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Brigade of retirees helps fill a need in the circle of life

It was one of those drizzly mornings in the Valley, the kind we often have at this time of year. The sky was a solid gray and would stay that way for most of the day, enclosing Sepulveda in a damp and wintry feeling.

The vast Costco parking lot was pretty empty when I arrived shortly after dawn. There were only about half a dozen people there, loading huge amounts of bakery items from one car to another and wasting little time in doing so. They were members of Herman Berman’s Bagel Brigade, and they were busy doing something for someone else.

That was Barbara’s reason for being there. It’s all a part of helping each other, she said, of going out of your way to make sure everyone has a little something to eat. She didn’t want her last name used. A desire for publicity isn’t what has gotten her up every morning, seven days a week, for the past 40 years.

But at 87, facing a second hip replacement operation and suffering from a life-threatening ailment she didn’t even want to talk about, Barbara epitomizes not only members of the Brigade, who arise at dawn to distribute food to people who need it, but also others among us who, by contributing, ennoble the human race.

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The Bagel Brigade was created by Berman, 82, a retired jeweler who serves as its chairman. About 10 years ago, he came up with the idea of leaving empty baskets for canned food donations at a market as part of the Encino Lodge of B’nai B’rith’s effort to feed the hungry. The idea was to supplement the food already donated to create full meals. It worked so well that before long, 30 markets were involved. The bakery items became part of the program when Berman walked into a Manhattan Bagel store wearing a badge that identified him as part of the B’nai B’rith program.

He was there to buy bagels, not beg for them, but the store manager, noting the badge, asked if he’d like some day-old bagels to give to the needy. The answer, of course, was yes. Before long, 18 Manhattan Bagel outlets in the Valley were involved. So Berman said to himself: How about day-old bread?

The managers of Hughes Market and then Ralphs said sure, and before long, 135 volunteer members of the Bagel Brigade were delivering bagels, bread, sweet rolls, breadsticks and other bakery items every day to 150 schools, churches, temples, homes for the mentally retarded, drug rehabilitation units and centers for senior citizens. Some volunteers pick up, some deliver and some do both.

The Costco store donates its parking lot for brigade members to gather in, but they have to be out by 9 a.m. So they rise at 5 or 6 in the morning, rain or shine, Christmas or Yom Kippur, collect the food and then meet to divide it among the distributors. Berman figures that a million bagels and another million loaves of bread were distributed by the brigade last year.

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Most of the volunteers are in their 60s or older, and most are retired. Berman likes to tell about one of the members who, at 92, would knock on the doors of homes in the Valley that had fruit trees. He’d ask if he could pick some of the fruit for the poor, and then climb the trees himself to get it. He died recently at age 93.

Why do they do it? “I know firsthand what hunger is like,” Berman said one day in his Sherman Oaks home. He was born in Brooklyn and raised during the Great Depression, and remembers his parents struggling to feed their family. But even poor, they still managed to donate small amounts of money to an organization that had helped them come to the United States. By giving what they could, sometimes as little as 50 cents, they felt they were helping others make their way to the land of freedom.

That spirit is embodied by the Bagel Brigade, men and women of every race, religion and ethnic group who arise early, as Barbara said, to do something for someone else.

“I know that some of those we help call us ‘damned Jews’ behind our backs,” Berman said, “but a hungry kid is a hungry kid and, hey, maybe that’s why he’s angry. He’s just hungry.”

I realize there are many volunteer groups in the vast stretches of Southern California who are working to feed, clothe or house those unable to do so for themselves. But somehow those elderly people pushing shopping carts full of bakery goods through a damp and gray morning to move them from one car to another symbolize what doing something for someone else is all about.

I stood in the morning drizzle for a long time after they’d gone, and I thought about that.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He’s at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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