For many, the end of the most contentious election in modern history signals a new beginning. The best way to start over is being nourished both spiritually and physically. Throughout the pandemic, the Kehilat Sephardim Food Pantry went above and beyond to arrange food distributions that in turn eased the financial burdens on literally thousands of local families by providing essential items during times of misfortune.

Rabbi Dovid Meisels elaborates on this concept in Seudah Secrets: The Significance and Spirituality of Traditional Jewish Foods: “‘Chazal say that a person should see himself as if he is half guilty and half meritorious. If he performs one mitzvah, he should be happy, because he tipped the scales of judgment to his favor. Therefore, one should run to do a mitzvah’ (Kiddushin 40b). The sages further elaborate that one should see the entire world as half guilty and half meritorious, and his good deed could be the pivotal act that tips the scales in favor of good.”

Considering this concept, one should be exceedingly zealous to grab any opportunity for a mitzvah, and donating to the poor acts as both a redemption for one’s own misdeeds and that of his household highlighting one’s noteworthy character traits.

The Kehilat Sephardim Food Pantry operates out of the 153rd Street and 78th Road synagogue, Kehilat Sephardim of Ahavat Achim, under the leadership of Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov. “The current situation has made us become stronger, and we realized what is important in life,” explained the rabbi. A couple of months back, due to the burdens of COVID-19, Kosher Response, under the direction of Queens native Gabriel Boxer, aka the Kosher Guru, brought his famed Produce Fest to Kew Gardens Hills as a free community-wide service. The Chazaq organization, which has extensive knowledge in food pantry operations, was solicited to make the connection to a local source to lead the distribution. Rabbi Nisanov readily agreed, and so began a wonderful partnership that brought 26 pallets – valued at over $50,000 – of farm-fresh produce, serving 1,400 families on the first tractor-trailer drop-off; similar drop-offs followed.

“Kosher Response has been at the forefront of helping families since the start of this pandemic. It has been the mission of Kosher Response to help anyone within their reach,” explained Boxer. “Helping the community where I grew up means a lot and was a true honor.”

The Kehilat Pantry, which launched in 1990 serving 50 families, has blossomed into the fourth largest food pantry in the United States, disbursing packages for 30,000 individuals monthly. During 2020, distribution amounts tripled previous years, rising from 750 pounds of food to a whopping three million pounds, by the High Holidays. Tractor-trailers and the use of the pantry’s own forklift have become a common sight on this special corner, with deliveries from Met Council, City Harvest, and CFAB. The need grew to a point where deliveries are near-daily, and a five-day-a-week schedule was devised to avoid lines snaking around the corner, some coming at 5-6 a.m. prior to opening. Some weeks can see well over 30 pallets being dropped off. “We were giving out food faster than people can grab, and had devised an expedited line for essential workers, those with children, and frail patrons,” explained Rabbi Nisanov. “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, loving thy neighbor, has always been a central theme for Kehilat. It is our goal to eliminate the waiting period and get the food to the people as fast as possible.” To keep in line with COVID restrictions, those registering can give their information outdoors instead of entering the office.

Around Pesach, Mayor Bill de Blasio heard of Kehilat’s efforts for the community and called Rabbi Nisanov to issue a congratulations message. “Great job!” the rabbi recalled the mayor saying, as he encouraged the good work of Kehilat to continue. At the height of the pandemic, the vast volunteer-based pantry remained open to serve the community. New York Cares, a program that sends helpers, eases the burdens of the pantry sending roughly 300 volunteers a month, 10-15 each day that the pantry operates. Truck drivers are, as well, impressed with the swiftness of the program and how quickly trucks get unloaded – usually within 45 minutes. Simultaneously, the volunteers and shoppers are prepared with shopping carts in hand as the distribution commences. Aron’s Kissena Farms and Key Food were kind enough to donate shopping carts, while Coca-Cola sent over outdoor umbrellas. The pantry offers chalav Yisrael options and operates under a grab-and-go system.

Matthew Seifman, the volunteer coordinator at Kehilat, offered a deeper vision. “Our pantry is run entirely by local volunteers, along with partnerships from HASC Center, Queens Center for Progress, and Lemontree Foods.” Seifman went on to elaborate on the coordination efforts with the partners and the unifying efforts needed for a successful and productive worksite.

Rabbi Nisanov always set out to make a difference and be an example of a kiddush Hashem for the immigrants of our community. “Every challenge is an opportunity to grow or shrink. During the pandemic, the synagogue was shut down, but the food pantry, an outdoor donation-based project, remained in operation with the numbers jumping sky high. The program continued to make a lasting impact on the entire community,” continued Rabbi Nisanov. “I feel that, through challenges, you see the best of people. I want the goodness of mankind to shine through and I want to make sure that my children see this beauty.” To this end, Gedaliah, Rabbi Nisanov’s son, noted, “Watching the trucks that arrive and the pallets they unload, and seeing how many people my father can feed is astonishing. It amazes me.” Rabbi Nisanov continued, “Nobody is born to hate people; one is taught to hate. If you smile at any child, he will smile back.”

The rabbi’s mother mentioned how nobody can stop her son, Rabbi Shlomo. “Today our atmosphere is not so good overall, it is not easy,” observed Mrs. Nisanov, as she recalled the passing of a close family member who succumbed to COVID, “but the best human characteristic is to share and help those in need.” The matriarch delivered another everlasting message. “We are each put on Earth to leave a legacy and strive to make the world a better place; this is interminable.”

Like many of the residents they serve, the Nisanov family members are immigrants to the United States and have a unique appreciation for diversity. Young Gedalia expressed these ideals most poignantly: “It doesn’t matter what color you are or what religion you practice; we are all together as New Yorkers.” His father went further: “When you have everyone coming together – Muslims, Christians, and Jews – people who do not believe in anything, or people who do believe in everything, working in unison demonstrates a renewed vigor and inspiration in us all.

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By Shabsie Saphirstein