Charedi poverty, New York-style

By Paul Berger in New York, December 30, 2009
Searching for food in Williamsburg: the neighbourhood is the “capital of Jewish poverty”, according to the co-founder of Masbia, an Orthodox charity

Searching for food in Williamsburg: the neighbourhood is the “capital of Jewish poverty”, according to the co-founder of Masbia, an Orthodox charity

The shop windows that line Lee Avenue in the Charedi neighbourhood of Williamsburg advertise every aspect of Orthodox life — long black coats, ornate silver menorahs, challahs, prayer books, Jewish-themed toys.

So the gleaming white storefront at number 65 is striking for the fact that it advertises nothing; just a neat row of white blinds.

Behind the blinds is Williamsburg’s first kosher soup kitchen, the Orenstein-Met Council Masbia Kitchen, which opened last month.

“It’s quoted in halachah that the best way to do charity is to go all out,” said Alexander Rapaport.

“You don’t make a soup kitchen in a basement with some food. You find a nice place, you make it the most welcoming, you roll out the red carpet,” he added as he walked around the brightly lit space, motioning to the red mats that run down the middle of the floor.

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty estimates that 250,000 of New York’s 1.6 million Jews live in poverty. An additional 100,000 live in near poverty.

“Brooklyn is the capital of Jewish poverty,” said Mr Rapaport. “And Williamsburg is the capital of the capital. For these people, there’s no difference between the stock market being at 14,000 or 7,000.”

Mr Rapaport, 31, is co-founder of Masbia, an Orthodox Chasidic organisation that feeds New York’s large, yet almost invisible, group of Jewish poor.

The organisation, which started in 2005, has three soup kitchens in Brooklyn and hopes to open a fourth, in Queens, soon. It feeds 350 people a day and costs about $20,000 a week to run.

Masbia has no endowment and relies upon the Met Council, Jewish federations and private donations. “I don’t like to whine about our money situation,” said Mr Rapaport. “I would rather talk about our service.”

The Williamsburg kitchen, which cost $150,000 to renovate and equip, serves one hot meal five nights a week. This particular night, dinner consists of soup, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and dessert.

Customers sign in at the door, then take a seat at one of nine tables. Columns of five-foot, synthetic plants are placed between the tables to give some semblance of privacy and to act as a mechitzah for the occasional woman.

Mr Gross, a 40-year-old writer, says the kitchen is a good place for a quiet meal. Another man, who does not wish to give his name, says that, before the kitchen opened, he used to rely on meals at local synagogues or with friends.

Shame is a constant factor. A young girl who asked for food to take home to her family, had to be refused. The kitchen’s policy is that food is eat-in only.

Mr Rapaport also discourages reading and “schmoozing table to table”.

“If you are finished with your food,” he says, motioning to the door, “please make room for the next person.”

Last updated: 2:11pm, December 31 2009