A Kosher Response to Poverty
New York restaurants bring the tent of Abraham to the Jewish poor
Masbia executive director Alexander Rapaport gets ready for the evening meal.
Natalie Keyssar / www.nataliekeyssar.com
They call it a modern-day “tent of Abraham,” a group of four cost-free restaurants—three in Brooklyn and one in Queens, New York—where indigent Jews in need of kosher meals can sit at small, cloth-covered tables and be served by waiters five nights a week.
Called Masbia, Hebrew for satisfy, the free restaurants are a joint project of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the UJA Federation. The first site opened in Borough Park in 2005. The idea, says executive director Alexander Rapaport, came from a man named Mordechai Mandelbaum.
“Mr. Mandelbaum is an extraordinarily good person,” Rapaport says. “To call him crazy good is not an exaggeration. His house is like a soup kitchen. He constantly has guests, people with nothing, who stay with him and his wife. I used to study Talmud with him—he’s now in his 60s—and as we’d study we’d also schmooze. During one of our schmoozes the idea came up to launch a more formal, systematic way of feeding the hungry. We came to believe that a place like Masbia was sustainable, that better-off people would share their good fortune with us. Mr. Mandelbaum gave us the initial seed money and we opened in April 2005.”
The first night eight people were served. Six months later, the restaurant was feeding up to 120 patrons each evening. Since then, Masbia has continued to expand. Currently, the four sites provide dinner to more than 500 people a day.
Brooklyn is the capital of Jewish poverty, says William E. Rapfogel, CEO and executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “When we released our most recent report [six] years ago, 30 percent of Brooklyn’s Jewish community was living at or below the poverty line.” That was before the economic recession.
“Every single day we see people who’ve lost their jobs. Many have maxed out their credit cards, spent down their savings, and in some cases have raided their pension funds. We see them when they’re on the verge of being evicted or foreclosed,” Rapfogel says. “These are people who had a very good lifestyle and were financially stable until three, six, nine months ago. . . . The free restaurants are a place of respite for them, a place that helps them stretch whatever money they have.”
On a balmy April evening, patrons sit and eat at Masbia-Flatbush, including a 61-year-old man named Moshe, who says that he comes to the restaurant two or three nights a week because he can no longer work full time. “I have a job with a car service but my legs go numb and my back starts to hurt after a few hours of sitting,” he says. “I don’t have health insurance so I haven’t been able to check it out. . . . My rent is $500 a month; I can earn that working a few days a week. As long as I eat at Masbia I can make ends meet.”