College Student Necessity: Social Action
An Interview with Syd Mandelbaum of "Rock and Wrap It Up!"
by Benjamin O’Glasser
In 1994, Syd Mandelbaum made a plan that he and his wife had discussed four years before and begun on a local level just three years earlier a grand-scale national institution. Their program, "Rock and Wrap It Up!" transports leftover food from the backstage, catered, meals of rock stars and their entourage to local soup kitchens in the towns where the stars are performing.
One end of the organization of Mandelbaum's enterprise is a contractual obligation of the caterers to cooperate with "Rock and Wrap It Up!" with the clause "All edible leftovers to go to local soup kitchen or shelter and Rock and Wrap it Up! will coordinate the pickup" being a phrase that has fed millions across the country. The only obligation of the stars is to put this clause in their contracts. However, many have participated with publicity on a larger scale.
At the other end of the organizational infrastructure is Mandelbaum and his team of volunteers that are spread across the nation. All the work to transport the food is done by them, and at all hours of the day and night. Mandelbaum spoke this winter at the KOACH Kallah in Chicago, Illinois, and we wanted to speak with him to share his message.
1) What is "Rock and Wrap It Up!"?
Mandelbaum: "Rock and Wrap It Up!" is a hunger relief organization and think tank dedicated to feeding all those who are hungry. Period.
2) What made you want to start this program? Was it more a general social consciousness or any sort of a Jewish impulse?
Mandelbaum: It was a combination. I can't really separate them. I was brought up as a post-Holocaust Jew; both of my parents [are Holocaust survivors] – as teenagers they were in concentration camps, and most of their families were killed in 1942. I was motivated through my parents' stories and chose hunger as a direction that I wanted to go into to change the world.
3) You've met a number of rock stars through this endeavor; what was that like? Who are some of your favorites?
Mandelbaum: Well, I've always been a Deadhead. The Grateful Dead's music was very inspirational to me. It was also very nice to meet Bruce Hornsby who has been our national spokesperson.
4) What do you do in your spare time? What is your day job?
Mandelbaum: I have no spare time. I left a day job to take over the organization last September. This is really twenty-four/seven. I have 4,000 volunteers in 500 cities and I could use another 2-3 full time employees to help me coordinate them.
5) What did you do before you took over "Rock and Wrap It Up!" full time?
Mandelbaum: I was a Scientist. I spent most of my life doing cancer research in genetics.
6) A lot of people, I think, are conscious of the fact that food that is being thrown out and that it is a less than ideal circumstance. However, fewer people actually challenge that circumstance like you do and demand that the food be used wisely. Outside of contractual obligations with caterers, what can the average Joe-or Jew-say to get the food to the right place?
Mandelbaum: If they are in college they can start a "College Wrap" program and make sure that their college is giving away extra food to the hungry people in their area. Parents can encourage their kids to get involved in helping out at soup kitchens and other volunteer work. And anyone can volunteer to help "Rock and Wrap It Up!" in their area for food pick ups. They can also contractually obligate food when they hire caterers for corporate business functions and private affairs.
7) Have you always been involved with Tikun Olam projects? What other things did you do to make the world a better place before starting "Rock and Wrap It Up!"?
Mandelbaum: From 1981 until 1991 I videotaped the stories of holocaust survivors. I am responsible for over 5,000 Holocaust survivors' stories being recorded on tape. I started the project when I came back from Israel in 1981 where I'd had an epiphany with my father and committed myself to recording their stories to stop future Holocausts. I flew out to Amblin Entertainment, a Steven Spielberg company, in 1991 and gave them all of our material to start the Shoah project, so that they could start the videotaping as well.
8) What was your involvement with your Jewish community like during college? Were you a Hillel-goer?
Mandelbaum: I did not go to Hillel, but I went to a school where 90% of the school was Jewish, Brooklyn College. It was very insulated. I was, though, in a [predominantly] Jewish fraternity, ZBT.
9) It seems sometimes that fellow students can easily be interested in social action projects that are presented to them. As an age group we seem to be able to generate a lot of enthusiasm, but not as much follow-up. When you speak to large groups like the KOACH Kallah how many people do you get, out of, say, 200 audience members, who will actually contact you afterwards, and how many of those actually become involved.
Mandelbaum: Once involved you're going to stay involved. It is getting people to understand that an individual can make a difference. In "Rock and Wrap it Up!" it is easy for you to see that you can make a difference. I preach the saying "Think globally, act locally", and my people really believe that they can make a difference in their locality.
10) How can one be the driving force behind such a large endeavor-and the one ultimately responsible for its success or failure-and not get "burnt out"?
Mandelbaum: I turn that around. We don't expect them to do it themselves. These projects are best done in a group. Get a group of 3-4 people to work with you and you together can do this tikun olam. Nobody can do it themselves. I myself am dependant on motivating thousands of people and, hopefully, one day, millions. There is nothing stopping one person or a group of people to contact other groups. Someone from AEPi can contact someone from ZBT who call someone at Pi Lambda Phi, who contacts the community service fraternity who contacts the community service organizations on campus. Individuals need help but they can also be the spark that gets these other people involved.
11) Is there anything else that you feel is essential about your organization that you feel we've left out?
Mandelbaum: I suspect that if I get someone to volunteer for us in college they will continue after college. They will volunteer when they have a job, when they get married, while they are raising kids, and then they can come and work with me after they retire. I want to have people from cradle to grave, and all the while they will be helping us to make the world a better place.
Want to get involved? You can read more about his project and how to get involved at www.rockandwrapitup.org!