Like in 1930s, Jewish community not immune to food insecurity

Unemployed men queue outside a Depression-Era soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone, 1931.
Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Washington’s organized Jewish community has provided money, meals and support to those who are struggling. As of the third week in October, for example, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington had allocated $99,369 for food assistance, helping 299 people in suburban Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia, according to The Federation.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Kehilat Pardes in Rockville said he has distributed “thousands and thousands of dollars to individuals that I know, who I have a connection with.”

At a virtual discussion on food insecurity last week, Topolosky said the money he gives to help fill the dinner tables and pantries of some of his congregants comes from Federation grants.

All told, some 200,000 children in the Washington region face food insecurity, said former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz, who moderated the virtual discussion, viewed by donors to The Federation’s Annual Campaign.

“A lot of people are living on the edge,” without a safety net and with at most only a few days of savings, said Sara Polon, of Soupergirl, a local kosher, vegan soup and salad establishment.

“It is so, so sad. It is heartbreaking,” Polon said during the virtual talk. “Last week, some guy came up and asked for food. It was just brutal. The man had not eaten for days.”

Many of the people new to food insecurity “are people who have no choice,” Polon said. They must continue working at restaurants and stores, often with little or any protection from COVID-19, or lose wages and jobs.

Rather than close down when the pandemic hit, Polon chose to keep operating Soupergirl. She said she took measures to make sure her staff remained safe by “creating a bubble and protecting my team.”

“Judaism demands us to do better,” she said, praising The Federation for raising $4.5 million and distributing 1,300 grants from its COVID fund since the global pandemic began.

Polon said she partnered with Yad Yehuda of Greater Washington, a volunteer organization serving Jews through its Capital Kosher Pantry. Polon supplies soup to the pantry, which is located at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring.

The pantry provides free food to 50 households each week, enabling recipients to shop privately to maintain their dignity, explained Stephanie Savir, Yad Yehuda’s director of operations. Another 100 people use the pantry on an as-needed basis, usually at holidays.

The Capital Kosher Pantry also has been hurt by COVID-19. It had benefited from the food people placed in bins in area synagogues and JCCs. With the closing of these institutions, these food sources dried up.

Yad Yehuda also operates a daily food program for children up to 18 years old, supported by the Department of Agriculture. More than 1,000 children receive breakfasts and lunches at no cost. The families pick up their meals twice a week at a drive through at Northwood High School in Silver Spring.

“There is definitely a community need,” Savir said.

In fact, many local rabbis, synagogues and Jewish organizations also have stepped in to help curb food insecurity. According to The Federation, 22 rabbis have given out a total of 117 emergency grants, which have helped 316 people.

The Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington has delivered more than 26,000 meals to isolated seniors since April, according to a news release from The Federation.

During its Mitzvah Meal Kosher Food Program, JCA, Montgomery County Food Council, the Israeli American Council, Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington and Healthcare Initiative Fund teamed up to serve 313 people in 221 households.

The Hebrew Free Loan Association has experienced a 600 percent increase in the number of applications it has received. That organization provides loans of up to $15,000 for community members in need and emergency loans of up to $2,500 for those impacted by COVID-19.

There is always more people can do, Polon said. Her advice, “Give until it’s uncomfortable. Be generous until it hurts.” In addition to donating money, she urged viewers to “get out and get to know your community. Get to know people that are living on the edge.”

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