Gabriel Boxer, known to many in the Jewish world as the Kosher Guru, is no stranger to Queens. Gabriel, a prodigy of the former Yeshiva Dov Revel of Forest Hills, now home to a division of Touro College and Bnos Malka Academy, grew up in Hillcrest, where his parents Nina and Tim Boxer, members of the Young Israel of Hillcrest and Rabbi Binyomin Ruttner’s Adas Yeraim, reside. “They are both very warm, friendly, and very genuine; always smiling,” related Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss, rav of the Young Israel of Hillcrest. The two of them are low-key and are known to act quietly, with much dignity. “Tim is a very religious person who loves going to shul, despite life’s struggles. Nina shares the credit for this, as her devotion to Tim in making sure he gets to shul is remarkable.”
Kosher Response began when their son Gabriel, its founder, was at his desk at the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and work came to a screeching halt. Not one to relax, Gabriel desired to give back and say thank you to those on the frontlines in a big way. A close friend, Steve Weinrib, reached out with a request that Gabriel could not refuse. A good friend of theirs, Dr. Dan Haller, was working around the clock at South Nassau Communities Hospital, a local facility, and needed a nourishing meal. Gabriel jumped into action and found out how many people were in his unit, arranging for a beautiful order compiled from a few local restaurants. Soon, more orders followed, and new eateries were added to the growing list – from a pizza parlor to a Chinese take-out to a café and a kosher deli. Word spread throughout Jewish communities and many joined the cause. Gabriel then ensured that a website was built for the growing venture. Today, there are over 100 volunteers delivering hundreds of meals a day to our frontline workers.
This past Thursday evening, Kosher Response teamed up with Queens Hatzolah to distribute cholent, kugel, and kishke from Main House BBQ of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, to our local 150 dedicated Hatzolah volunteers. The members drove by the Hatzolah lot, located on 70th Road in Kew Gardens Hills alongside the Yeshiva of Central Queens, to pick up their special meal. YCQ holds significance to Gabriel, as he fondly recalls his brother attending the Yeshiva.
Queens Hatzolah coordinators Sruly Lowy and Shiu Reichmann were on hand to salute their members. “It is exciting to be able to show a small token of appreciation to our dedicated membership in partnership with Kosher Response,” noted Lowy.
Cantor Aron Gerstel, the resident chazan for the Brooklyn Jewish Xperience, has taken upon himself during the pandemic to go to various hospital locations throughout New York and serenade the staff and onlookers with renditions of patriotic songs in the hopes of lifting the spirits of healthcare workers and first responders. Aron joined Kosher Response at YCQ with pre-Shabbos melodies and his famed Star Spangled Banner presentation. “I wanted to commemorate the absolutely heroic and altruistic efforts of our Queens Hatzolah volunteers,” said Aron.
This project followed similar Kosher Response programs for the 150 Hatzalah members in the Five Towns-Far Rockaway area, organized by Mark Gross of Sharmel Caterers, and for the Hatzalah of South Florida members in conjunction with Zalmy Cohen, where over 50 food packages were arranged from Levy’s Shawarma in Aventura.
The project has evolved to include destinations in Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles, among many others. As donations arrive, more areas are tackled across the nation. The notion of supporting local establishments was never lost on the team, and they strive to support the mom-and-pop kosher restaurants in our neighborhoods. Breakfasts of bagels and spreads to lunches of assorted wraps are common; pizza, pasta, and salads are favorites, as well. Dinner might include sandwiches or Chinese delicacies.
The concept of chesed (kindness) and making a kiddush Hashem (sanctifying our Creator’s name) has prevailed throughout the initiative. Gabriel continues to spear Kosher Response every day, dedicating his time to keep those in need prepared to tackle the days ahead.
Kosher Response has progressed to arrange for the purchase of gift cards from local food shops for families in need of support. The program also launched Shabbos in a Box, where families bought a Shabbos box for themselves and in turn helped send an additional box to either a healthcare hero or family in need, at the choice of the donor. Shabbos in a Box is sent to between 50 and 200 healthcare heroes who work in the hospital over Shabbos, and also to families in need, based on how much funds were raised over the week. The box includes pretty much what its name suggests: all that one would need to have a proper Shabbos meal. It includes Shabbos staples like grape juice, challah rolls, gefilte fish, salads, assorted chicken dishes, cold cuts, and various kugels.
“We wanted to give a nice meal to those working hard to save and protect our families and friends,” explained Gabriel.
