A Kosher Response to Poverty

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Natalie Keyssar / www.nataliekeyssar.com
Masbia executive director Alexander Rapaport gets ready for the evening meal.

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 andthe 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.”

Steve, a disabled 54-year-old, comes to Masbia five times a week. “I got a big cut in my food stamps, from $97 a month to $56,” he says. “I can’t feed myself on $56–one trip to the grocery store and it’s gone, since kosher food is so expensive.”

After finishing a meal of broiled chicken, mixed vegetables, potatoes, and bread, Steve walks a few feet to a small box where voluntary donations can be left. Contributions typically range from a quarter to a few dollars, Rapaport says. He makes sure to emphasize that no one is pressured to give. The food is free, but offerings are gratefully accepted.

So how does Masbia raise the $30,000 a week it takes to run four cost-free restaurants?

According to Rapaport, Masbia cov-ers its operating costs by reaching out to the community. The ultimate goal is to restart a tradition from the European shtetl (ghetto). “People used to share the simcha,” he says, “providing a meal for the poor on a day of celebration. In the old days people would make a special meal to feed the poor in their village on their wedding day or the day before they got married. Sometimes they’d even give the poor a small stipend. We’re re­igniting that idea. People can donate the cost of one night’s meal at Masbia–approximately six dollars a plate–or can have their wedding reception at Masbia and feed their guests as well as anyone else who comes in on that night.”

Aaron J. Sender, Masbia’s community nourishment coordinator, is particularly excited about blurring the line between patron and donor. Sender, a Brooklyn native, spent several years working on an organic farm in Northern California. While he was there, he says, he began dreaming about starting a pay-what-you-like restaurant. Then, during a 2009 visit to New York, he met Alex Rapaport. He’s been working at Masbia ever since. “Food is so primal,” he says. “It’s one of the few things that everyone alive uses. On a very basic level, it connects people.”

Excerpted from TheBrooklyn Rail (May 2010), an incisive journal of arts, politics, and culture.www.brooklynrail.org

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