Kosher Soup Kitchen Struggles With Rising Ranks of Hungry as Passover Nears

Cuts in Food Stamps Mean Bigger Crowds for Masbia

Hunger Games: Alexander Rapaport says federal cuts mean more and more hungry people seeking aid at the kosher soup kitchen his group runs.
rachael levy
Hunger Games: Alexander Rapaport says federal cuts mean more and more hungry people seeking aid at the kosher soup kitchen his group runs.

By Rachael Levy

Published April 05, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On a recent chilly afternoon in Queens, two women shivered in a line of about 50 people that trailed out the door of Masbia, a kosher food pantry and soup kitchen.

The first woman, from Manhattan, wore baggy pants. The other, from Queens, was clad in a long, draping skirt.

Their outfits signaled differences in how they interpreted proper Jewish dress for religious women, but both were there for the same reason: They needed kosher groceries, which are more expensive than average, as they try to live on less since food stamp reductions last November.

“When food stamps are cut, it’s hard to buy kosher,” said one of the women, Debbie Greenbaum of Queens.

Masbia, the most robust kosher food pantry and soup kitchen network in New York, is at the forefront of filling hungry bellies — both Jewish and non-Jewish — but not without its own struggles.

Masbia saw a 200% increase in demand for food in the two months after the food stamp cuts, compared with the same period in 2012–13. The not-for-profit expects to serve up to 1.5 million meals this year — twice the number doled out in 2013. The Queens branch now stays open an extra three hours Thursdays, when food packages are distributed. Alexander Rapaport, Masbia’s executive director, said the organization is operating “hand to mouth.” With Passover coming, he’s racing against the clock to find more funding.

“The most dignified and most efficient way [to stem hunger] is to give people food stamps,” Rapaport said. “We’re not the answer. We’re not the gym — the gym is something that keeps you healthy. We’re the emergency room.” About one in four Jewish families in New York City is poor. About half of those families depend on food stamps, according to Nicole Doniger, chief programming officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Overall, one in five people in the city relies on emergency food programs to eat, according to the Food Bank for New York City.

Running a kosher soup kitchen has its own set of challenges. For one, kosher meat is more expensive because it requires additional processing and religious supervision.

Jewish law stipulates a separation of meat and dairy. But to simplify cooking more than 2,500 meals a day, Masbia serves only meat. The organization cannot accept anything containing dairy, and donations from well-meaning people and city organizations are often rejected.

Some foods that are technically kosher are impractical for mass meal production. Take lettuce, which must be washed and checked thoroughly — leaf by leaf — to ensure that all bugs are gone.

While upscale kosher groceries sell pre-checked lettuce, the prices are too high for a budget-conscious charity, which is funded largely on donations from the Jewish community.

Many of the clients, though, are not concerned with whether or not the food is kosher; they’re just hungry.

At Masbia’s Brooklyn locations, in Flatbush and Boro Park, regulars include Latino day laborers. Some are black. In Queens, Chinese and Korean clients line up alongside Bukhari Jews from Central Asia.

Rapaport doesn’t care. What’s important, he says, is filling a need.

He opened Masbia in Boro Park nine years ago, along with his friend Mordechai Mandelbaum, using $100,000 in savings and loans.

Both had seen a need for Masbia in the Hasidic community. And at first, mostly Jews came. Soon non-Jews filed in, too, and Masbia opened in Flatbush and Queens. The changing population presents some cultural challenges.

On a recent visit to the Boro Park Masbia, Rapaport crouched down to pick up a small green pepper from the dining room floor.

“What this proves to me is someone brought food from the outside,” he said, his brow furrowed. “This is kosher, but you never know.”

Before running Masbia became a full-time job, Rapaport, 36, worked as a publicist within the Hasidic community. A jovial, fast-talking man seen only in his uniform of black hat and coat, he promotes Masbia aggressively on Twitter and Facebook.

In Boro Park, near where he grew up and is now raising seven children with his stay-at-home wife, Rapaport shmoozes with kosher grocery store owners and shoppers.

Every conversation is a networking opportunity. Maybe those owners will agree to a good deal on a bulk order of kosher meat. Maybe those shoppers will donate a night of meals to Masbia when their children are married, a tradition in the Hasidic community.

Maybe Masbia will be able to make ends meet.

“If we’re still around, it’s because of tzedakah, because of charity,” Rapaport said. “The awareness is what keeps our doors open and keeps the lights going.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.