A few weeks ago, on Erev Shabbos, as the Shabbos in a Box team was loading up volunteers’ cars to depart for families and hospitals, Gabriel made a choice that really saved the day. As David Ambalo, a Woodmere resident, was preparing to head to NYU Langone Hospital, Gabriel called for a volunteer to put an extra Shabbos box into Ambalo’s vehicle. “I do not know why I made the decision to add the extra box, but it turned out to have some Divine intervention,” stated Gabriel. Once David arrived and phoned the recipient, he overheard a conversation on the phone between the doctors and nurses about how to get the new parents Shabbos food – and he knew exactly how to respond. A religious Jewish mother had just given birth, and through Governor Cuomo’s executive order, the baby’s father was allowed at the mother’s side. David reached out to Gabriel who could not believe the hashgachah pratis and was overjoyed to have this special Shabbos in a Box feed the new mom and dad. Afterwards, the family sent many thank you notes and took to social media to share their appreciation with Kosher Response. “The wife had been discussing with her husband how she would give him some of her hospital food and they would make it through the Shabbos,” commented one family member.
Tanya and Ronen Nissani are respected throughout the Jamaica Estates community. They are members of both the shtiebel, Khal Bais Yitzchok D’Turka with Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, and the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates with Rabbi Dov Lerner. In 2015, the couple hosted a backyard tent for the Shabbos Project, inviting over 150 community members from all the local shuls for lunch and singing. In 2016, YCQ honored them as Parents of the Year. Just a few weeks ago, on May 28, they celebrated the bar mitzvah of their son Yehuda Levi in their backyard. The family, of Sephardic decent, enjoys shining a positive energy on their entire diverse neighborhood. An elderly couple, longtime friends of Tanya, have been locked in quarantine for 100 days, as of this week. The couple made a special effort to reach out for shopping errands during this trying period.
Yehuda Nissani, a YCQ seventh grader, chose to make his bar mitzvah experience something memorable. His older brothers had affairs to remember, and he wanted the same. Yehuda chose to think of others who were suffering and wanted to go outside of his comfort zone. The Nissanis have long been friends of the Boxers, and this relationship helped form Yehuda Responds as a fundraiser to aid in Kosher Response’s efforts. Tanya explained, “Yehuda felt amazing being part of this program. He was truly proud of his efforts.” For his bar mitzvah, Yehuda gained and experienced much more than most 13-year-old boys. The campaign’s original goal was $1,000, and it gradually rose to a current goal of $5,000, which is set to expire next week. At the time this article was written, the fund was up to more than $4,300. “Yehuda was able to focus away from himself and respond to the pandemic in a major way,” said his mom. In Yehuda’s words, “I have decided that the best reaction to these circumstances is action.”
Miri Stern and her husband Joe are North Woodmere residents and members of Kodesh, an up-and-coming shul. Miri is the Vice President of Kosher Response and also joined the Queens Hatzolah appreciation program this past week. Miri recalled two poignant incidents that highlight the work of Kosher Response. On one occasion, the team stationed themselves outside of NYU Langone Hospital, distributing Rita’s Ice to nurses as they came outside for a breath of fresh air. “Many came out quite emotionally, with tears in their eyes,” commented Miri. “One frum nurse told me that she had just recited viduy with a patient who was only in his 30s and resided in the Five Towns community.” Due to the situation, the family could not be at the hospital, and the duty to be with the patient in his last hours fell upon the hospital staff. Knowing that a patient similar in age had passed really brought the situation home for Miri. In a different occurrence, at Beth Israel Hospital, a nurse to whom they had brought food explained that having a real meal boosted her morale. “This is my first meal in over 24 hours,” explained the nurse. “I am just coming from leaving the side of a man who passed on, and seeing Kosher Response here is really uplifting.”
A woman called in to Kosher Response saying that her sister is a nurse at Lennox Hill Hospital in Manhattan and could use a Shabbos in a Box. The nurse was not religious, but really appreciated that the Jewish community reached out. She even took it upon herself to kindle Shabbos candles. Kosher Response continued delivering a package to this nurse until one week the funds just did not come through. In the end, a box was delivered, but the nurse reported that she decided to buy Shabbos food and make herself a meal, starting a tradition to be more religious. “Never had we imagined that Shabbos in a Box would have such an astounding impact,” said Miri.
To make a donation, go to www.kosherresponse.com. Donations to Yehuda Responds can be made at www.thechesedfund.com/yehudaresponds/yehudarespondsmybarmitzvahproject.
By Shabsie Saphirstein