While some journalists visit restaurants incognito in order to review them for their publications, in this case I had been asked by Hamodia to visit the Masbia soup kitchen. My objective was to put myself in the shoes of a person like Rus, who found herself obliged to throw herself at the mercy of the community for her survival.
I have to admit I felt tremendous resistance to this assignment. Why am I balking? I asked myself. Is it simply that I dislike the idea of sheker, passing myself off as an ani when, baruch Hashem, that is not my situation? Or were my motives less noble, having more to do with feeling embarrassed that people might see and pity me?
These thoughts made me wonder how many people hesitate to enter Masbia’s doors, how many stand outside vacillating between their real need for a decent meal and the equally intense desire to preserve their dignity and independence.
My objective was to get a sense of what it might have felt like for Rus to be forced to go out to the fields to glean fallen sheaves, having been reduced to destitution after once being a member of a royal Moabite family and then a prestigious Jewish one. It is especially hard for a person who has been accustomed to a life of ease and prestige to become poor. How was Rus able to cope psychologically with her reversal of fortune?
I do not pretend to boast of a spiritual level anywhere near that of Rus, the ancestress of Dovid Hamelech and ultimately of Moshiach, that might permit me to fathom what her state of mind might have been when she found herself stripped of money and status. But I imagine that Rus viewed the world, and herself, along the same lines as the Chofetz Chaim, who is known to have explained to a wealthy visitor that his tiny home was nearly bare of furniture because he was “just passing through” this world.
I imagine that Rus was a person whose sense of her self-worth was so strong that she did not feel diminished as a human being by her financial and social circumstances; she knew she was a princess, as should every Jewish woman.
Money can buy much, but it cannot purchase nobility of bloodline or of character. Rus knew that even without the means to purchase her daily sustenance she was nevertheless a person of elevated stature. I also like to think that Rus’s emunah was strong enough to believe that Hashem could lift her up again at any moment — the right moment, that is — and reverse all her difficulties. Falling on hard times was simply a test sent by Hashem or a stepping stone towards accomplishing a particular goal — in her case, meeting and eventually marrying Boaz. Had she and Naomi been left comfortably provided for, perhaps Rus would never have married Boaz.
A Modern-Day Rus
Ahuva X. did not expect, when she converted to Judaism fifteen years ago, that her life story would follow the story of Judaism’s most famous convert so closely.
“I expected to give up a lot when I converted,” she says, “but not my self-respect. I had a great job, a nice car, and I owned my own stylishly decorated house.”
When her attraction to Judaism became overpowering, she packed her bags, came to the New York area, took a small apartment, found a new job, and completed the conversion process. A few years later she was introduced to her bashert, a young baal teshuvah who had drifted around the world before becoming religious and devoting himself to full-time yeshivah learning.
At the beginning, Ahuva worked while her husband studied in kollel, and even after the first few children were born, they were able to maintain a more or less middle-class lifestyle.
Then the bomb hit. “My husband got sick and was unable to work or learn,” Ahuva recalls. “I needed to take care of him, and of our young children too. Once I stopped working, I lost my health insurance along with our income, so we found ourselves on government programs to help pay for medical expenses and food. But it was never enough!
“I read somewhere that a quarter of all bankruptcies in the U.S. come about because of unexpected, catastrophic medical expenses. All I know is that I couldn’t pay my bills any more. The credit card companies were hounding me, the electric company threatened to turn off our lights, and I was embarrassed to ask the grocery store for more credit because I already had such a huge bill.”
Ahuva’s birth family was not financially in a position to give them much, and besides, as Ahuva says, “It would have been embarrassing for me to ask them. They are non- Jews who never took kindly to my conversion, and all they needed was to hear that my Jewish lifestyle had brought me suffering and poverty.
They probably would have taken it as a sign that Hashem was punishing me for abandoning their faith!”
Her husband’s family also was unable to contribute more than token amounts of money. A kollelfriend began helping them financially, but Ahuva was very uncomfortable with turning a friendship into a relationship of dependency. “I always felt like we became the nebach friends with respect to this person and his family. Between being a convert/ba’al teshuvah couple and being dirt-poor, I felt that our status had become the lowest of the low in their eyes, even though they were so generous with us,” she said.
“I could somehow deal more easily with the obnoxious creditors and with not buying new socks for our kids than I could with the feeling of degradation that came with having to ask for help and having to tell yeshivos, for the fourteenth time, to please be patient about the tuition.
“I had once been an upper-middle- class, self-supporting member of society, so it hurt deeply that many people didn’t see me that way. As far as I was concerned, the middle class, independent person was the real me, not this nebach lady extending her credit yet again at the grocery store.”
Unlike Rus, baruch Hashem, Ahuva was fortunately not left a widow; her husband is almost fully recovered and is able to work on a part-time basis. Ahuva has gone back to work now that her children are in school, and they are slowly regaining their financial footing.
“Hashem sent me a very big test,” Ahuva acknowledges, “and I’m not sure why. But I know I developed strengths and a certain understanding that I might never have acquired otherwise.”
