For thousands of New Yorkers this week, there was no freedom from want at Passover.
At seders from Marine Park, Brooklyn, to Cedarhurst in the Five Towns, more of the ritual food that lined the dining room and kitchen tables was in the form of handouts than at any time in recent memory, say social service providers. And the food is coming from a growing number of Jewish communal agencies trying to cope with increased need levels as the recession drags on.
The 11th Plague, it turns out, is a sputtering economy.
“It’s a tough time and for those who are suffering the economic downturn it is terribly difficult,” said Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council. “I have been here six years, and there is no question that this has been the most difficult and extreme year for the community. We had a spike of 30 percent in the last 18 months from people needing our help across the borough — seniors on fixed incomes, low-income families, immigrant families and the unemployed middle class.”
In Queens, an emergency Passover food drive gave away bags of food to 3,000 families in the days before the first seder, up from 700 just two years ago.
In Brooklyn, 1,200 boxes of Passover food were given to needy individuals and families — up from 900 a year ago.
Throughout the city and across Long Island requests for free Passover food and from those needing cash assistance to buy Passover food was up overall by about 15 to 20 percent.
The Hatzilu Rescue Organization in Nassau County teams up for Passover food distribution with the Nassau County Shomrim Society, a group of about 200 Jewish law enforcement officers. It distributed bags of Passover food to about 70 families — about 20 more than it helps with its year-round food distribution.
Elissa Friedman, Hatzilu’s executive director, said that although there is generally a steady 10 percent increase in requests for food each year, “in the past two years we’ve been seeing younger families who have been affected by the economic downturn, and as a result there has been a 25 percent increase.”
“We’re seeing people who have taken two jobs that combined don’t pay what they had previously earned,” Friedman said. “Some people have had to change fields because of the poor economy. And there are some people whose own business went under and now have to work for someone else and are not being paid what they were used to. … We’re seeing the financial poor who work but who can’t seem to get out of their financial crisis.”
The story is much the same in Brooklyn. Victoria DeVidas, a project director at the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, said the 33 percent increase in demand for Passover food packages her group experienced came from the Flatbush, Kensington, Marine Park and Ocean Parkway sections of Brooklyn.
“We’ve historically had families with incomes within 150 percent of the federal poverty level, but now we’re seeing the newly poor,” she said. “They used to own their own homes and cars and are now having a problem paying their mortgage and had to give up their cars because they couldn’t make the payments. They are in arrears with their mortgage, their utility bills and their yeshiva payments.
“They were not able to handle their daily maintenance and sustenance costs in January, February and March. Now when Passover comes along and food products cost 25 percent more for eight days, how can they meet that expense?”
In a sign of how deep the problem is, DeVidas noted also that the JCC of Marine Park, which serves an historically upper-middle-class area, has for the last two years been running a Passover food program for 108 families.
Peter Breast, chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the community’s main poverty organization, said that citywide the demand for kosher food year-round has increased as much as 20 percent in the last 18 months. His organization distributes it through about 30 organizations in the city, including all of the Jewish Community Councils.
The numbers are staggering, and tell a story in themselves.
“We expect to provide between 2.3 million and 2.5 million pounds of food by the end of the holiday to about 50,000 households,” he said. “The food is not enough for a complete seder. We depend on donations and the federal surplus food program, but because it has almost no Passover food we buy it ourselves. This year the cost will be about $600,000 — which is about the same as the past. We will be serving the same number of people because we don’t have the ability to feed more.”
In addition, Breast said Met Council would be giving away $450,000 in food vouchers to between 52,000 and 55,000 families. The vouchers range from $100 to $300, depending on the size of the family, and some families receive both food and vouchers.
“With demand up 15 to 20 percent because of people losing their jobs or their own businesses dwindling in size, it’s hard to say if we are meeting the need, because we are giving out less food to more people,” he said.
Although many groups that distribute food for Passover also distribute kosher food throughout the year, some groups like B’nai B’rith International, do it selectively. B’nai B’rith, for instance, does it only for Passover and Chanukah, according to David Moonitz, a volunteer from Woodbury, L.I.
