Pesach food mark-ups price out thousands

While some expect to spend more than £1,000 on food and drink, others worry about affording the basics


Thousands of Jews are relying on charitable support to meet the cost of Pesach, a JC investigation has found. Well over 1,000 families across the country will receive help from synagogues and communal charities this Pesach. Other institutions will support many more and there will be numerous free places at communal Seders.

Charity chiefs say that Passover is a particularly difficult time for observant Jews in financial hardship. They believe that the true number of families struggling to pay Pesach shopping bills is much higher as many are too embarrassed to seek help.

With some families expecting to spend more than £1,000 on food and drink during the eight days, the Chief Rabbi and other religious leaders have stressed that Pesach is a festival and not a reason to go into debt.

The Gift charity will distribute £10,000 worth of food among 200 families in London and Manchester. Founder and director Michelle Barnett said the packages contained matzah, wine, cake, candles, fruits, vegetables and other "general Pesach food items". But they were not enough "to feed a whole family.

"We never turn anyone down but we can only help them in a limited way, with a couple of food bags a week. It improves their Yomtov a little."

Recipients included seemingly comfortably off families who were hiding their problems. "Now and then when volunteers deliver food parcels, they phone us up and ask: 'Do I definitely have the right house? It's a big house with a car.' But we know these people have very little.

"When people are going through a divorce and they haven't agreed a settlement, or if a parent has just lost their job, they could still have a nice house and car because they haven't dealt with that situation yet. It's peer pressure making them not want to let people know what trouble they're in.

"There's often a situation where the mother will say to us: 'I don't want the kids to know we're struggling.' So in a number of cases they pretend they're going shopping but they actually come to our warehouse to collect the food from us. Sometimes the wife won't even let the husband know. There's a lot of shame over receiving help."

Ms Barnett cited the example of a woman who came to Gift saying "it was her family's last port of call for help. But when she saw the food in our warehouse, she didn't want to accept it.

"She emailed the next day saying she to ask for food - but that she really needs it."

The situation was similar at the United Synagogue, whose Chesed Pesach appeal will provide essentials for 620 families. Chesed head Michelle Minsky said that feelings of humiliation stopped others from receiving much-needed assistance. "Our real concern is that there may be families we don't know about, because people tend to be embarrassed when they are having financial difficulties," explained Chesed head Michelle Minsky.

Its annual support scheme - supplemented this year by £20,000 worth of food donated by Tesco - will help a number of older US members. "These are people living on pensions without much disposable income. So when they have to buy food - and possibly even new utensils -for Pesach, it's a greater burden.

"Then there are people who are unemployed or on zero hours contracts, which affect their ability to meet the additional expense."

New clothes for the festival were a "huge expense" for strictly Orthodox families, Stamford Hill leader Rabbi Abraham Pinter pointed out.

The rabbi is principal at the Yesodey Hatorah School, which is helping 450 people - including many employees - by arranging discounts of up to 25 per cent from local clothing suppliers.

He said the festival was "a challenge for every family", particularly as virtually everyone in his community bought expensive home-baked matzah.

"It's £20 to £30 for a box and in Stamford Hill, 95 per cent would only eat home-baked matzah. It's a kashrus requirement."

However, he said it was important to remember the true meaning of the festival and he encouraged "everybody to live within their means.

"Pesach should be a happy time. People shouldn't get to the Seder and feel the stress of having overstretched themselves."

His sentiments were echoed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who said he was "particularly sad to hear of families over-committing themselves financially for the sake of a beautiful mitzvah. To bring such hardship upon oneself or one's family on Pesach is to lose the joy of this special time.

"Pesach can be enjoyed on almost any budget - most fresh meat, fruits and vegetables do not increase in price. Before anything else, we are a caring community, which provides for the vulnerable in our midst. Let us ensure that, together, we do not lose sight of the real essence of Pesach - redemption, freedom and responsibility."

The Reform movement's senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, highlighted the "key halachic principle that you can't give an enactment that most people can't live by. I think Pesach is a model most people can't live by.

"Pesach is a very good excuse for a mark-up. Foods that need a hechsher are one thing. But the idea that you need kosher washing-up liquid - that is extortionate."

At Morrisons, the Pesach-approved washing-up liquid is more than three times the price of the chain's own brand product. At Sainsbury's in Golders Green, a Yorkshire Tea 80-teabag box from the "Kosher for Passover" section was being sold for £3.75 this week. A Yorkshire Tea 240-teabag box in the general display, directly opposite, was £4.50.

Kashrut authority KLBD's list of approved products for 2016 includes baby milk, water, kitchen towels, baking paper, foil containers and lids, aluminium foil and plastic cutlery.

Rabbi Janner-Klausner argued that the pressure to spend more on Pesach products sent out the message that "you need wealth to be a Jew.

"It's aligned with the whole problem of the Jewish cost of living and the thought that 'people will pay because it's Pesach'.

"I would encourage the Beth Din giving the hechsher to take into consideration the economics of the community. It may be halachically kosher, but not fit in another way."

The KLBD did not respond to requests for comment.

Liberal Judaism rabbi Leah Jordan agreed that pressurising people to pay more than they should to fulfil a religious obligation was the antithesis of Judaism.

Symbolically, the message of Pesach was that "chametz is puffed up, literally, and we eat matzah because we're sober and reflecting, not puffed up.

"I think the most puffed up thing we could do would be to insist that people who can't afford it go out and buy expensive food for Pesach."

Masorti Beth Din head Rabbi Chaim Weiner felt the issue of Pesach spending was exaggerated, declaring: "The bottom line is that Pesach is a very central part of Jewish observance. If it ends up being more expensive, ultimately it's worth it because it's such an important part of our heritage."

For those prepared to shop around, it was "possible to have a Pesach that's not very expensive. For people who are struggling with poverty, there needs to be community resources to ensure they are supported. But that's a year-round problem."

Savings could be made by home cooking. "The big expenses are cake, cereals, soup croutons, things like that. My response would just be to boycott them. Bake your own cake."

But Mark Cunningham, chief operating officer at Manchester's main welfare charity, The Fed, said that although "people can arguably shop around for the best deals, young families often have neither the time or means to go from place to place.

"It's a case of walking to the nearest shop and buying what you can fit under, or hang off, your child's buggy and paying whatever price is asked."

Join in our Pesach recipe exchange - share your favourite Passover recipes and inspire us and other readers and we'll feature the best online. Click here to find out more

Update: The KLBD have contacted us to say that they say they did attempt to make contact in the preparation of this story. 


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