Poverty in Today’s Jewish World
Although people no longer suffer the kind of grinding poverty our forefathers knew in Europe, North Africa and Asia, today there are still all too many people who cannot pay their bills, who are overextended on their credit and who can barely feed their families. You would never suspect this by simply taking a casual tour of well-appointed neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Monsey or, for that matter, Ramat Beit Shemesh or Har Nof, but behind the respectablelooking facades of many buildings are apartments full of chareidi families struggling to survive.
Thirty-one years ago, two pioneering individuals began Brooklyn’s premier organization to feed the poor, Tomche Shabbos. These two gentlemen, who modestly only give their names as Mr. H. and Mr. T., are still actively leading Tomche Shabbos. This organization fights hunger by supplying a respectable array of basic Shabbos food to close to 600 families each week in Boro Park, Sea Gate, Flatbush and Williamsburg. All Tomche Shabbos work is done by volunteers. Several schools train their students in hands-on-chessed by coming down to the Tomche Shabbos warehouse on Wednesdays and Thursdays to pack the food into four sizes to meet the needs of small, medium, large and extra-large Jewish families.
Then, Thursday afternoons, a fleet of 70 cars, station wagons and vans driven by volunteers delivers the packages. Baruch Hashem, thanks to their notable reputation, at this time Tomche Shabbos has sufficient volunteers to pack and deliver food; unfortunately its roster of recipients continues to grow. Since its establishment, Tomche Shabbos has preserved the confidentiality and dignity of thousands of hungry families while becoming the model for many other such chessed projects worldwide. Incredibly, many of these totally independent clones of the original Tomche Shabbos call themselves Tomche Shabbos of whatever area they serve, which brings great joy to the original founders.
About ten years ago, another project to feed the hungry, called Oneg Shabbos, was started by Rabbi Shaul Shimon and Mrs. Pe’er Deutsch. Patterned along the lines of Tomche Shabbos, this group’s sole objective is to help the needy with food packages, delivered in a manner that protects their dignity. Today Oneg Shabbos collects various food items and distributes them weekly to several hundred families in Boro Park, Flatbush and Crown Heights. All cases are screened, and usually, when genuine need is established, Oneg Shabbos attempts to arrange for other services as well.
The youngest local feed-the-hungry project, Masbia, a restaurantstyle soup kitchen, is run by a man who responded to yet another aspect of the problem of hunger in our community. “I strongly feel that not enough attention is being given to the problem of poverty in our circles,” says Alexander Rapaport, Masbia’s director. “People are ashamed to tell others about their problems, and they mask their extreme poverty by buying groceries on credit, putting everything on credit until they hit the limit. These unfortunates hide their problem so well that those who might be willing and able to help financially are not even aware of how dire the situations are.
“Every week the Boro Park Jewish Community Council deals with several cases involving evictions and/or utility cutoffs. I would estimate that of the 20,000 or so Jewish families in Boro Park, about one third fall under the poverty line even after receiving government stipends. Did you ever notice people going through dumpsters, or taking bread put out for the birds? I have. Did you ever see people doing a major supermarket shopping at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon? That’s because they weren’t able to get the money for Shabbos until then. It’s really sad.”
Mr. Rapaport first conceived of the idea for Masbia when he noticed the number of men taking advantage of the free coffee, cookies and other refreshments offered in the basement of the Shomer Shabbos beis medrash on Thirteenth Avenue. “When I saw this,” he says, “I asked myself what the women and children were eating. And that’s when I decided to start a soup kitchen.
On Tuesday, April 4, a few days before Pesach, Boro Park’s Jewish Community Council handed out stipends, food and clothing to needy families. Lines began forming in front of the JCC’s 13th Avenue office, and they filled the entire street between 46th Street and 47th Street. Soon, the weather turned nasty and a heavy, wet snow descended on those who waited. But obviously, their situation at home was worse, so they stood there for hours, waiting for handouts of somewhere between one and two hundred dollars.
If this picture doesn’t speak volumes about the poverty in the Boro Park community, nothing will. Hundreds of mothers stood with children in strollers, at a time before Pesach when every minute is precious. When Rebbetzin Deutch of Oneg Shabbos glimpsed this sad scene she said, “I think Hashem sent that untimely snow so that these unfortunate women waiting on line would be able to hide their embarrassment by standing under umbrellas, rain bonnets, and falling snow!”
Of course, there are many, many reasons why frum families descend into poverty. But in a country where food is more plentiful than ever before in history, there is no reason for people to go hungry. In Rus’s time, the poor gleaned stray sheaves from the field. Today, baruch Hashem, we have Jewish organizations like Tomche Shabbos, Oneg Shabbos, Masbia and others that are valiantly trying to make sure no Jew goes to bed hungry. With their excellent organization and distribution programs, all they need to keep providing their services is a little bit of help from you, me and all of our community’s generous members.
Tomche Shabbos Tomche Shabbos is located at 6225 New Utrecht Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11219. If you know of a family in need, call them at 718-259-5576.
Oneg Shabbos To recommend a needy family or for more information, call 718-686-8174, or visit them at 1603 41st Street, Brooklyn, NY 11218.
Masbia Located at 4114 14th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11219, this soup kitchen-restaurant is open Sunday through Thursday from 4:00-9:00. For more information, contact Mr. Alexander Rapaport at 718-972-4446.