When people enter the Masbia soup kitchen in Borough Park, they approach a wooden podium of the sort used by a maitre d’.
But no reservations are required at Masbia, currently the city’s only kosher soup kitchen, and clients are simply asked to sign their name before filling their dinner plates.
While in the past they may have been asked to present a letter of reference from a rabbi or community leader to show that they are in need, these days that restriction has all but fallen by the wayside.
“We’re very liberal about it,” says Alexander Rapaport, executive director of Masbia, which is Hebrew for satiety. “Some days we don’t even ask at all. If someone comes in here the shame is so great, why put them through more humiliation?”
As the number of meals served at the well-kept, restaurant-like Masbia has surged in recent months, its proprietors have continued their focus on maintaining clients’ dignity. To foster a sense of privacy, artificial plants surround the tables. And Masbia, which operates Sunday through Thursday, does not accept leftovers: all meals are prepared fresh.
That level of compassion is what planners of three new soup kitchens in the city’s poorest Jewish areas — two more in Brooklyn and one in Queens — hope to replicate.
Working with Masbia, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty hopes to add the new kitchens as soon as June.
“We have begun to realize the greater need for soup kitchens around the city, and we were able to secure funding,” says Met Council Director William Rapfogel. “Working with Masbia, we like what they’re doing and want to partner with them.”
While a site is already under construction on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, Met Council is still searching for sites in the Flatbush-Midwood area and in Central Queens. The agency already serves about 13,000 families per month through food pantries.
The Williamsburg site will serve between 150-200 meals per day, says Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organizations, an affiliate of Met Council.
“Williamsburg is probably the poorest Jewish community in the city,” says Rabbi Niederman. “People have lost their jobs, businesses are closing, construction subcontractors are going belly down. There is a tremendous need to supplement families. Food stamps are not enough, especially when you consider that kosher food is more expensive.”
According to figures from the New York Jewish Community Study, last updated in 2004, 64 percent of Williamsburg Jewish households reported income below $35,000 while 62 percent said they “cannot make ends meet” or are “just managing.”
That study also reported high levels of Jewish poverty in Borough Park, Flatbush and Rego Park-Forest Hills in Queens.
Rapfogel said his agency has been working with Masbia since it opened in 2005, sending a social worker to the site on a regular basis to meet with clients and assess whether they are receiving all services for which they qualify.
Like Masbia, the new kitchens will also be liberal on means testing, says Rapfogel.
“You have to recognize that not everyone has to be below the poverty level to be in crisis,” says Rapfogel.
Mordechai Mandelbaum, who founded Masbia with Rapaport when the two were studying Talmud together, said he was gratified that it was being emulated. “In my wildest dreams I never thought it would be so successful,” he said. “There will always be neediness, but thank God there are wonderful people who came forward to make it so successful.”
When Masbia first opened its doors, only a small trickle would come in, but the number rapidly grew from a few dozen to 160 per day about a year ago. More recently, as many as 200 meals a night have been served, including an increasing number to children.
“Last year if we saw 20 kids it would be a lot,” said Rapaport. “Three weeks ago on Monday there were 61 children,” a Masbia record. Unable to accommodate the wave, volunteers gave some of the families emergency cash to eat in nearby restaurants.
Rapaport said he didn’t know why more kids were coming in, nor why so many on one night.
“This is not a social-work place,” he says. “There’s no intake. We’re like the ambulance, first responders. We don’t collect medical data.” The sign-in sheet, he adds, is required by the city and state to collect demographic information. “They want to know how many children, adults and seniors [are being served],” he said.
It costs Masbia an estimated $10,000 a week to operate, he says, nearly all of it from donated funds, with some funding from the city’s youth, family services and senior agencies allocated through a member item grant obtained by the local city councilman, Simcha Felder. Masbia’s meals are specially prepared in the kitchen of a local yeshiva, but when they are all gone, the meals are supplemented by food from a nearby caterer, Nesher. City Harvest, a nonprofit anti-hunger group, supplies the produce. Masbia has only a handful of paid employees and relies heavily on volunteers.
During suppertime on Monday night, Masbia patrons were mostly chasidic and other Orthdodox men, but others included a young woman in jeans, an elderly woman in slacks and several men without kipot who were dressed in blue-collar work clothes. What they have in common is the emptiness in their stomachs and pockets.
They helped themselves to chicken loaf, tzimmes and barley (and yes, actual soup). Most were well dressed and one man sat talking on one cell phone while checking messages on a second as he ate.
Some patrons seemed to keep a skeptical eye on each other.
“There are people here who should not be here,” said one man, an Israeli native who noted that he’d seen diners park their cars outside.
“It’s not your place to judge,” said another man at his table, who said he lost his job as a cook in a yeshiva four years ago. “You can’t tell by appearances.”
The Israeli man too said he had been gainfully employed as an engineer before falling on hard times and now works in a low-paying job.
The former cook said he had not been able to find a job in the past four years and that he was reluctant to ask any of his three children for help.
“There’s a Yiddish joke,” he said. “One father can support 10 children. But 10 children can’t support one father.”
A chasidic man who had just finished his meal said he had been working as a car service driver until recently. “People are trying to cut down, they would rather go by feet,” he said.
As Passover approaches, Rapaport said Masbia, which occasionally opens for holidays, is likely to be closed, although there may be some food distribution.
A few miles away from Masbia, another Jewish organization has been struggling to keep up with rising demand for food.
When it first opened its doors in Flatbush in 2007, Bnai Raphael Chesed Food Pantry served about 800 people. That number has nearly doubled to 1,500 and has had to reduce its operating days from five to two to avoid being overwhelmed.
The group, founded by Rafi Hazan, 47, a Mill Basin resident who runs a trucking business, also takes a no-questions-asked approach.
“We say no to nobody,” said Hazan, sitting among rows of supermarket-sized shelves stocked with canned goods and large freezers filled with perishable goods, all donated. “If you can breathe and walk through the door, you get food. If I tell someone no, the sin is on me If someone cheats, it’s his sin.”
On Tuesday, Masbia was part of a coalition of groups that lobbied state officials in Albany to fund more programs for the needy in recognition of Hunger Awareness Day.
Rather than bring photos with him of Masbia and its clients, Rapaport brought some more wrenching images.
“A few blocks away there is a Dumpster outside a supermarket, and every day people are lining up about three o’clock to take food from it,” he said. “That Dumpster feeds more people than your average soup kitchen. Those are the pictures I brought with me.”