The weeks leading up to Pesach are often filled with fragrant aromas emanating from homes, as delectable dishes are prepared for the holiday festivities. But many families struggle to put food on their tables. This year, a long list of organizations, individuals, and synagogues took on the plight of food insecurity plaguing our community and went above and beyond to ease the financial burdens on families ahead of the holiday. I was privileged to personally visit an array of food pantries, meet and greet clients, and interact and assist volunteers on their mission to feed the hungry. I also spoke with other community leaders who operated noteworthy food distributions. I encourage our readership to submit Letters to the Editor that highlight additional Pesach food drives.
My first visit was on the morning of Wednesday, March 17, at Commonpoint Queens, a Forest Hills-based pantry that had a distribution widely sponsored by Met Council. There, I was greeted by Jhadran (Jay) Rojas, the food pantry coordinator, who explained, “It is a fantastic feeling to help the community,” as he showed the makeup of the packages that included essentials from apples to eggs and matzah. “Right now, we are seeing an increase because of Passover,” Rojas noted, as he pointed to a line that stretched around the corner. “We serve 100 families daily and have extended our hours.” On Monday and Wednesday, the pantry’s hours are 11-2 and 3-6, while on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays the pantry operates 10-2. Rojas was quite thankful for the work of Met Council, and was encouraged by a political delegation that arrived earlier in the day featuring the local outgoing Council Member Karen Koslowitz amongst some of her potential replacements, including Avi Cyperstein and Lynn Schulman. Another wonderful gesture of Commonpoint Queens is their garden, where they grow fruit and vegetables that go to help those who are hungry in the community.
During several of my visits, I encountered Cyperstein, a City Council candidate for District 29. I found it comforting to see a candidate hard at work at each site serving the constituents he hopes to represent one day. “After visiting and assisting over a dozen Passover food distributions, it is clear that funding for food pantries must be increased,” he explained privately to our publication. “It is heartbreaking to see how many people rely on the needs of the food pantries yet at the same time it’s inspiring and incredible to see how many busy and active food pantries are serving the needs of the community, not just around Passover, but every day throughout the year.”
Later in the day, I joined another local effort – at the Young Israel of Forest Hills Senior League – where I watched as mostly elderly individuals arrived for a drive-by pickup of quality Pesach necessities. Hindy Chanales has cheerfully been spearheading the programs at this location, servicing the needs of over 200 households, feeding roughly 400 individuals. “We provide a very important service for the neighborhood,” Chanales noted, as she recalled some of the Holocaust survivors, veterans, and former businesspeople who frequent her center. “I am extremely happy to be a vital resource for the local senior community,” she added. Here, I also found Cyperstein hard at work loading cars and assisting those who came by for food. Also present was community leader Simon Sebag and Gabriel Kesten. Kesten, a Queens College senior and Hillcrest resident, was excited to partake in his first distribution together with Met Council, and give back to the Jewish community that nurtured him at both the Young Israel of Hillcrest and at the Torah Center of Hillcrest. “Part of the Pesach holiday is having the willingness to give back to the community,” said Kesten, as he carried a pair of bags to the trunk of a nearby car. “I am pleased to be part of a distribution that ensures the community-at-large is able to have healthful food for their families over the chag.”
On Sunday, March 21, Tomchei Shabbos of Queens (TSQ) held its extensive food distribution, where volunteer community members picked up large amounts of holiday essentials in their personal vehicles to deliver to families in need of a pre-Yom Tov boost. Since he was a youth, Eliyahu Love, a Chaverim of Queens dispatch coordinator and resident of Kew Gardens, has regularly dedicated his time to TSQ. When asked what brings him back each week, Love explained, “Over the years, we have overcome our share of challenges at Tomchei and created an efficient system. I return each week to see the faces of clients we help and know that we make a difference in their lives.” As we discussed the increase of food insecurity since COVID, Love added, “The families who receive these parcels truly need the items to sustain their families. It is a special joy to make their Yom Tov come alive.” Aron and his father Isaac have run the site since its inception. When asked about TSQ’s pandemic response, Aron responded confidently, “We have not missed a single distribution through COVID,” adding, “Our volunteer base has been just as strong as always – if not even better.” When asked why he believes that the public responds so boldly, Aron explained, “Our community sees that the need is great. The desire to help our struggling neighbors encourages the community to understand the plight and come out in force to serve.”
