On the news, the economic forecast is improving. The Great Recession technically is over, economists tell us; the stock market is rising; people are spending money, if tentatively. On the ground, the news is less encouraging. Unemployment remains high, with rates passing 10 percent last week, and people are still hurting.
One sign of a local Jewish community that hasn’t recovered from two years of lost jobs and lost incomes is evident on the streets of Williamsburg. In the heavily chasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn, where large families with small incomes have meant dependence on public assistance and private largesse for many years, a soup kitchen opened last week, the first one in the area.
The facility, which offers free kosher meals, is under the auspices of Masbia, a program that already runs a soup kitchen in Borough Park, and receives much of its funding from Met Council, the central coordinating council for Jewish poverty in Greater New York.
Pending permits and construction schedules, two more Masbia soup kitchens are to open in the next month, one each in Brooklyn and Queens.
What’s different here is that these places of refuge are no longer just for the chronic poor. Jewish poverty officials say they are seeing new kinds of clients — victims of the recession, these Jewish New Yorkers have lost their jobs and are unable to make ends meet. They are solidly middle-class people who have been dealt a blow.
The soup kitchens — “free restaurants,” in the Masbia nomenclature — represent the finest in Jewish ethics, extending a hand to the needy while preserving their pride. At each, waiters serve meals in a restaurant setting.
The Williamsburg site, fittingly, opened during the week of the Vayera Torah portion, which features the patriarch Abraham opening his tent and his heart to three strangers.
Until New York City’s economy significantly improves, the need for programs like the Masbia soup kitchens, and other Met Council programs, will continue.
“With nearly a 60 percent rate of Jewish poverty, Williamsburg is the ‘Mecca’ of Jewish poverty in Brooklyn, including over 30,000 needy Jewish individuals,” Met Council reported last week. “Local nonprofits report a recent spike of over 30 percent in food stamp enrollment and requests for food assistance.”
The latest Masbia soup kitchen is a reminder that some members of the city’s Jewish community live with limited means, and that the rest of the community, represented by Met Council, is fulfilling its responsibilities to them.