|Betty Samuels, chair of Project Isaiah at the Teaneck Jewish Center, amid the more than 100 bags of food collected for CFA. Michael Laves|
According to the Bergen County Board of Social Services, there are some 44 food pantries in Bergen County. But, said Fran Leib, co-chair of community affairs committee of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, she didn’t know until last year that one of those pantries was in that town.
“I met with the director [of the pantry] last year and found out that they didn’t have enough food for Thanksgiving,” she said. “So I went to our board of directors, and they donated enough money” to make up the difference.
|Fran Leib displays some of the food collected during the Jewish Community Center of Paramus Thanksgiving food drive. Dan Leib|
Still, she said, she couldn’t do that every year. So this year she devised a new program, asking people in the congregation to “adopt a family” for Thanksgiving.
“The people in our synagogue are phenomenal,” she said, noting that it took only two to three days for congregants to respond to her appeal.
“Since I sent out a message on the Internet” last Monday, “we have all the families in Paramus covered,” she said, adding that 35 families had registered with the pantry for Thanksgiving assistance.
Under the “adoption” program, shul volunteers receive a list of foods needed for one family (assumed to include from eight to 10 people). After obtaining the items on the list – traditional holiday fare such as frozen turkeys, canned yams, cranberry sauce, and the like – volunteers will bring the completed food baskets to the Paramus Department of Human Services. Donors may share the expense with others, if they choose.
Leib stressed that this initiative was in addition to the congregation’s annual “Thanskgiving Turkey and Fixings Drive,” undertaken on behalf of the Englewood-based Center for Food Action.”
“We still try to support the center,” said Leib, pointing out that the shul collects food year-round for the CFA and launches a special food drive for the center for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We stand in the parking lot all day collecting turkeys and other food,” she said, recalling that she started the program 12 years ago after getting several free turkeys from ShopRite through a promotion.
“I had gone to CFA as part of Mitzvah Day and had a feel for their work,” she said. “I asked if they wanted [these turkeys].”
Getting a positive response, she said, “I put out a flier about it,” adding that the program was also publicized from the pulpit.
“We collected 33 turkeys,” said Leib. “We had a caravan of cars” driving the donated items to the center. The following year, she said, the program was better organized and CFA sent a van for the collected foods.
Leib pointed out that – in addition to the CFA turkey collection and “adopt a family” project – the congregation participated in Project Isaiah on Yom Kippur, collecting 160 bags of food for the hungry.
In fact, the number of hungry in Bergen County continues to grow, said Adina Yacoub, assistant administrative supervisor for the Bergen County Board of Social Services, who estimates the increase in requests for assistance at 22 percent.
“Since September, CFA has been experiencing an unprecedented 40 percent increase in new clients – five to seven new clients a day who are coming for emergency food packages to feed their families,” said Jennifer Rothman, CFA’s coordinator of community affairs.
“CFA sees the sweeping economic crisis as a major reason so many more people need help, many of whom are shocked that their financial situation has deteriorated to the point that they require help from an emergency food pantry. And for those who were already struggling, their situation is even more devastating,” she said, noting that local synagogues are among the groups working to alleviate the current crisis.
According to Rothman, congregations conducting holiday food drives for the center include the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel, the JCCP in Paramus, Temple Sinai in Tenafly, Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Temple Beth El in Closter, Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia, Temple Bnai Israel in Emerson, and Teaneck congregations Temple Beth Am, Temple Emeth, Temple Beth Sholom, and the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
The center has been struggling for the last several years to balance food donations with the steady increase in need, said Rothman.
“All of that pales, however, in comparison to what we are experiencing now,” she said, pointing out that CFA’s homelessness prevention program is also feeling the strain of a struggling economy.
“Every year this program helps about 1,000 families stay in their homes and/or keep their heat and electric from being turned off, but this year the number of people calling for help has accelerated to the point that those in need are now being turned away or asked to call back next month, ” she said.