I asked Isaac to discuss the past year a bit more in depth. “In retrospect, we were a bit apprehensive as to how to tackle COVID,” began Mr. Katz. “Last year, our older volunteers were quarantined at home and we also needed to use our main facility here in Kew Gardens for the distribution. We were not able to use Union Plaza Care Center for the distribution due to COVID, and again this year we needed to construct an extra-large tent beside the standing structure. We succeeded last year and, although we are not back to normal just yet, with Hashem’s help we were able to function quite a bit more easily.” Mr. Katz also noted that there were three shifts for pickups for the Pesach distribution instead of one major distribution. Isaac also took a moment to describe the unfortunate change of demographics. “We now see more middle-class families who have been pushed to the wall with the COVID aftermath. These families would not have taken food in the past, but they are now here for the basics, like chicken, potatoes, and other vegetables, giving them access to more disposable income.”
Mr. Katz also discussed how volunteerism has evolved over the last four decades. “Hashem makes it appear that He needs us to get z’chuyos. Many of our volunteers are second generation and often come with their parents to assist. It becomes second nature to our volunteers to become involved in chesed projects and devote their lives to good deeds,” said Katz.
Shimi Pelman, the president of TSQ, arranged for many of our local politicians and candidates for office to attend the distribution and see the holy work of the organization. Some of the high-ranking notables included Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, US Representatives Gregory Meeks and Grace Meng, along with her Jewish liaison Rabbi Daniel Pollack, New York State Senator Joseph Addabbo, Council Members James Gennaro and Barry Grodenchik, Assembly Member Daniel Rosenthal, Mayoral Candidate Ray McGuire, community leaders Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, Sorolle Idels, Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, Yaakov Serle, and David Steinberg. Other candidates for office included Avi Cyperstein, Linda Lee, and Lynn Schulman. A tremendous amount of appreciation is also extended to David Greenfield of Met Council and his director for governmental affairs Aron Cyperstein for their efforts.
Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov of the Kehilat Food Pantry in Kew Gardens Hills explained ahead of the holiday, “This will be a festive Pesach, unlike last year when we were separated from our families. We will now be able to sit together as a complete family and rejoice.” The rabbi noted that Kehilat served over 3,000 families and fed nearly 20,000 mouths this holiday season. On my visit to the facility, I found a staff hard at work doing their utmost to provide for the needs of the families lined around the corner of the shul that houses this vital lifeline.
Rabbi Nachum Kaziev, at the helm of Ohr Natan’s food pantry in Rego Park for over a quarter century, is recognized as the pioneer of food distribution in the area. “Twenty-five years ago, we saw the need to feed the hungry and have remained a source of sustenance for the needy and elderly,” said Rabbi Kaziev. “No question, we now are seeing more families seeking our services,” added the rabbi when asked if this season’s distribution differed from the past. “It means a lot for us to distribute before Pesach especially for Holocaust survivors and immigrants who came to America seeking freedom and were denied the ability to celebrate in the former Soviet Union,” said the rabbi, adding, “One could be sent to Siberia just for uttering the words l’shanah ha’ba’ah!” The rabbi detailed how Jews in the Soviet Union feared going to shul and had no leaders or rabbis to turn to for advice. “To be able to move around freely means the world to one who was once confined. People tend to forget the past, including 70 years of torture under the KGB, but with liberation came the ability to celebrate a Yom Tov according to proper traditions, and for this we are grateful to help provide to our community.”
The Chabad movement uses the time of the holidays to connect more deeply with Jews. Rabbi Mendy Hecht of the Chabad of Forest Hills North spent time explaining the concepts that he is involved with that often go unnoticed by the public. In years past, his family would host a vibrant Pesach Seder, but with many still confined at home, a special Seder kit was offered to provide everything one needs to conduct his own traditional Seder. With more families now willing to attend a live Seder – as opposed to last year – Rabbi Hecht offered an enchanting journey for those interested in attending one of his Sedarim. “This year, as things hopefully are easing up and people are yearning for a community Seder, we decided to make two community Sedarim, safely, to make up for last year when we could not conduct one. In better years, we would only do one community Seder,” said Hecht.
