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Amid rising anti-Semitism, a bright spot in free kosher lunch

Recently, in a local Facebook group for a nearby community, I saw someone post a recipe for homemade cream cheese for anyone with an excess of milk.

In the comments, another group member asked why someone would have too much milk. A third replied, scoffing “if you’re collecting on WIC” — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. The exchange had a tone of condescension and loathing, and reading it, I felt a little gut punch, because our family currently has a glut of milk thanks to collecting free USDA school lunches in our community.

But unlike in the Facebook group, in my community, there’s no shame attached to participating in programs, like WIC, that provide food for families. If anything, it’s a point of pride that the entire community is taking part in them together.

Last week on Friday afternoon, I pulled up to a local public middle school parking lot to pick up free kosher meals for my four children. As the volunteers, mostly high school-aged students, passed the bags of breakfasts and lunches into my car they cheerfully wished me a “Good Shabbos!”

My children are among the more than 1,000 kids in our area of Maryland suddenly getting meals from the USDA’s free lunch program. The rapid expansion of that program came thanks to the quick work of our local community organizations, restaurants and caterers, among them Yad Yehuda, a volunteer organization that runs the local food pantry, offers financial assistance, runs lending libraries called gemachs and more. When the COVID-19 crisis happened, Yad Yehuda stepped in to facilitate opening a second site for an existing USDA kosher program that had been working out of a school in Baltimore. That piggybacking enabled the site to open much faster than would be ordinary, contracting with a local catering company (Signature Caterers) and local pizza restaurant (Ben Yehuda, unrelated to Yad Yehuda) to provide the food.

The owner of Ben Yehuda, Josh Katz, told me that while the new USDA program isn’t making him rich, it is helping the employees of both his restaurant and Signature Caterers stay on payroll and keep working. While it’s providing a small fraction of the business lost when schools canceled their lunches and restaurants across the state became “carry-out” only, it might be enough to keep his business running through the current crisis. By picking up meals, we’re helping keep a favorite restaurant and caterer in business.

The rest of the community is stepping up to help. A local Chinese restaurant, Holy Chow, has catered lunches for the staff volunteering to distribute the meals. On the back of a survey handed out with meals at the end of the week was a coloring page designed by a local art teacher to advertise her online art class business. We’ve recognized that we must come together to support each other and the businesses we love in order to make it through this experience intact.

I’ve been thinking a lot, over the last several years, about what it’s like to be a Jew in America. Just a few weeks ago, the Mayor of New York again set his target on the backs of Jewish New Yorkers, chastising the community over Twitter about a funeral he had the NYPD forcibly shut down, all while illegal gatherings were taking place in all kinds of communities across the city.

This, on the heels of increased anti-Semitism across the country. Unfortunately, flirtations with anti-Semitism are one of the last remaining bipartisan rituals. Also in the last few weeks, former Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, now running once more for his old seat, solicited conservative commentator (Michelle Malkin) [https://thebulwark.com/is-holocaust-denial-conservative-now/] to write a fundraising email for him. In the recent past Malkin has cozied up to the alt-right and dabbled in Holocaust denial. That those actions weren’t a deterrent for Sessions in seeking her as an advocate speaks volumes.

Put simply, it can be a depressing time to be a Jew in America. It has a way of making one wonder what kind of place outwardly Jewish Jews have in this country. Which is why I’m taking a strange amount of comfort in these kosher meals provided by the United States Department of Agriculture. These meals aren’t just keeping Jewish kids fed this summer, they’re keeping our businesses in operation. They’re creating a bond in our community that we desperately need at this time.

Now, if only they’d give us less milk.

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