Hopefully, you had an enjoyable and meaningful yom tov. There is no question about it—this was a food-centric celebration that was also an anomaly inasmuch as there was an abundance as well as a critical shortage of food. How can that be? How can there be both a glut of food and a scarcity? 

Unlike last year, many hotels were open for this Pesach, many with hundreds of guests, and we can now report that across the board the programs all went well. We have talked a great deal about the Orlando phenomenon over the last few weeks, and for the tens of thousands who descended on that Florida city, all went well, too.

So on the one hand, we had over-the-top food service and opulence at our hotels and in homes in Florida, but on the other hand, we saw longer food lines and greater demand for Tomchei Shabbos and JCC food pantry service than ever before.

Gabe Boxer, also known as The Kosher Guru, has worked intimately with people in need over the last year in the Five Towns and surrounding communities, and he says that he has seen things he could not have imagined in terms of overt need as well as extraordinary outreach and generosity.

Just because people reach out to him and his Kosher Response team for assistance in procuring food or groceries for the family does not necessarily mean that the people at home are starving. Very often, Gabe adds, it is a matter of a lost income in the family and arranging the monthly family budget in a fashion so that rent or mortgage payments and even car payments can be made so that the otherwise normal family routines can continue without interruption.

Aaron Rosenfeld, the executive director of the Gural Jewish Community Center (JCC) located in Cedarhurst, concurs. He says that since COVID arrived and, amongst other things, disrupted the flow of family income, the number of families receiving food and other services has grown to over 1,000 families whereas in the past, in any given year the maximum number of families served was about 400.

Aaron points out that in the past year alone the JCC has overseen the distribution of more than 600,000 pounds of food, and through UJA-Federation and the 5 Towns Community Chest they have supplied over $120,000 in cash infusions to families in a bind and needing to pay bills.

For some it might be difficult to reconcile the opulence we just saw over Pesach with those in need of having basic foodstuffs donated so that they were able to get by over yom tov.

Gabe Boxer says that in his estimation, those hit the hardest economically this year were single-parent families. “Very often in these families when yeshivas and schools closed, sometimes suddenly, it meant that the parent could not go to work, and the consequences of that all-too-often reality meant a reduction if not elimination of income.”

I mentioned to Aaron Rosenfeld that it was interesting that over the last many years an organization like the JCC existed mostly in the background and that it was a service group we would occasionally hear about for one reason or another. But over the last year, the JCC and groups like the JCCRP in Far Rockaway, Kosher Response, the Leon Mayer Fund, the Davis Memorial Fund, and others have taken center stage and are now playing an important part in Five Towns communal life.

Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt is one of the longtime Five Towns residents who has his finger on the pulse of his community and its profound need that was especially pronounced this past year. In order to help provide for Pesach for families through the Davis Memorial Fund, he raised over $600,000 this year. And since the requirement for these types of services does not end when Pesach does, the Davis Fund is managing a new program that provides over $3 million in food subsidies for families.

In the Five Towns, if the conversation is about food then it is also about the folks at Gourmet Glatt. If it involves food for yom tov or even Shabbos and it involves any of these or other charitable organizations, then the Gourmet Glatt fingerprints are all over the project.

Any of these community leaders will tell you the same thing—that without the input and participation of Gourmet Glatt, none of what they do would be able to happen.

“We look forward to the opportunity each year to make yom tov happen for families,” says Yoeli Steinberg, vice-president/GM of Gourmet Glatt and a prime moving force behind the supermarket chain.

There is a vitally important dimension to all these food and other types of giveaways that are either sponsored by government or private charitable funding. And that is that you do not have to be poverty stricken or in absolute dire need in order to benefit from these programs.

One of the most frequently heard criticisms of these weekly distributions is about the upscale cars we see on the traffic-stopping lines on Broadway and Central Avenue in the Five Towns on a weekly basis.

Aaron Rosenfeld of the JCC explains that some of the giveaways are supported by residents’ tax money and even if they are driving an Escalade or a Jaguar they have every right to participate in these programs if they desire to do so. The point seems to be that if you are on one of those long lines to collect some milk or bread or cans of tuna, be assured that you are not specifically benefiting from a program aimed at those in extreme need.

To that end, both Kosher Response and the Leon Mayer Fund are opening a warehouse-type facility in the next few weeks in Hewlett where other items aside from food will be available to the community. According to Gabe Boxer there will be a variety of items available, with most being donated by major corporations around the country. Amongst the items he mentions are school supplies, furniture, toys, clothing, and so on.

A similar type of facility is also being opened locally by the Davis Memorial Fund in the next several months. Rabbi Greenblatt says that just about all the funding that he distributes is sourced from local donors. “I’m raising money in this community for over 40 years,” he says. “And I can tell you this without reservation—there is no greater philanthropic or more generous community than the one here in the Five Towns.”

It’s no surprise, of course, that in the age of the coronavirus, a number of adjustments and changes had to be instituted to deal with the reality of the pandemic. One way in which these changes have been manifested is the fashion in which the JCC food pantry currently operates.

In the past, those who wanted to shop at the pantry made an appointment and were able to arrive and do their shopping discreetly. Today and for the foreseeable future, the shopping for food items is done on the JCC website. Volunteers box up the food, which can then be picked up, or, in some instances, the order is delivered to people’s homes.

“Because of the changes and the increased need,” Aaron Rosenfeld says, “we have about 400 volunteers working to help streamline the process.”

As to who qualifies for any of the organizational food and other services, the consensus of the people we spoke with who head up these organizations indicated that if someone reaches out for assistance they probably need it for one reason or another and no extensive vetting is required.

In the aftermath of corona—if we can refer to this period as an aftermath—there have been numerous changes to many lives. Some of these changes are extreme and indeed life-altering for families. In that vein, it is good to know that in this and other communities there are activist organizations and individuals like these to provide an important safety net for families that are dealing with challenges.

Several interesting side notes as to how the food pantry and other products are collected and accrued so that they can be distributed: A great deal of the food is bought in bulk by the organizations at a discount. Another way that food is collected is simply by people purchasing extra items when shopping in the supermarkets, which they later drop off at the organization’s pantry or headquarters.

After Pesach, Aaron Rosenfeld said, the JCC received large amounts of people’s unopened leftover Pesach products. In fact, they received such a great quantity of Pesach items that he is now asking people not to bring any more of those products to the drop-off.

Throughout Pesach, Gabe Boxer oversaw the food service for an Orlando group of about 700 people. It was very upscale, and, as you can imagine, there was a huge quantity of leftovers. After yom tov he packed up a tractor trailer and shipped the food to Tomchei Shabbos of Miami.

On a more loosely structured level, there are WhatsApp groups where people can list what they are setting out at their front door—almost always leftover food—so that people can anonymously pick up whatever is put out there. This takes place not only after a yom tov or Shabbos but practically every day of the week.

I don’t know who picks up these packages, but I’m guessing that they are people who do not want to be in the so-called system or go on record as receiving anything from anyone. Again, this is not about people in the throes of desperation. It’s about needing a little help to get through a rough patch. And it is also about an abundance of people who can help provide assistance, and who do so gladly and with enthusiasm.

Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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