Additionally, the rabbi arranged for food boxes, always giving a helping hand to those in need. “Our Seder kits are simply gorgeous, along with their customized, printed Haggados, plus kids’ and teens’ games. For those unable to pay, we provided the kits free of charge,” said Rabbi Hecht. The rabbi also mentioned the advocacy of Rabbi Mordechai Hecht of Anshe Sholom Chabad JCC, where he sent those struggling with food insecurity. At the Abingdon Road location in Kew Gardens, there was a large distribution of poultry and meats to ease Yom Tov’s financial constraints. “We here at Chabad take on the task of distributing matzos to hundreds of Jews who may not otherwise have proper matzah for their meals. We gave out beautiful handmade shmurah matzah gift boxes with a beautifully designed guide, specially made for our Chabad, with nice articles about the holiday, times, halachic requirements, and our Pesach events. This way, every Jew, no matter where he or she holds in life can enjoy the Seder with handmade matzah and know a little better how to observe,” said Hecht.
For 17 years, the Eduard Nektalov Memorial Foundation has worked to commemorate the legacy of Mr. Eduard Nektalov a”h, who was taken from this world in his prime. “My brother was recognized as a social activist, a key philanthropist, and a benefactor for all facets of the Bukharian community here in Queens, and back home in Uzbekistan and its capital city of Tashkent,” said Leon Nektalov exclusively to the Queens Jewish Link at a Forest Hills pre-Pesach distribution in Eduard’s memory. The late Nektalov’s vision was always to provide for Jewish causes and the Foundation in his name continues this mantra. “Today, the Foundation continues a sponsorship that allows for a rabbi and worshippers to gather in the synagogue in Tashkent,” said Leon, adding, “It brings the Bukharian community comfort knowing that there is a daily minyan in our hometown of Uzbekistan.”
Leon also related that he serves as the president of a group that acts as a united front for Bukharian organizations, and through this position he hopes to always advocate with the foresight his brother had for united world Bukharian Jewry. Between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23, The Eduard Nektalov Memorial Foundation distributed roughly 1,200 parcels, including meat, chicken, grape juice, eggs, and more for families in need ahead of Pesach. “This distribution is in line with my brother’s desire to help his community. He was the premier definition of a community leader who helped his brethren in getting jobs, finding apartments, and often signed affidavits of support when nobody else would step up. Others’ problems were his problems, as were the needs for the Land of Israel,” said Leon. The Nektalovs deserve much appreciation from the community for continuing this tribute, and hope to do much more for the community in the coming years.
Finally, I was present at the Masbia of Queens’ 24-hour “breadline” that was open for the first time ever during the week of Pesach, remaining as a “matzah line” for this unique period. Tractor-trailers delivering pallets of fruits and vegetables, among every other necessity, are common sights for its pantry’s neighbors just off 108th Street in Forest Hills. Alexander Rapaport, its executive director, noted, “There has been a 500 percent increase in demand, and our operations are a 24-hour process.” The pantry uses the services of private donors as well as City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City, and other resources. Their Queens site was visited by mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia, a former NYC sanitation commissioner. During her visit, which included Assembly Member and Chair of Task Force Food, Farm, and Nutrition Policy Chair Daniel Rosenthal, Garcia detailed her plans to expand the City’s SNAP assistance program. Together they distributed New York-harvested eggs among other items to bring help and nourishment to families in Queens. Masbia conducted a Charoses Drive that brought in vital funds to keep operations going.
On a post-Yom Tov call, Cyperstein explained the gravity of the situation, “Even with the many food pantries offering food pickup options, many are unable to leave their homes, and I received calls from organizations like Project LEAD asking me to deliver packages to home-bound Holocaust survivors.” Project LEAD, under Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, also led a Met Council-sponsored distribution in the area. “An hour before Passover, a woman from Forest Hills called saying her Passover plans fell through,” said Cyperstein. “Imagine, she was alone without food! I contacted Rabbi Mendy Hecht of Chabad of Forest Hills North, and as the hour was late, he himself walked over with a full seder-in-a-box and hand-delivered it to the woman.” A Facebook message later revealed that this was her best Passover ever.
By Shabsie Saphirstein