A few weeks ago, Benny Wechsler was speaking to a United Jewish Appeal group in Westchester, N.Y., that makes sandwiches for the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. As director of the council’s kosher food network, Wechsler thanked the group for its help and discussed the growing need for food assistance among struggling middle-class families who have fallen on hard times.
Afterward, one well-dressed lady broke away from the group and approached Wechsler.
“Benny,” she whispered, “you’re talking about me.”
Though she may feel like she’s alone, she is not. Hunger is the unwelcome guest in many Jewish homes this Passover.
Across the country, kosher food banks and soup kitchens are reporting a surge in demand ranging from 20% to 75% higher than in previous years, as layoffs and cutbacks force more families into poverty. People who used to donate to hunger programs are becoming clients, and people who were struggling before the economy collapsed are becoming desperate. Food banks are scrambling to distribute as much food as they can before Passover. Despite the unprecedented effort to feed the hungry, food program directors know they are only scraping the surface of the problem.
“The supply is limited, the need is endless,” said Wechsler, who manages the largest kosher food network in North America. “We give out one bottle of grape juice per family. Sometimes people say it’s just a Band-Aid. I say, no, it’s not even a gauze pad. But it’s still meaningful. It means they’re not forgotten. It means they can have a little bit of a holiday.”
At food pantries across the country, demand is up 40% and shelves are bare, said Eric Schockman, president of MAZON, the leading Jewish anti-hunger group. “I personally know people who were volunteering [at soup kitchens] and now are standing on the line,” Schockman said. “They are so ashamed, they won’t let me tell you their names.”
At kosher food pantries across New York, organizers are struggling to meet the growing need. In the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, hundreds of new clients called in the days before the pre-Passover food distribution. According to the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg’s president, Rabbi David Niederman, his group gave Passover supplies to 1,500 families and planned to donate food to 1,000 more.
“A lot of people lost their jobs, or they did not get raises,” Niederman said. Unfortunately, Niederman said, not everyone who needs food this year will get it.
Avrohom Hecht, executive director of another Brooklyn agency, the Jewish Community Council of Canarsie, faces the same dilemma. Already, his organization has overspent its food budget to help about 4,500 families.
“We’re almost running out of food,” he said, a week before Passover. “We’re scrambling around, calling different sources.”
Wechsler said the Met Council had shipped out food for 11,000 families to another neighborhood Jewish community council, and by the time the food got there, 400 more families had signed up. Altogether, Met Council’s kosher network will distribute about 4.5 million pounds of food this year, including more than 1.6 million pounds just for Passover.
During Wechsler’s recent visit to the cavernous Met Council food warehouse in Brooklyn, his cell phone rang constantly.
“Impossible,” he told one community leader demanding several trucks of food within the next two hours. “That means: Not. Possible.”
Heading back to his office, he scrolled through his e-mail and opened a letter he received a few days earlier: “My husband lost his job months ago, and we’ve been struggling terribly. How could we apply for the food pantry that you offer?”
He directs individual requests to neighborhood food banks. At least 75% of Met Council’s distribution centers have requested larger Passover food shipments this year, Wechsler said; overall, demand has increased more than 20%.
Food program providers are seeing more frail elderly, many of whom have families that used to support them but are no longer able to do so. And the providers also report an increase in young families and working people.
Irini, a 53-year-old yeshiva teacher with three children, immigrated to America from Israel in search of a better life. But her husband was laid off and hasn’t been able to find work in his field. He took a low-paying job at a call center, and Irini relies on the Canarsie JCC’s food bank, supplied by Met Council, to make it through the holidays.
“It’s really a crisis. I don’t feel happy about this, but what can I tell you,” said Irini, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her children’s privacy. “When I can get some help on food, I really appreciate it.”
Passover is an especially expensive time of year, and Irini has noticed that her local grocery store has jacked up kosher food prices. “The food, it makes me crazy; it’s so expensive,” she said.
Price gouging on Passover foods is a perennial problem. An informal survey by State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, found wide variations in kosher-for-Passover food prices at Brooklyn markets.
For example, the price of a five-pound bag of kosher-for-Passover Domino sugar ranged from $2.79 to $3.69, while specialty kosher labels such as Gefen, CRC and Lieber’s sugar sold for up to $6.99 per bag, according to Hikind’s office.
Hikind and Alexander Rapaport, co-founder of the Brooklyn soup kitchen Masbia, drafted a religious decree banning Passover price gouging in the Orthodox community. The decree urges store owners to have mercy on consumers year-round, but especially at Passover.
“My advice to every consumer shopping this Passover is, ‘buyer beware,’” Hikind said. “While it may be inconvenient to patronize several different stores this Passover, the overall savings will definitely add up.”
Every little bit counts for families in need. And charity can be hard to swallow, especially for former donors who find themselves on the other side of the soup kitchen line. But Irini say she feels extremely grateful to charitable organizations that help her family have a proper Seder.
“The service they give is so nice,” she said. “I told my husband, thank Hashem he has a job. So many people need help today.”
Contact Rebecca Dube at firstname.lastname@example.org.