In a normal year, the weeks leading up to Passover are a boom time for a Hasidic handyman who specializes in installing dishwashers and stoves. His services are in high demand right before the holiday, when Orthodox families like to schedule home improvements to coincide with rigorous cleaning.
This year is different. He hasn’t seen a new job in three weeks. Instead of getting new clients, he’s become one himself — of the kosher food pantry Masbia.
“He didn’t even know the soup kitchen language,” said Alexander Rapaport, Masbia’s executive director, who said Masbia is seeing roughly double the demand for its services than it normally does this time of year. “He comes into the place, he has no idea what to ask.”
Coronavirus has put pressure on kosher food pantries at exactly the worst time — Passover, which starts on April 8. It’s an especially expensive holiday because the prohibition on leaven requires observant Jews to procure eight days’ worth of special food. Now the economic impact of the virus has deepened the need among existing food pantry clients and created new ones, like the handyman. And it’s all happening as food prices are going up and pantry workers are staying home for their own safety. The service providers interviewed by the Forward said they’ll be able to scrape through the holiday with the help of emergency aid, but once it’s over, they’ll need yet more funding to stay open.
The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty estimates that there are 500,000 poor or near-poor Jews in New York City. In the month before Passover the Met Council, which works with 40 food pantries, usually serves 180,000 people, said CEO David Greenfield. This year, with the holiday still a week away, it has already provided assistance to 200,000. City Harvest, an organization that redistributes food to the needy, including kosher-observant Jews, has also seen an uptick in demand.
“So many people have reached out” for help, said Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum of Chabad Heights, who runs an annual fund to help needy members of his Crown Heights community purchase Passover food. “They’ve lost their jobs, they’re worried about rent. The state of the Seder isn’t even their first priority,” he said, referring to the ritual meal served on the first two nights of the eight-day festival.
What’s more, panic buying has resulted in increased food prices for everyone, including food pantries: eggs, of which the Met Council buys hundreds of thousands each week, have tripled in price in the last two weeks, Greenfield said. To secure large orders, nonprofits like the Met Council compete with retail giants who can afford to buy food staples at high prices. Competition for kosher food is especially intense, he said, because many affluent Jews who normally travel during Passover are staying home and stocking up.
At the same time, the volunteers who staff most food pantries are typically retirees, members of a demographic especially at risk for serious cases of coronavirus. Many must stay home for the sake of their own health. For those still venturing out, the Met Council has spent over $300,000 on personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, an unexpected expense in an already strained budget.
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