A decade ago, the scene at a Masbia food pantry appeared relaxed in comparison to today. The original Queens location in Rego Park had the look of a restaurant for individuals in need of a meal. They were served in a dignified setting, staffed by volunteers during the afternoon hours. The economic downturn that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic turned a trickle into a flood of demand for kosher meal packages.
“Since the beginning of COVID, we’ve had a 500 percent increase in demand. To accommodate this, we are open for 24 hours,” said Masbia founder Alexander Rapaport. “Sunday through Friday afternoon, through an appointment, a ten-minute window so that it is not disruptive to the neighborhood.”
The scene at the Forest Hills pantry at 105-47 64th Road appears busy but also under control. “Five hundred families are served here daily. There is a security guard here with a booth, two paid staff, and volunteers, Rapaport said. The former dining space was transformed into a warehouse, and parking spaces in front of the site are reserved for containers and deliveries. “There are about 20,000 people on our roster for the 2,500 slots in a day. It is challenging for people to get appointments. The miracle would be to get more hours in a day,” he said.
Rapaport expressed gratitude to Henry and Susie Orenstein, Masbia’s “strongest sponsors,” whose names appear on the pantry awning. Henry’s story would be a legend if it were not true. The 98-year-old businessman was born in Poland and survived the war by his instincts, knowing when to lie, bribe, and where to hide. In America, he made his fortune in toy patents and technology relating to poker tournaments that contributed to the popularity of the game.
Food insecurity and addressing poverty are a top priority in the Orensteins’ philanthropy. In Israel, the Orenstein Project provides housing for Holocaust survivors and food for the needy through various pantries. Rapaport also thanked the corporate supporters of Masbia, such as Kedem and Manischewitz. “When their products are close to the expiration date, they are sent to Masbia,” he said. “Likewise with Sabra hummus and Kind bars that are delivered directly.”
Throughout the year, Masbia receives packages based on their expiration date, shelf life, and the Jewish calendar. For Purim there are hamantashen, and last week he received the first 200 cases of matzah from Israel. On Thanksgiving, Masbia gives away turkeys.
Its ability to adapt to the tremendous growth in demand, while maintaining strictly kosher standards and serving everyone – Jew and gentile – has given Masbia plenty of attention from news organizations, such as The New York Times and the BBC. Its founder, a chasid from Borough Park, speaks with ease about his work to the secular media. “We’ve made the Jewish community very proud during this pandemic,” he said.
To apply for a kosher meal package or to donate, visit www.masbia.org.
By Sergey Kadinsky