New York Affairs: How Wall Street affects Borough Park

For an increasing number of haredi families, the plummeting market means lining up for free food.

soup kitchen 88 (photo credit: )
soup kitchen 88
(photo credit: )
Medium box. I need a large! I have my children to feed, please - please can I have a large box? Sorry. Medium box. That's how it went on a recent Thursday night at the Tomche Shabbos food pantry in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood, one of the several that provide weekly baskets of strictly kosher food to 500 needy haredi families. Jeno Herschkowits, who has run the pantry since 1975, says supplicants have gotten noticeably edgier in recent months, as people who were narrowly avoiding ruin before this fall's stock market crash find themselves slipping over the brink, now that the American consumer economy has ground to a near halt. "People are desperate; they get aggressive," he said. "And there are more people, but less money." Evidence of pain is everywhere, from deep discounts at chain stores - as much as 60 percent off fall merchandise, that began weeks before the traditional Thanksgiving sales - to empty restaurants and upticks in late-night subway ridership by those who might previously have splurged on cabs. But in New York's haredi neighborhoods, where most families subsist on a single income, the strain shows up in weekly debates over "small," "medium" or "large." A WEEK ago, New York exploded with euphoria after the historic landslide election of Barack Obama to the presidency on promises of bringing change, and hope, to America. Now, his transition team is already racing to craft plans for his first weeks in office, among them a $175 billion stimulus package that would include extended unemployment benefits and food assistance. But inauguration is still 68 days away, and in the meantime, financial markets are continuing their downward spiral, with Bush administration officials taking steps to make bailout money available to credit-card and student-loan companies, in hopes of keeping cash flowing into consumers' wallets. Investors have responded to the apparent uncertainty over how to spend the $700 billion in bailout funds, driving the Dow Jones industrial average down another 400 points on Wednesday alone. That, in turn, threatens to empty state coffers of much-needed tax revenue next year. New York State officials are already bickering over a proposed $5 billion in education and health-care cuts to close a yawning budget deficit, stoking concerns that food-stamp programs might be next on the chopping block. Private charities say that if that happens, they will be ill-prepared to make up the difference, because donations have dried up, and fund-raisers are working overtime just to get donors to satisfy their current pledges, let alone worry about those to come next year. "We lost one donor who used to give us $400 a week," said Alexander Rapaport, whose Masbia kosher soup kitchen provides about 160 meals a day, prepared by a caterer at a local school. He said he has taken out advertising on local radio stations citing this week's Torah portion - on Sodom and Gomorrah - to inspire donations. While Masbia qualifies for some government grant programs, the organization's strict observance of kosher standards means he can't make use of many restaurant or overstock giveaways available for those following more relaxed codes. Pantries that follow looser restrictions said they had seen a spike in requests from non-Jews, along with more Jews asking for help. One, the Oneg Shabbos pantry - run by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch and his wife, Pe'er - has installed a fence along the sidewalk to protect bags of carrots and potatoes waiting to be packed in with containers of Sabra-brand feta cheese and other goodies for people who wait in a line snaking up the block. "We're seeing families who never in their lives thought they would have to ask for food," Pe'er Deutsch told The Jerusalem Post. "The thing about us is that we pack it into boxes, and it looks like groceries - people know they can come here and the kids never have to know." LEADERS OF haredi organizations understand the irony of their constituents - most of whom backed Republican presidential candidate John McCain - waiting for a rescue from the incoming Obama administration. "Our man always wins," said Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America, winking. He said his organization, which has a staffer taking calls for assistance from the newly jobless or helpless, has always been able to work with both political parties, even if "people on the ground" disagree with one side or the other. So, he said, there is hope. But with the first cold snap, the clock is already ticking.