For 12 years, Diane Thurer of Dix Hills has been filling boxes with school supplies and holiday treats for a poor family in Mississippi she has never met but which expresses its gratitude through letters.
"It really is a commitment, but you do bring sunshine into that family’s home," said Thurer of the national Box Project. "You really get back more than you give."
Now a Jewish group wants to replicate that effort in behalf of the Jewish poor in Suffolk County. If successful, there are plans to extend the project to Nassau.
The Suffolk Jewish Communal Planning Council will coordinate the project with help from two UJA-Federation agencies (FEGS, the Federation Employment and Guidance Service, and the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged) and from the nonsectarian Family Service League, according to its president, Robert Tucker.
Susan Lustig, the planning council’s executive director, said the exact number of poor Jews in the county is not known. But she said the large number of Jews seeking help from rabbis and Jewish organizations demonstrates that there is definitely a need for this project, which has been named M’Yad L’Yad (Helping Hands). Organizers expect to hire a part-time director soon.
Ron Kaplan, clinical manager for the FEGS offices in Smithtown and Center Moriches, said that each Passover FEGS distributes assistance to between 100 and 150 needy Jewish families in Suffolk County. In addition, JASA provides assistance to hundreds of needy seniors.
Kaplan pointed out that UJA-Federation provides grants to needy families in Suffolk and that the government provides them with food stamps and other help.
"We already give a great deal of assistance in direct financial aid, and we give families food from our food pantry in Smithtown," he said. "This would be more of a longtime commitment to people; it would be an enhancement of what we are already doing."
Kaplan said the needy families wishing to benefit from the M’Yad L’Yad would be screened by FEGS to determine eligibility. The precise criteria have yet to be worked out, but he said anyone receiving food stamps would qualify.
Judith Ostrow, one of the organizers of M’Yad L’Yad, said those wishing to "adopt" a needy Jewish family will be able to select from a list developed by the social service agencies. The list would include such information as the number of people in the family, their ages and grade in school for the children.
"This is a one-to-one personal situation that is quite unique," said Ostrow, of Dix Hills. "Sometimes those people feel there is no one who cares. Now here is someone who is asking what they can do for them and what they need. Yet it is also very private."
Another project founder, Gloria Safran, said some families may ask for particular items, like shoes for the children or school supplies.
"What you will be sending is a box filled with items to enhance their lifestyle," Safran told a group of 25 people who met in her Huntington home last week to hear about the project.
She said givers would be able to write to the families they adopt, signing only their first names. The letters, like the gift boxes, would be sent to the families by the planning council. The families would write back through the council.
Safran said it is important to maintain anonymity in order to preserve the dignity of the families in need.
"They have limited income, and buying school supplies would take money away that could be used in another way," she said.Ostrow pointed out that volunteers are not necessarily expected to fill all the needs of their adopted families. Rather, she said, they should "do what they can."
"We won’t pay their electric bill or mortgage, but we’ll give them things for themselves and their kids so that they will not stand out in the community," she said.
Lustig said the project might be adopted by sisterhoods, men’s clubs, youth groups, and bar and bat mitzvah classes that wish to pair with those of their own age. Those who want to send food should ask the location of the nearest supermarket and buy gift certificates.
"You should use creativity and imagination" in deciding what to send, she said. "There is no prescribed number of boxes you have to send or the size of the boxes. You spend what you feel comfortable spending. Personally, I’d keep it on the small side."
Lustig said she has learned that some people receiving boxes expect the packages, even demand certain items. Others, she said, never ask and express appreciation for anything they receive.
Thurer said she goes to rummage sales to pick up items to send her family in Mississippi. She said her three children have all married since she embarked on the project, and that they now take turns sending the family boxes of goods.
Lustig said that because needy families on Long Island "work their way out" of poverty, those wishing to help should expect to provide assistance for about a year. But, she said assistance to the elderly would be for considerably longer. Families who wish to help M’Yad L’Yad or apply for help should call the Suffolk County Planning Council at (516) 462-5826.