Twenty family members, friends and neighbors file into the dining room for the annual Seder. We all know the routine: Drink the first cup of wine, munch on some veggies, break a piece of matzah and then tell the story of our exodus from Egypt.
But from the moment the candles are lit on the first night of Passover, as vehemently as they may deny it, one thought and one thought only is racing through the heads of everyone at the table. Whether you’re the host, a guest or the host’s antsy children, one common denominator unites you all: Everyone is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the meal.
Mom’s chicken soup, Grandma’s brisket, roast potatoes, salad and sponge cake … it goes on and on.
What many Marylanders don’t know is that for some of their fellow community members, the waiting period for that meal began a long time before candle lighting on Seder night. According to a recent study by the Food Research and Action Center, nearly one in every six people in Baltimore have had trouble affording food for their families at some point in the past year. With food costs on the rise, parents are having increased difficulty providing nourishing meals for their families. This burden weighs especially heavily on the average Jewish family during Passover. Matzah can cost as much as $19 per pound, and the cost of kosher food, already high, is raised in this period due to stricter kashrut standards for the holiday.
For the past four years, the Rabbi Chaim Nachman Kowalsky Memorial Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund distributes gift certificates and boxes of food to those who need them. The delivery is done under cover of darkness, so the recipients, while they might know who brings their sustenance, never have to experience the uncomfortable feeling of seeing the deliverer face to face. Run entirely by devoted volunteers young and not-so-young, the organization has been helping Baltimore’s needy for 35 years.
“The number of deliveries have just started to level off since 2008 and the start of the recession,” said Eli Schlossberg, director of Ahavas Yisrael’s board of trustees.
Schlossberg added that the fund’s goal is “to give people a leg up. We aren’t a welfare organization … we look at a client’shishtadlut (effort). It’s a team effort.”
The most rewarding experience a volunteer for the Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund can enjoy, said Schlossberg, is seeing former clients “get back on their feet.
“As a deliverer, I can tell you that it is always wonderful to see a name disappear from my list,” he said.
Working alongside the Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund to accommodate the needs of our community is the Jewish Community Food Fund of Jewish Community Services. This fund was founded as a kosher food pantry for families in need, but in rec-ent years it has been turned into a fund that collects donations and hands out gift cards to local supermarkets.The practice, said JCS Executive Director Barbara Gradet, is grounded in the ideals of human dignity and anony-mity, two important values in the giving of tzedakah. The idea of kavod haberiot (human dignity) pervades much of the agency’s work.
Gradet described the gift certificates as a kind of “return to normalcy” for the person in need and for his or her family.
“They can go shopping with their kids for the food their family wants,” said Gradet. “A gift certificate is something anyone could have. It’s better than walking out of a building holding shopping bags of food.”
On the Seder night, it is a mitzvah to invite those who are hungry and needy to celebrate with us. JCS and Ahavas Yisrael are helping to ensure that if families in need are not invited out, they can put on Seders of their own … until they are not needed.
“What a wonderful world it would be if we [the JCS food fund] could go out of business,” Gradet said.
Noah Abramowitz is an intern at the JT