|Rabbi Avi Weiss reads Torah in Afghanistan. Troops there receive packages from Koshertroops. courtesy sara fuerst|
Four years ago, helping her daughter choose a chesed project for her bat mitzvah, Rockland County resident Sara Fuerst got an idea.
“It was the month before Purim, and we were thinking that maybe we could send mishloach manot to Jewish soldiers,” she said.
Through calls to the Jewish Welfare Board, West Point, and other military installations, she was able to gather 150 names. With the help of friends and family, the Fuersts packaged and sent the Purim goodies ““ but before they knew it, it was almost Pesach.
“We got such a positive response from the soldiers and from those who helped with the project that we decided to continue it,” Fuerst said. Then, of course, once they sent packages for Pesach, it only made sense to send them for Shavuot as well.
Today, the project – a joint effort of Fuerst and her friend and neighbor Ava Hamburger – is formally dubbed Koshertroops and incorporated as a nonprofit enterprise. It serves some 400 troops. With the mantra “supporting our troops one package at a time,” Koshertroops already has mailed out tens of thousands of holiday packages.
“We work with a lot of different organizations throughout the country that do the same kind of work, but there aren’t many and they aren’t very big,” Fuerst said. She’s also in constant contact with military chaplains and with individual soldiers.
The soldiers move around, she said, so it’s important to stay in touch with them on a regular basis. Sometimes – when they’re stationed in a remote place “and it’s not their priority to stay on the computer” – she doesn’t hear from them for some time.
Koshertroops sends out big packages for each of the Jewish holidays, and it also mails out weekly Shabbat packages. Since its mailing list has grown so large, it can only do this on a rotating basis, including any new names gleaned during the previous week.
“Or we may get a special request, like from a chaplain who says he needs challah for that Shabbat,” Fuerst said.
“We have plenty of people who contact us saying they’ll be deployed next week and to put them on the list, or they may already be in Afghanistan and Iraq and hear about us through word of mouth or from our website.” (The website is koshertroops.com.)
For the most part, food is donated by such companies as Osem, Kedem, Manischewitz, and Streits. Abeles & Heymann provides salami, said Fuerst, while Joburg from South Africa contributes dried beef. In addition, the group receives weekly donations from the Challah Fairy bakery in New City, New York.
Youngsters get involved as well.
“The children write letters,” said Fuerst, whether from schools in New Jersey, camps in New York, or synagogues in Ohio. She pointed out that students at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus have written to the troops.
“We send to everyone who asks us for kosher food,” she said. This Passover alone, Koshertroops mailed out about 800 parcels. “Just picture a two-car garage full of food.”
“We even send pots and pans,” she added, “or coffeemakers, popcorn poppers, or hotplates.”
While many items are donated – or donors cover the cost of these goods – on occasion Fuerst has to buy the requested supplies.
One way Koshertroops raises money is by selling Rosh Hashanah cards.
“People can go to our website to buy the cards,” Fuerst said, adding that the group’s web page also contains thank-you letters from soldiers as well as photos they have sent from the field.
The list, she said, continues to grow.
“It’s changed on the local end,” she said. “We had requests from local bases in Oklahoma and North Carolina to help them with Passover and even with Shabbat.” Fuerst said it was important to keep in touch with these bases because the soldiers there eventually will be deployed overseas.
“We also hold two Shabbatons a year, inviting West Point cadets to our community,” she said. “Two of the cadets have since graduated and been deployed.”
“Everybody should be involved in thanking our troops for what they do for the whole country,” Fuerst said. She noted that packages sent to Jewish soldiers are inevitably “shared with buddies. We get beautiful letters from non-Jewish soldiers thanking us for sharing our holiday customs. And they like the food.”