Jewish leaders and yeshiva students visited county facilities and a soup kitchen, delivering tzedaka and gathering tips on how best to fight hunger in Middlesex County.
The Jan. 6 event, featuring leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and students from Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River, was the latest in an interfaith initiative on hunger launched one year ago.
The delegation visited the Middlesex County Food Organization and Outreach Distribution Services and the Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen, both in New Brunswick. At each location they presented a $500 donation from the federation.
The funds came from a $4,000 matching grant received by federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council from the National Confronting Poverty Initiative of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. The funds were also used to launch, with Christian and Muslim groups, a liaison effort focusing on hunger issues, which kicked off with a Passover/Easter food drive and followed up with strategy sessions with food pantries, soup kitchens, and religious organizations.
On Jan. 28, the federation will conduct similar visits and present checks at the Jewish Family and Vocational Service of Middlesex County in Milltown and the offices of Women Aware, which runs the county’s only shelter for domestic violence victims.
“We’re here to learn how we can have a greater impact,” said JCRC director Gabriela Sadote Sleppin as the group huddled in a cold warehouse at MCFOODS. Volunteers sorted through crates of nonperishable food, placing them in bins for pick-up.
MAYHS community relations director Melissa Kohn Rosen said student participants were selected for their leadership roles and interest in service.
“We are here to learn about what we can do about hunger in Middlesex County,” she said.
“We know it’s a big hesed to be here and help other people and families,” said Ilanna Price, a junior from East Brunswick. “It’s just an awesome feeling to be able to help others. It’s also great to represent our school and hopefully encourage others to volunteer at soup kitchens and food pantries.”
Philip Langer, an East Brunswick senior, said the students were also glad to be part of the federation’s efforts.
“From a different angle, it’s also great to help federation because it does so much for our school,” he said.
MCFOODS coordinator Jennifer Apostol told the group that her facility, which is under the auspices of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and county improvement authority, serves food pantries, senior citizen nutrition sites, and soup kitchens.
“The needs have grown significantly,” said Apostol. “Two years ago we averaged 25 agencies each week. Over the summer the demand increased. One week we had 45 agencies and now are averaging 35 to 40 agencies each week. We’re really struggling to keep up.”
At Elijah’s Promise, development and community relations director Michelle Wilson said the facility supplies about 100,000 meals annually. It also operates social services and a health clinic, culinary school, and a catering business. It is currently coping with a 22 percent increase in demand for meals, including from the working poor.
“Some of these folks just can’t make ends meet,” she said. “After they pay the rent, there’s no money left for food.”
Director Lisanne Finston told the group that one of every five people in the state now lives in poverty and “middle income is now the new low income.”
In response to a question from a MAYHS student, Wilson said the agency doesn’t ask clients to document their need. “People are really embarrassed they have to come in here and ask for a free meal,” she said.
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, who accompanied the group, said the organization was working at the state and national levels with other organizations to address hunger and poverty issues.
“We are looking to be supportive,” he said, “and help with networking and making connections in Trenton.”