Kosher food costs roughly 30 percent more than non-kosher food. Kosher-for-Passover food can be twice as expensive. With mounting rates of poverty, many Jewish households simply can’t afford a kosher Passover this year.
“It’s an expensive holiday, and I worry about them [impoverished Jews],” said Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens JCC. “We want them to have a joyous holiday.”
To ensure that as many Jews as possible have all the holiday essentials, Zalisky’s JCC, along with 18 other New York community centers, participated in a massive kosher-for-Passover food distribution. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, with the help of several other UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agencies, the distribution provided Jewish households in need with an estimated 2.2 million pounds of food and more than $430,000 in the form of holiday “food cards,” redeemable at local kosher supermarkets.
The recipients included members of the Jewish population whose financial plight is often overlooked since the public image of their communities doesn’t accurately reflect the actual level of poverty — such as the elderly and the ultra-Orthodox.
A chasidic man from Williamsburg who asked that we not use his name, explained that his salary from working in a warehouse is usually sufficient for his family’s needs, but that during the holiday he depends on the food distribution. “With six children, it is difficult to provide a [kosher] Passover for my family,” he said.
Nurije Bejko, a non-Jewish Albanian émigré and caregiver was at the JCC picking up food for her elderly Jewish clients. She’s been coming to the JCC’s kosher food pantry to get food for her clients for the past 15 years. It’s been a huge help to them, she said.
“The Passover food distribution makes a real impact on our clients, especially those that are barely able to make ends meet an entire year, yet find holiday expenses insurmountable,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber executive director of Boro Park Jewish Community Council in a written statement.
Shea Rubenstein, executive vice president of JCC of Marine Park, agreed. “There is no exercise better for the heart before Pesach, than delivering boxes of food to people and lifting their spirits,” he said.
According to the UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 Special Report on Poverty, Jewish poverty has more than doubled in the past 20 years, with more than 300,000 people living in approximately 80,000 poor and near-poor kosher households.
“Our attention is brought to the issue of food insecurity and poverty in our community during the holiday season, however this is not a problem that pops up once a year,” said Rachel Krich, site director of Shorefront JCC in Brighton Beach, in a written statement.
Jewish charity is enduring a turbulent moment, especially in the wake of the collapse of one of the largest social-service agencies in the country, FEGS, which served approximately 20,000 Jewish clients in the New York area. With the number of impoverished Jews increasing, there is a pressing need for long-term solutions that can help alleviate the suffering of those in need. A holiday food distribution is of great benefit, but what is being done to help these households year round?
While state and local politicians fumble for solutions, Jewish organizations strive to care for their impoverished, especially during holidays.
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As Bejko noted, “I have always respected how the Jewish community sticks together and looks after its own.”