Sunday, November 16, 2008

Economy & Boro Park

Medium box. I need a large! I have my children to feed, please - please can I have a large box?

Sorry. Medium box.

That's how it went on a recent Thursday night at the TomcheShabbos food pantry in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood, one of theseveral that provide weekly baskets of strictly kosher food to 500needy haredi families.

Jeno Herschkowits, who has run the pantry since 1975, sayssupplicants have gotten noticeably edgier in recent months, as peoplewho were narrowly avoiding ruin before this fall's stock market crashfind themselves slipping over the brink, now that the American consumereconomy has ground to a near halt.

"People are desperate; they get aggressive," he said. "And there are more people, but less money."

Evidence of pain is everywhere, from deep discounts at chainstores - as much as 60 percent off fall merchandise, that began weeksbefore the traditional Thanksgiving sales - to empty restaurants andupticks in late-night subway ridership by those who might previouslyhave splurged on cabs. But in New York's haredi neighborhoods, wheremost families subsist on a single income, the strain shows up in weeklydebates over "small," "medium" or "large."

A WEEK ago, New York exploded with euphoria after the historiclandslide election of Barack Obama to the presidency on promises ofbringing change, and hope, to America. Now, his transition team isalready racing to craft plans for his first weeks in office, among thema $175 billion stimulus package that would include extendedunemployment benefits and food assistance.

But inauguration is still 68 days away, and in the meantime,financial markets are continuing their downward spiral, with Bushadministration officials taking steps to make bailout money availableto credit-card and student-loan companies, in hopes of keeping cashflowing into consumers' wallets. Investors have responded to theapparent uncertainty over how to spend the $700 billion in bailoutfunds, driving the Dow Jones industrial average down another 400 pointson Wednesday alone.

That, in turn, threatens to empty state coffers of much-neededtax revenue next year. New York State officials are already bickeringover a proposed $5 billion in education and health-care cuts to close ayawning budget deficit, stoking concerns that food-stamp programs mightbe next on the chopping block.

Private charities say that if that happens, they will beill-prepared to make up the difference, because donations have driedup, and fund-raisers are working overtime just to get donors to satisfytheir current pledges, let alone worry about those to come next year.

"We lost one donor who used to give us $400 a week," saidAlexander Rapaport, whose Masbia kosher soup kitchen provides about 160meals a day, prepared by a caterer at a local school. He said he hastaken out advertising on local radio stations citing this week's Torahportion - on Sodom and Gomorrah - to inspire donations.

While Masbia qualifies for some government grant programs, theorganization's strict observance of kosher standards means he can'tmake use of many restaurant or overstock giveaways available for thosefollowing more relaxed codes.

Pantries that follow looser restrictions said they had seen aspike in requests from non-Jews, along with more Jews asking for help.One, the Oneg Shabbos pantry - run by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch andhis wife, Pe'er - has installed a fence along the sidewalk to protectbags of carrots and potatoes waiting to be packed in with containers ofSabra-brand feta cheese and other goodies for people who wait in a linesnaking up the block.

"We're seeing families who never in their lives thought they would have to ask for food," Pe'er Deutsch told The Jerusalem Post."The thing about us is that we pack it into boxes, and it looks likegroceries - people know they can come here and the kids never have toknow."

LEADERS OF haredi organizations understand the irony of theirconstituents - most of whom backed Republican presidential candidateJohn McCain - waiting for a rescue from the incoming Obamaadministration.

"Our man always wins," said Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israelof America, winking. He said his organization, which has a staffertaking calls for assistance from the newly jobless or helpless, hasalways been able to work with both political parties, even if "peopleon the ground" disagree with one side or the other.

So, he said, there is hope. But with the first cold snap, the clock is already ticking.


  1. "While Masbia qualifies for some government grant programs, theorganization's strict observance of kosher standards means he can'tmake use of many restaurant or overstock giveaways available for thosefollowing more relaxed codes."

    maybe hard financial times will lead some of our Rabbeim to question whether or not it is REALLY necessary to have a hechsher on canned peaches, frozen carrots or applesauce.

    I know that when I was running a kosher food bank we were able to take most of the donations offered by the supermarket chains and other gov't food banks without compromising strictly Orthodox kashrus standards. Most national brands have an OU and staples such as flour, rice and sugar do not need hashgacha according to most Orthodox poskim.

    Maybe chumras can be dispensed with in the face of widespread Jewish hunger.

  2. There's a terrible irony to this. Much of the current American "black hat" culture - the dress, the "Yeshivish" pidgin, ec. - is based on the myth that this is the way it was in the "alte heim".

    What's been missed until now is the grinding poverty that afflicted our parents and grandparents.

    Looks like it's finally arrived. Now things are really going to start to resemble the "alte heim", Rachaman litzlan.


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