The storefront on Lee Avenue had yet to open for “business” last Wednesday evening when a large, hungry crowd filed in and found places at its brand-new tables.
Some 30 families — some of whose breadwinners have lost jobs in the recession and are struggling to make ends meet — had been invited to inaugurate the Masbia kosher soup kitchen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the first operatedby the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. They consumed 120 meals of breaded chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables.
They also took home packages of food for Shabbat.
“The women only begged that we should do Shabbos packages every week,” said Alexander Rapaport, who manages the new Masbia kitchen as well as one in Borough Park.
A third kitchen is weeks away from opening on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush, and another is slated for Queens Boulevard in Rego Park. There may soon be as many as 10 sites — all to meet a need seen as so critical that the Met Council has dropped its previous reluctance to open soup kitchens. Whereas the council used to believe its 40 food pantries scattered throughout the city were sufficient to handle demand, poverty in the Jewish community seems to have deepened.
Because the last Jewish census figures are nearly a decade old, hard data on poverty rates is not available. But the number of households coming to the pantries jumped to 15,000 last month from 12,000 last December, according to poverty officials.
“We have seen nothing like it,” William Rapfogel, Met Council’s CEO and executive director, said of the increase. “People who were previously on good financial footing are now coming to us for help because they can’t make ends meet.”
Although they are open to anyone who is hungry, the kitchens are intended to meet increasing demand from struggling families and individuals who won’t go to a non-kosher soup kitchen and might otherwise fall below a healthy nutrition level.
The growing need, along with the record-high nationwide10 percent unemployment figure reached last week, challenge the forecast by some analysts that the recession is nearing an end.
The new Masbia, located at 65 Lee Ave., and open from 4 p.m.-8 p.m., is expected to serve at least 800 dinners a month to residents of the poorest Jewish community in the city.
According to the Jewish Community Study of New York in 2002, the most recent data collected by UJA-Federation of New York and based on the 2000 census, 61 percent of Jewish households in Williamsburg lived under 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, and 64 percent had a household income under $35,000. Social service providers believe the numbers have climbed since the study.
“Brooklyn is considered the capital of Jewish poverty, and Williamsburg is the capital in the capital,” said Rapaport as he inspected the finishing touches at the new location. The new Masbia is intentionally nearly identical to its counterpart in Borough Park, which opened four years ago and has drawn praise for its dignified, restaurant-like setting and quality, fresh food.
All the soup kitchens are located in the heart of heavily Jewish shopping districts, but are intended to provide privacy for their clientele, with plants surrounding tables. Rapaport is also looking into concrete planters for outdoors to shield the entrance somewhat from view.
Although the food pantries are saving families hundreds of dollars in grocery bills, he said, “we see today that people need to go out and take their family to a restaurant. It also provides a quiet moment for our social worker and career counselor to speak with them and see if they are entitled to food stamps and Child Health Plus [for families with an income of up to 400 percent of the poverty level] and Medicaid.”
“If nothing else, it gives people a respite — a nice hot meal in a restaurant setting,” Rapfogel said. “People may come as needed; we will never turn anyone away.”
Initially, only dinner will be served, but organizers said other meals might be added as needed. Although people will be asked to make reservations for particular seatings, no one will be refused a meal.
Upon entering, clients are asked to sign in and wait for a table. While they are supposed to provide a referral from a community leader or organization, that rule tends to fall by the wayside as lines form.
“We like the way Masbia runs its program, their efficiency, the fact that they work on a shoestring, the extraordinary nutritional value of the food they serve — and their kashrut level is one that is acceptable to everybody,” said Rapfogel, whose umbrella agency is providing Masbia with $750,000 to run the soup kitchens with the help of UJA-Federation and two major donors, Larry Robbins and Henry Orenstein. Government and private funding are providing the food.
The kitchens benefit from earmark funds from local City Council members for projects in their districts, and because their party recently took control of the state Senate, Brooklyn’s Democrats were able to secure a larger share of discretionary funding for Masbia this year.
The Flatbush site has a large commercial kitchen, and Rapfogel said it might be used if it became necessary to expand the Met Council’s meals-on-wheels program, which currently provides about 400 to 500 meals daily. He said his group hopes the city expands its own meals-on-wheels program to accommodate the increased need, and would only expand its own program if the city fails to act.
Because the Flatbush Masbia is located in a large, well-decorated former restaurant, its manager hopes to inspire a new type of “direct giving” wherein donors can hold Sheva Brachot or other celebrations in the restaurant, paying for that day’s food for guests as well as clients.
“It’s a new way of thinking,” said the Flatbush manager, Aaron Sender. “Instead of writing a check to an organization you can feed people directly.”
Reflecting on the economic climate, Rapfogel said that because more and more families are now being seen at the council’s food pantries, “we want to make sure they have enough protein in their food packages.”
To add more protein, such as cheese and fish, to the packages, the council is increasing its fundraising. Donations may be made online at metcouncil.org.
The Williamsburg Masbia is located in what was once one of the most popular kosher eateries in Williamsburg, a deli where people crowded in late at night for cholent or hot dogs.
Rapaport knows that with the combination of large families and financial need, Masbia could find itself even more crowded, straining its space and limited resources.
“We have a huge backyard,” he said as he inspected the almost-open kitchen and as workers swept the floor of construction debris. “In the summer we can serve people out there. We are the opposite of a cookie-cutter operation. We’ll adapt if we have to.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Adam Dickter is assistant managing editor.