|Yitzi Rothschild, packing boxes, is a longtime Tomchei Shabbos volunteer. He and Ari Kirscher are honored with the Young Leadership Award at the virtual dinner; they join adult honorees Carol and Danny Metzger, Shelly and Noam Sokolow, and Debbie and Bernie Thau.|
He may live amid the swanky homes and luxury cars of affluent Bergen County, but Steve Gutlove has firsthand knowledge of the financial troubles that can be hidden within the picture-perfect faÃ§ade.
As a coordinator of deliveries for Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County, Gutlove encounters sad stories every week: The once-comfortable families now struggling to stay afloat after one or both parents lost their jobs or suffered an illness; the elderly and disabled who require full-time care; the refugees from Russia and other countries who couldn’t hold onto a job.
The recession has only made things more challenging for all of them.
The poverty rate in Bergen County increased 69.2 percent between 1989 and 2011, according to Matthew Adams at the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness Principal Policy in New York.
Even some professionals and college graduates, who never imagined needing financial help, are downsizing or paying for groceries with food stamps.
Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County aids many such families locally. The help takes the form of a weekly care package, filled with enough kosher food for a weekend or holiday, including grape juice, challah, chicken, fish, and eggs. Some of the items were donated by local businesses, but most are paid for by the nonprofit group, which is supported by donations.
Some support also comes from the sale of Purim cards, which are available in some local kosher food stores. The amount this drive raises varies each year, but it is significant for the organization.
“The number of our recipients has grown dramatically over the past few years because of the bad economy,” said Gutlove, a longtime volunteer with the organization. About 200 families now receive help from Tomchei Shabbos each week.
Tomchei Shabbos, which literally means supporters of the Sabbath, is a charity whose goal is to provide food and other supplies to the needy so they can celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays. There are groups called Tomchei Shabbos in Jewish communities across America, although they are not affiliated with one another.
Lori Frank of Teaneck, who founded the Bergen County group with friends in 1990, said the need for Tomchei Shabbos here is something of a surprise among too many people. “We started this because we all wanted to give back in a community where nobody thinks there are those who are unable to feed their families,” she said.
The organization strives to maintain recipients’ anonymity and treat them with dignity, she stressed. “We do everything we can to make sure no one knows who the recipients are. We even make sure the drivers don’t know them personally to avoid embarrassment.”
All recipients must be referred to the organization by synagogues, social workers, or social service agencies.
Although the circumstances in which the volunteers and recipients meet are unfortunate, positive relationships have been forged, Frank said. “Some volunteers visit the recipients if they are hospitalized, invite them to their Pesach seder, and connect with them through their children who help deliver.”
Some people are ashamed to be receiving charity and have little interaction with the volunteers, but others express their gratitude freely. “They write thank you cards and are brought to tears, especially upon receiving the Pesach package, which contains enough food to cover the entire holiday,” she said.
At the core of Tomchei Shabbos are its 150 volunteers, who help pack, drive, and organize the deliveries of food boxes on a weekly basis, Gutlove said, adding that he has delivered hundreds of boxes over the last eight years. He recalls an array of responses to his deliveries, ranging from embarrassment at having to receive charity to utter joy and gratitude. One Fort Lee resident told him he looked forward to it all week, because it was his only kosher food and Jewish companionship.
Many volunteers pack or deliver the boxes with their children, Gutlove said, pointing out that it’s a valuable lesson in tzedakah. “There is a huge difference between teaching children to give tzedaka and actually being part of the process and seeing the smiles on the recipient’s faces, which helps bring it down to a level that a young child can internalize.”
Among the teenage volunteers is Yitzi Rothschild of Teaneck, 15, who began helping when he was a fourth-grader. Now he is one of the mainstays of the Wednesday night shift, loading up cars in the parking lot of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, which is the Tomchei Shabbos pickup point, and dispensing routes and directions to drivers.
“It’s nice that we are helping so many people, but it’s sad seeing all the boxes, knowing that there are so many people needing our help,” Rothschild said. Performing this type of community service is meaningful because he knows his efforts help people directly. “We’re a big community and we should all be able to extend a hand so that no one goes to sleep hungry.”
Avi Mendelson of Teaneck, 17, began volunteering along with his father, Jeff, when he was in seventh grade. He was motivated in part to do it as a chessed project for his bar mitzvah, but he also was inspired by the example of his grandmother, Barbara Mendelson, who was known as such a strong advocate for the poor of St. Louis that the Tomchei Shabbos there was named for her.
Five years later, Mendelson still is spending his Wednesday nights loading up a car with large brown boxes filled with food and delivering to “his families.” Most of the families on his route are the same elderly couples to whom he delivered packages when he started volunteering. A kinship has developed over the years.
“They got to know us and we got to know them,” Mendelson said. “They recognize me and we talk. I enjoy seeing the smiles on their faces, and knowing how appreciative they are that they will have food for Shabbos.”
Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County is holding a virtual fundraising dinner. Contributors can donate funds for dinners; in return, they can get a free dinner at a local restaurant, and, as the invitation points out. “All you’ll be missing are the speeches!” For more information go to the website, tomcheishabbosofbergencounty.org.