These are the real-life, hard economic facts—incomes are not keeping up with the cost of food, and that is especially true in our community around yom tov time.
Forget about the few thousand people going to Morocco or Miami for Pesach; that is not the statistic to use as a barometer for what is really happening out there.
It might be important to note that, not unlike any other frum or Jewish community around the globe, it is not all positive here in the Five Towns.
I met a Tomchei Shabbos volunteer last week who pointed out to me in passing that the requests for food deliveries for Shabbos and yom tov in these communities are at an all-time high. That is when I turned to Jeanette Lamm, who has been running Tomchei Shabbos of the 5 Towns and Far Rockaway for most of the last 30 years, to get a sense of what is really taking place in these challenging times.
First, she points out that she has an immense amount of assistance from many volunteers who work with proficiency each week and before the holidays delivering boxes of food to those who require the service.
I spoke to Jeanette on Sunday just prior to Purim when she was on her way to coordinate a special pre-Purim delivery so that everyone across the board would be able to enjoy a Purim seudah with all the necessary good food.
We talked about the economic realities that put people in a position to call that number or go online and fill out the application to become a recipient of not just the food that comes their way, but the message connected to it that says their neighbors and community care about them.
That might be just as fulfilling as the food staples that are neatly boxed and delivered to hundreds of homes every week.
The driving force that makes Tomchei Shabbos an imperative feature of a community is an assortment of changeable modern-day market conditions. We all know that the cost of food, including staples like bread and eggs, has skyrocketed this year.
Tomchei Shabbos in Miami Beach, according to its coordinator Benjy Silverstein, has seen a dramatic uptick in request for food assistance for the upcoming Pesach yom tov. The southern version of Tomchei serves about 120 families on a regular weekly basis with requests for Pesach at this point totaling more than 350 families.
The group services areas like Miami Beach, North Miami, Bal Harbour, Hollywood, and Fort Lauderdale. If there is any real difference between the criteria in Florida and in New York it’s that here an application needs to be filled out while in Florida, Benjy says, the requirement is that a rabbi recommends an individual or family. Of course, if a local Jewish family does not have a shul or rabbinical affiliation they can always apply directly to the group.
As for who the so-called typical applicant might be, “A family might be able to handle food costs on a weekly basis, but it is evident—especially this year—that the cost of Pesach is just too much for a lot of people to handle,” he says.
Silverstein is in the food business in South Florida, and that is apparently essential for organizations like Tomchei Shabbos in order to cut sharp deals and maximize their purchasing power with food producers. To that end I asked Silverstein about the shemurah matzah they use; he shared that it is baked in Israel and that he was expecting the shipment of matzah to arrive the day we spoke.
Here in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway the purchasing is done by Shlomo and Uri Katz of Elite Caterers, and their headquarters in the area is used as the base to dispatch volunteers for deliveries.
So who or what type of person is most likely on the Tomchei Shabbos list? Both Benji and Jeanette say that they do not judge, and indeed it is impossible to judge, people by the way things may appear on the surface. They both add that we truly do not know what type of internal economic situations a family might be experiencing. Very often it is just enough that in these areas people reach out and apply or ask their shul rabbi to intervene on their behalf.
“Each person or family has a unique situation,” Jeanette Lamm says. So there really is no typical situation, she adds, though they are dealing with a plethora of single-parent families where very often the economic pressure is even greater than in other familial settings.
The really impressive aspect of how Tomchei Shabbos operates is the maximum discretion in their distribution process. In the Far Rockaway and Five Towns area the volunteer food delivery people are sent to drop off food boxes in communities in which they do not reside.
For example, volunteers who live in Woodmere or Hewlett will be sent to homes in Far Rockaway or Bayswater and vice versa.
For her part, Jeanette Lamm cannot say enough about the great number of volunteers who take time whenever needed in order to make deliveries. It’s important to note that this is a completely volunteer organization with an annual fundraising effort that just produced $850,000 in donations that is used exclusively for the purchase of food for Shabbos and yom tov for people in the communities they serve.
This year, Tomchei Shabbos of the 5 Towns and Far Rockaway did a special run to provide people with prepared foods for the Purim seudah. Volunteers fanned out around the area on Sunday afternoon and will do their deliveries for Shabbos on Thursday evening.
Jeanette Lamm points out that none of this could be possible without the involvement of Arielle Wolfson on Far Rockaway who oversees the fundraising for the organization.
So are things so tough out there for some that they require food deliveries even though they may reside in areas of New York, Florida, and other parts of the country with upscale images?
It seems from speaking with Benjy Silverstein in Florida and Jeanette Lamm here in the Five Towns that for many the Tomchei Shabbos deliveries give them some relief going into Shabbos or yom tov. In other words, it removes at least part of the pressure they may be under.
Jeanette points out in our talk that overall they are dealing with about 300 families and that the area they cover extends beyond Far Rockaway and the Five Towns to areas like Belle Harbor, Long Beach, and Oceanside.
I don’t know if there are other services like this in the world that are not inspired by the Torah concept of chesed and assuming responsibility for our friends and neighbors and their overall well-being. It is unusual, special, and indeed unique. All Tomchei Shabbos groups can always use more support so they can serve more people in need, especially as yom tov approaches.
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