The time surrounding the Yamim Noraim is filled with well wishes, blessings for peace and prosperity, success, and security. But this same period is one of deep concern for families that struggle financially. Sitting in elegance with our family at a Yom Tov table is a luxury not every family in our neighborhood is privileged to have. Leading up to the High Holidays, we open our wallets and dig deep to support local organizations in our midst that help feed those less fortunate. All hope is not lost.
Not too long ago, I managed the Chazaq Organization’s food pantry, now under the banner of the Lev Aharon Community Food Pantry in conjunction with Met Council on Jewish Poverty. During my service there, I met hundreds of local Orthodox families that rely heavily on the generosity of the pantry to help offset their holiday and yearlong grocery expenses. I felt inclined to visit their operations this past Wednesday afternoon, September 1, and thank the volunteers who gave of their time to help the struggling families of Kew Gardens Hills ahead of Rosh HaShanah. It was a true delight to see able-bodied men and women doing the heavy lifting and organizing to provide essentials to the underprivileged. I was most taken by one volunteer, a woman who spends the hours ahead of each Shabbos collecting funds to provide a nice weekend experience for her son. The woman’s smile was wide, her helping hand was outstretched, and it was clear that her simchas Yom Tov was already uplifted. This is the beauty of a community food pantry: It showcases volunteerism at its finest.
Some organizations, like Chazaq, also turn to our elected officials to obtain grants to sustain their operations. Earlier in the day, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Chaverim co-founder Avi Cyperstein, and Simon Sebag (Jewish liaison to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams) lent a helping hand to Chazaq. Their presence was much appreciated.
Aaron Cyperstein, Managing Director for Legal and External Affairs at Met Council, continued his holiday tradition of visiting some of the many pantries supported in part by Met Council. Cyperstein, whose commitment to ending Jewish poverty knows no bounds, visited Chazaq, met up with Moshe Brandsdorfer, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula (JCCRP), at their distribution, joined Borough President Richards with staff of the Commonpoint Queens pantry at their headquarters, and spoke with State Senator Joseph Addabbo, Council Member Barry Grodenchik, and City Council Democratic Nominee Linda Lee at the Queens Jewish Community Council (QJCC) distribution.
Tomchei Shabbos of Queens (TSQ) is one of the most well-known food pantry distributions, serving a number of local neighborhoods. Their operations have received widespread attention in the political arena due to the heavy involvement and philanthropy of its president, Shimi Pelman. TSQ, also a recipient of Met Council products, was visited by both Cyperstein and David Greenfield, CEO of Met Council. The group was greeted by an entourage of elected officials on hand to thank them providing a warehouse and volunteer team. Also on hand was Israel Nitzan, Acting Consul General at Consulate General of Israel in New York, who worked alongside Pelman to arrange for the purchase of Israeli products to be included in the TSQ packages. Notables at the distribution once again included Borough President Richards, Congress Members Gregory Meeks and Thomas Suozzi, and City Council Members James Gennaro and Barry Grodenchik, amongst rabbonim, Jewish liaisons to elected officials, various community leaders, and several City Council candidates.
“With the Jewish New Year approaching, now is the time to renew our efforts to help those most in need,” said Rep. Suozzi. “I’m proud to partner with Congressman Meeks and our community leaders in Queens to make sure that those who are hungry have access to a meal.”
In the spirit of Rosh HaShanah and the renewed call to give back to the community, Rep. Meeks offered a message of support and blessing: “Thankful to have joined to make sure Queens residents have access to food at such a critical time. Wishing the Jewish community a healthy and prosperous start to the New Year.”
As noted above, a food panty is powered by the strength of volunteers and the devotion they show to the customers who may feel embarrassed by their predicament. TSQ prides itself with a tactic that often does not involve recipients and drivers to interact. This method highlights the neeed for privacy and the heavy emotional toll of receiving a helping hand when in distress. The TSQ volunteers span a wide range of neighborhoods. Many, like Cyperstein and his son Avi, stem from the warehouse’s locale of Kew Gardens, while others dot the map of Queens County.
“My daughter Eliana was getting older, and we wanted her to get involved in helping out community in a way she could comprehend,” explained Yakir Wachstock of Holliswood. At the time, Eliana was a student at Bnos Malka Academy; she now studies at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY) in Israel. “My wife Mira and I were looking to find somewhere where she could make a difference and understand her impact. We help out at the shul and at school, but once we learned about Tomchei Shabbos, we saw an area where our eldest daughter could make a real difference.” The Wachstock family began their contribution to TSQ eight years ago through the Pesach distribution, then as Tuesday evening packers, and now have between one and four children constantly participating. Their efforts led to the participation of other neighborhood children. “The kids recognize that their work matters because they see the labels stating that a box is going to a family of four or of six members - often just like their own family.”
TSQ prides itself on regularly providing its clientele with chickens for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. The process to sort and distribute the chickens falls on a separate crew of volunteers. For roughly three years, Mrs. Karen Daitchman, a Kew Gardens Hills resident, has maintained a weekly shift at this task. “The volunteers run the gamut at Tomchei Shabbos,” she explained. “Each volunteer has a warm, dedicated heart with a deep desire to help others. The volunteers here at Tomchei are each provided a specific assignment. It is quite obvious that they each yearn to assist.” Mrs. Daitchman added one last thought that unites all the volunteers at TSQ. “It is the unbelievable dedication of the Katz family that makes the mission of Tomchei a reality for the many families served.
“It is so special to see how many people volunteer for Tomchei Shabbos,” stated Ms. Rivky Wiener, another Kew Gardens Hills volunteer who relieves Mrs. Daitchman at the chicken sorting station each week. Her sentiments for the devoted volunteers echoed Mrs. Daitchman’s, “Our volunteers are either packing boxes or delivering them to needy families. What more can be said than mi k’amcha Yisrael.”
Mr. Shlomo Hematian feels the same way. A Great Neck resident, he has volunteered weekly for TSQ over the past number of months as a delivery driver for three different stops. “I found out through friends about the need to assist here at Tomchei. I find the work very fulfilling and try to never miss a week of distributions.”
On Sunday afternoon, September 5, I also observed the widely-Orthodox clientele receiving pre-holiday food staples at the Kehilat Sephardim Food Pantry, under the direction of Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov. This pantry, the largest of all mentioned and possibly the largest kosher distribution in the U.S. today, is based in Kew Gardens Hills.
If you are in need of nutritional resources or wish to volunteer, please contact a food pantry below: