On Thanksgiving, Jewish soup kitchen plans to feed the hungry with turkey and cholent

Bulk budget comes from newlyweds who sponsor meals so the poor can share in their simcha.

soup kitchen 88 (photo credit: )
soup kitchen 88
(photo credit: )
The hungry will not go without turkey on Thanksgiving, as soup kitchens muster up all their resources to provide for them on a night when, traditionally, Americans give thanks by helping those in need. Though not a well-celebrated holiday among the haredim, come Thursday night, Masbia - a soup kitchen that serves hot meals five nights a week in the heart of Borough Park - will also partake in the festivities. The mixed crowd the soup kitchen attracts - ultra-Orthodox and non-Jew alike - will get a taste of two traditions, side by side. Thursday's menu will include a serving of turkey and cholent, as part of a four-course meal planned to begin with coleslaw and pickles and end with dessert. Weeks in advance, Jews were already calling Masbia, looking to volunteer at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving - a holiday many use as an opportunity to thank God and give back to the community. This year, food pantries can use all the help they can get, as shortages have reached an all-time high. The scarcity has been caused by steady cuts to a federal food program over the last five years, combined with growing demand. The New York City Food Bank's warehouse stock is depleted to three million pounds of food - down from its usual eight - and everyone is feeling the pinch, including the Jewish community, where poverty is on the rise. About 25 percent of the 1.4 million Jews in the five boroughs of New York - roughly 348,000 - live near or below the poverty line, according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Met Council, the largest Jewish food pantry network in the country, receives a large chunk of the 4.5 million pounds it distributes annually from the Food Bank. This year, the council is already dipping into Pessah reserves to meet the current needs, food program director Benny Wechsler said. For Thanksgiving, Met Council distributed 400 turkeys, far below the expected demand. "I've always been a firm believer that the Pilgrims should have eaten hot dogs instead of turkey. It's easier to prepare and distribute, and much less expensive," said Wechsler. Masbia's founders witness the growing poverty daily. Not a week goes by when Alexander Rapaport, who co-founded Masbia with Mordechai Mandelbaum, doesn't see a member of his community searching through the garbage bins. On its opening night two-and-a-half years ago, Masbia served eight meals. Today, it serves 160 dinners a day. To meet their $500,000 annual budget, Masbia, which does not receive steady government funding, has come to depend on a daily spirit of "thanksgiving." The founders have found a way to resurrect an "old world" ritual and at the same time ensure that the supply at Masbia never dries up. Today, most of their annual budget comes from newlyweds and their parents, who thank God by sponsoring a meal at the soup kitchen in the days before the wedding celebration. "The most appropriate thing to do before my wedding was to pay for a hot meal," said Meir Neuman, who got married less than a week ago. "This is the way to give gratitude to God and let the poor join in my simcha." To sponsor an entire night costs $960, or roughly $6 a meal. The tradition dates back to the "old world," where the custom was to sponsor a "poor man's meal" in the days before the wedding. The Talmud and Midrash relate stories in which giving to the poor at the time of the wedding saves the couple from potential danger. What evolved was a tradition of giving to the less-fortunate as part of the pre-wedding ritual. "When Europe was still a bustling Jewish center, everyone made a 'poor man's wedding' for poor people to have good meal," said Neuman. In America, that tradition largely faded. But Masbia has found a way to bring it back into style. "If tomorrow will be the day I rejoice the most, at least let others less fortunate rejoice with me," said Neuman, who came to Masbia dressed in his wedding garb. "[At] my wedding, I spend time with my family and friends, but at Masbia, I am with klal yisrael [the Jewish people]." Recently, a man visiting from Israel came to eat at Masbia. He came alone, but behind him, a family with small children sat down to eat. "I couldn't believe what I found here. I never saw it in Israel or anywhere in the world," he said. "Haredim and non-haredim eat together, goyim [and] not-goyim, everyone eats in harmony." Come Thanksgiving, he said, "we will all celebrate here together."