Sara Fuerst had no inkling that her daughter’s bat mitzvah project — sending Purim goodies and personal letters to 150 Jewish soldiers — would turn into a volunteer program of massive proportions.
But the feedback from those Purim packages nine years ago alerted her to an unmet need and motivated her to fill it on a regular basis.
“We had a beautiful response,” Ms. Fuerst said. She and her neighbor and partner in Koshertroops, Ava Avidar Hamburger, spoke over Skype from Ms. Fuerst’s home in New Hempstead, N.Y. “The troops were happy to know that the Jewish community still remembered them,” she added.
The need was larger than the women might have imagined, they learned as they began their work. There are approximately 10,000 Jews in the American military, spread across the world. “People are surprised when we tell them that,” said Ms. Fuerst, an Israeli-born realtor, mother of three, and grandmother of five.
Koshertroops became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization seven years ago. Using mostly donated items, packed with the help of volunteers from many local Jewish schools, camps, and synagogues, the organization ships Jewish holiday packages to U.S. troops five times a year and also sends Shabbat packages each week to a few soldiers on a rotating basis upon request.
The Shabbat boxes contain such items as challah, grape juice, gefilte fish and horseradish, matzah ball soup, and dessert, accompanied by letters from children, candles, havdalah kits, and an NCSY booklet containing the Grace after Meals in Hebrew, English, and transliterated Hebrew.
“We’ve sent packages to places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Africa, Germany, Italy, Korea, Japan, Micronesia, Pakistan, and even one time to a Jewish member of an NGO in Vanuatu who’d heard about us,” Ms. Fuerst said.
“What keeps me going is the incredible feedback we get,” Ms. Hamburger said. She is a school psychologist, art therapist, and the mother of five. “We see the impact that Koshertroops has. “The soldiers tell us that sometimes the only Jewish items they have are from us.
“If we don’t send it, they won’t have it.”
Despite the nonprofit’s name, the packages of kosher foods are sent to all service people identifying as Jewish, whether or not they keep to a kosher diet. However, Koshertroops has a special package of heat-and-serve meals and other items for Orthodox or chasidic service people stationed in places where they cannot get strictly kosher food.
“I lived for awhile in the Caribbean islands with no kosher food, so I know what it’s like not being able to go to a kosher supermarket or kosher pizza place,” Ms. Fuerst said. “Sometimes we insist on chaplains telling us what these soldiers would like to receive. It’s not spoiling them because they’re so far from home and all they have is their MREs.” (MREs are “meals ready to eat,” or field rations.)
The Chanukah packages that Koshertroops sent out to 800 service people several weeks before the holiday included donuts, decorations, snacks, dreidels, and chocolate gelt. The items were donated by Amazing Savings, Rite Lite, Franczoz, King Zak, Manischewitz, Entenmann’s, and All Round Food. Many additional businesses donate to Koshertroops throughout the year.
Groups that collect items and/or come to the organization’s warehouse in Mahwah to pack boxes span the region and the religious spectrum. Those groups include Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake; Yeshiva University’s High School for Boys and the Ramaz School in Manhattan; Ateres Bais Yaakov, Jewish Educational Program, Orangeburg Jewish Center, Rockland Community College Hillel, and ASHAR in Rockland; Yavneh Academy and Yeshivat Noam of Paramus, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, the Partners in Shidduchim singles group, and various schools from Passaic.
Participants, however, don’t have to be in the immediate area. The children’s letters in every care package come from all over the United States. And kids from many locales do bar/bat mitzvah projects to benefit Koshertroops that include raising money or creating the challah covers or havdalah kits that go in the packages.
“Affiliation has nothing to do with it,” Ms. Hamburger said. “We help every type of Jew and we get help from every type of Jew. We all live in this country, and owe our thanks to the troops protecting our freedom.”
The kudos go both ways. Koshertroops gets many letters of thanks from recipients. Here are a few excerpts:
“The Members of the Tribe (MOT) here in southwest Afghanistan (also better known as the Jew Crew) would first like to thank you all for the superb support that you and your organization have given us during this year’s Passover occasion, not to mention all year round. Although far from home, the loving letters and generous care packages you all provided us have gone a long way to making us feel like we’re safe and happy at home again (or as close to it as one can get out here in the literal desert).”
“Thank you all for the lovely food that made both Seders great. … We all left happy and with very full stomachs. I know we all greatly appreciate your thoughts and boxes here in Kuwait. As I just came from 18 months in Djibouti, I want to tell you we also enjoyed the care packages sent to us there.”
“Thank you all for your kind donations of supplies, gifts, food and handmade cards and items for our Passover observation at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. We had an incredible showing for both Seder dinners and shared the holiday as a congregation.”
In addition to the care packages, Koshertroops also runs once- or twice-yearly Shabbatons in Rockland County communities for service members in the New York area. Children from the Jewish Educational Program usually participate in the Shabbatons as well.
The next Shabbaton is scheduled for December 22, when a group of cadets from different armed forces units will gather for a Shabbat before embarking on a Birthright trip to Israel. “The chaplain going with them on the trip asked if we could do this,” Ms. Fuerst said.
Koshertroops now offers a box of Chanukah candles to anyone who sends a donation of $36 or more. (To learn more, Google “kosher troops one light at a time.”)
Send letters to the troops to Koshertroops, 8 Pleasant Ridge Rd., New Hempstead, NY 10977. They’ll be placed in packages and go to service members.