He said he and his co-chair, Diana Friedman, usually work with about 100 youngsters from the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization to pack and deliver the bags of food.
“We work out of Galil Importing, which donates its Syosset warehouse,” Moonitz said. “I’ve been volunteering for almost 40 years and we usually pack between 300 and 400 bags of food; this year we packed 350. We get the names [of recipients] from some of the social agencies — such as JASA [Jewish Association for Services to the Aged] and FEGS — and from area rabbis.
“We deliver from Lawrence in the Five Towns to past Patchogue in Suffolk. The heaviest concentrations are in Long Beach, to an apartment building in Great Neck that home to newly arrived Jews and to Plainview. Maybe two-thirds of the people are seniors and a lot live alone. Many of them are just happy to see a BBYO youngster deliver the bag — especially if they sit and talk to them a few minutes, which we encourage them to do.”
While UJA-Federation agencies like Met Council and the COJO of Flatbush have been providing Passover food packages for years, the Cedarhurst-based Project Eliezer is a relative newcomer. Formed two years ago as the economy was in a tailspin, the group has seen the demand for Passover food assistance jump 25 percent, according to Gideon Bari, its executive director.
The organization, which also provides job assistance and financial hardship counseling for the unemployed and under-employed in the area’s large Orthodox community, said it was able to provide financial food stipends to 80 families this year that ranged from $250 to $800, depending on the severity of the hardship and the size of the family.
“This year we had more demand than the past because people who were struggling but hanging on last year have now depleted their savings,” Bari said. “Even if they are back to work, they are earning less and are still suffering. Some people who received help from their own families for 18 or 24 months are now being told they can’t help them anymore … Even though we’d like to think that things are better, at this time of year people are feeling the accumulated consequence of the last three years of the financial crisis.”
In nearby Woodmere, the Greater Five Towns JCC operates the Greater Five Towns Kol Ditzrich Kosher Food Pantry from a storefront that opened a year ago on Central Avenue.
“What we are seeing in Cedarhurst is families who have a huge house and a nice car who lose their job,” the pantry’s director, Ellen Warshall, said. “The first thing they do is keep the kids in the yeshiva, pay their mortgage and car payments, and the last thing they worry about is food. Although they are supposed to come only once a month, we have five families who come every other week because they are really in bad shape. And there is a woman in her 60s who lost her job and who lives with her disabled daughter. She has no income. Our social worker at the JCC was able to stop [the electric company] from cutting off her electricity. She has no car; I deliver food to her personally every week.”
The aging population on Long Island, as well as the sandwich generation trying to care for their parents, is feeling the pinch too. Jolene Boden, JASA’s Long Island district manager at the Jewish Association of Services to the Aged (JASA), said her group has experienced a 25 percent increase in requests for Passover help over the past two years.
“What has affected us in this economy is the number of adult children who call and say they can no longer help their parents because they just lost their job or they no longer have the finances to do it,” she said.
“Queens has the largest Jewish elderly population of the five boroughs, and we were diligent to make sure we delivered kosher-for-Passover meals to them,” said the Queens Jewish Community Council’s Zalisky.
In addition to the seniors and low-income Jews the council had served in the past, Zalisky said she has seen a 30 percent increase in demand primarily from middle-class people who have lost their jobs. They come not only for food, but also for assistance in accessing health insurance they used to get through their jobs.
“We also distribute food stamps in our office,” she said. “I know how humiliating it is for people to have to go to the food stamp office. We do it here where it is comfortable, especially for those who never needed it before. And now with Pesach, everything is more critical in terms of food because it’s impossible to pay for it. … We give out $100 for them to buy food — up to $300 for larger families, plus they get our food package. And we were able to get chickens for 750 people.”
As Passover approached, Project Eliezer’s Gideon Bari was particularly touched by one story. He said a Great Neck woman celebrated her 50th birthday by driving to the Greater Five Towns JCC’s food pantry with some of her friends, bringing with them Passover food they had bought for the pantry in lieu of birthday presents for her.
“I’m so proud of our community,” Bari said. “Both those who give and those who receive have benefited from this experience.”