anonymity to anyone in need.” Each week, the recipient fills out a form that allows them to select the foods they need. Debbie and Co. then head over to the local markets where they purchase shopping carts of the requested items and bring it back to Chabad where everything is carefully laid out and placed in bags that are identified only by an assigned number.
Debbie's passion for her latest endeavor is clear. “When you’re dealing with people from your own community who have lost their jobs and have no food on the table, it’s of paramount importance to ensure their privacy. The food is distributed in a simple and discreet manner; no questions asked; no one - outside of Rabbi Levine - knows who anyone is.”
Rabbi Levine’s voice softens as he remembers a phone call he received the day the Food Bank’s first ad appeared in the Acorn. “It was from a Christian woman who told me that somehow, G-d had always provided for her family. But that morning, her cupboards were bare and her soul ached, so she sat down at her table and had a heart-to-heart with G-d. Then she opened the newspaper and saw that a new Food Bank was opening. We weren’t operational yet but I gave her money for food. It was the first of many such stories that opened my eyes to the magnitude of the problem.”
He continues. “A young Latino family had been coming for weeks to pick up their food packages when one day, the mother confided that their baby had nowhere to sleep because they couldn’t afford a crib. Within an hour, we were able to provide them with this basic necessity. Shocking stories, but true, and they’re right here in our community.”
Debbie is now reaching out to children in Hebrew Schools to organize drives and to help arrange the food items. “It’s so rewarding and important for children to understand and see firsthand what a difference they can make. We’re not talking about tens of thousands of dollars. Every can, bag, bottle of food finds a grateful and hungry recipient.”
As of now, the Food bank is supported by “one anonymous angel” and by “shop and drop” benefactors who purchase foods on their own and bring them to Chabad. But the ever-restless Debbie is hoping to one day open a Thrift Store to fund the program.
Larry looks on with an approving smile as he readily confesses that he doesn’t know where she gets her energy from. “She can be talking on the phone, texting and writing – all at the same time. She doesn’t stop.” And by partnering with Chabad, Debbie has found a willing accomplice for her relentless desire to help all those in need.
The Chabad Food Bank in Action under the direction of Debbie Winderman: Volunteers shop and bag food items for distribution to the needy
On June 11, Chabad will recognize the dedicated volunteerism of Debbie WInderman, by presenting her with the Aishet Chayil Award. For more information on the Food Bank, please visit www.chabadconejo.com/foodbank