An open kitchen

15 July 2016

Rabbi Slavin created Our Big Kitchen with his wife, Laya to feed cancer patients in their community. It has now become a lightning rod of community action bringing together the disadvantaged and the powerful.

In 2001, as Rabbi Dovid Slavin (PhD ’13) and some volunteers were pouring the foundations for what would become Our Big Kitchen, world-shattering events were unfolding in the Rabbi’s home city.

“For [9/11] to take place in my home town of New York …,” Rabbi Slavin says, falling silent as he reflects on the day.

“The whole day for us was surreal. We started work very early in the morning and must have finished at about 10 or 11 at night. Then the news came through.”

Rabbi Slavin migrated from the United States to Australia in 1992 to take up the position of Executive Director of the Rabbinical college of Sydney.

Rabbi Slavin in Our Big Kitchen.

Quickly becoming active members of their Bondi community, Rabbi Slavin and his wife, Laya Slavin, founded Our Big Kitchen in 2005 after working with other volunteers to prepare meals for a sick member of their community. “The cooking for and feeding of cancer patients became a big part of our home,” Rabbi Slavin says.

Laya became immersed in helping cancer patients going through treatment, becoming a hairdresser and wig-maker in the process. Rabbi Slavin says if a client left wearing a wig and feeling more self-confident, Laya felt she’d hit the jackpot. “People going through treatment are vulnerable and sometimes aren’t managing it,” he says.

As making meals for vulnerable people became a bigger commitment for the Slavins, they decided to be clever about it. The light-bulb moment came after a long day of peeling, chopping and cooking.

“If you forgot the tin opener, the whole operation came to a standstill,” Rabbi Slavin says. It was then that the Slavins grasped the logistics of setting up Our Big Kitchen: “And that’s how the kitchen was born.”

Rabbi Slavin and a volunteer.

Our Big Kitchen now has 650 volunteers making more than 70,000 meals a year for those in need. The facility offers activities including volunteers cooking for the homeless as well as school and corporate giving days. “What we’ve done here is used food as a platform to allow people to connect and help them feel empowered,” Rabbi Slavin says.

Whether it’s companies preparing meals for the homeless or providing space for caterers to start their own businesses, food is the language of Our Big Kitchen and kindness is the currency. The same can be said for the Slavins’ home, where the couple are raising their eight children, which Rabbi Slavin describes as his “proudest achievement”.

With his fierce belief in social justice, it should come as no surprise that Rabbi Slavin read upwards of 300 books during the course of his University of Sydney PhD research into the Holocaust. Rather than focusing on the destruction of European Jews, he investigated what was lost to Jewish life and culture. He particularly examined the Polish Rabbinical college where his grandfather, Dovid Minzberg, after whom Rabbi Slavin was named, was a member.

Professor Suzanne Rutland from the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies supervised Rabbi Slavin’s research. Talking about his time at the University of Sydney, he says Professor Rutland was “much more than a supervisor, she was a mentor and a friend”.

Rabbi Dovid Slavin, named for his father.

In 2002, Rabbi Slavin made the trip to Poland with his mother, who had left the country as a young girl. “It was a very special thing to go back to a world that has just vanished, that has been destroyed, where the whole context and terms of reference have gone,” he reflects.

One of the most striking moments in the course of the research took place in New York as he interviewed one of his grandfather’s students.

“I’m sitting there talking to him and he stops and says, ‘how old are you?’,” he recalls. “I was 44 or 45 at the time and I told him. The next thing, he says ‘no you’re not – I am not who you think I am either. I’ll tell you what’s happening here: I’m not in my 80s, I’m a 17-year-old boy, and we’re not sitting here in New York, we’re sitting back in the Yeshiva [a Jewish institution for the study of traditional religious texts]. You’re not Dovid Slavin, you’re Dovid Minzberg’. I get chills today when I think about it.”

With his dedication to helping those in need radiating through his warm smile, Rabbi Slavin’s work rests on strong foundations: from the concrete base of Our Big Kitchen to the historical and cultural roots of his research.

Written by Katie Booth
Photography by Louise Cooper

Read other July SAM articles

See more