Thursday, May 6, 2021

We All Need One Another

Sometimes he walks four miles on Shabbos to make appeals for Tomche Shabbos at various shuls in Rockland County. What propels him to make such long treks? Visions of Mo (names have been changed), who lived in a beat-up van for over a year, driving around with no destination, until he was found by Tomche Shabbos. Visions of another family, a mother and daughter duo with a story of their own. One day Mr. Rosenstock received a phone call from the manager of a supermarket. A young girl was trying to check out, but her family’s account was over the limit. The manager didn’t know how to handle it. Clearly, the family needed food. In fact, the mother was waiting in the car, hoping and praying they wouldn’t turn her daughter away.

As Mr. Rosenstock recalled, “We put the family on our Tomche Shabbos list and helped the mother find a job. Today, when I go to make an appeal for Tomche Shabbos, this mother and daughter are among the success stories I share.”

When Mr. Rosenstock gets up to make his appeal, he delivers a powerful message straight from his heart. “I’m not here to raise money,” he says, “but to raise awareness. The need for help has never been greater. Everyone here has something they are good at, something they can do to help another Yid. Only you know what your strengths are and how you can rise to the challenge.”

Chances are, most families in the Rockland County area know of at least one (and probably many more) families who are literally choking from financial pressure. Klal Yisroel is enjoying unprecedented affluence. Boruch Hashem, many families own multiple homes, are able to go on lavish vacations and can make simchos in style. At the same time, the number of families whose homes are in foreclosure and whose refrigerators are empty keeps growing.

Though Tomche Shabbos has been in existence for 42 years, since its founding in 1973, the need has never been greater. A generation ago, a ba’alebos earning an average salary was able to easily afford rent, food, utilities, and other expenses, and marry off his children without going into debt. Today, only the top tier earners can achieve this privilege.

As Mr. Rosenstock explains, “Today, even homes where both parents work are struggling to make ends meet. The rising costs of housing, tuition, food and other expenses put many middle-class families into the red. Just buying food for Shabbos or paying the electric bill is cause for panic. We aren’t even talking about single-parent families, or situations where the breadwinner is out of a job or other special circumstances.”

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Moskowitz adds, “We are seeing situations that we’ve never seen before. People are being evicted from their apartments, forced to sell their furniture or to literally go hungry.”

Those who help Tomche Shabbos are not only supporting their next-door neighbors and relatives, but also themselves. As Rabi Akiva taught us, Hashem sends aniyim into this world so that we could help them and thereby be saved from gehinom, like a “Get out of Jail Free” card.

**

Last Thursday evening, I had the privilege of visiting the spacious Tomche Shabbos warehouse on Spook Rock Road in Tallman, where a staggering 490 weekly Shabbos packages are boxed and prepared for delivery. An aura of chizuk and unity pervaded the warehouse. The volunteers, who span the gamut from chassidishe yungeleit to at-risk boys doing community service, from doctors and lawyers to those out of work, toil efficiently, assembly-line style, relying on one another. Many of those doing community service keep coming back even after their service hours are completed. As one volunteer quipped, “It’s addictive.” Piping hot trays of kugel and cholent are available for sampling, but that’s not reason enough to summon these volunteers from the comforts of their homes and routines, week after week.

As Mr. Rosenstock so beautifully explains, “Everyone who comes to help Tomche Shabbos has their own reasons for being there, week after week. It’s not something we talk about. It’s just there. All of Klal Yisroel needs one another. We are each given unique kochos and the ability to help our brothers and sisters with our own talents.”

Over twenty-five years ago, my husband, who was a bochur learning in Rav Moshe Green’s yeshiva, would volunteer on Thursday nights at the Tomche Shabbos packing station, then located on Maple Avenue. The organization was well smaller, but the premise was the same. After so many years, I marveled at how the process was streamlined down to a science.

The process begins promptly at 8:30 as the volunteers start neatly packing the nonperishables, then the breads, produce, milk items and meats into the waiting boxes. (The boxes are opened, labeled and prepped on Wednesday nights by a group of dedicated high school girls.) Each family’s order contains a medley of fresh chicken, fruits and vegetables, grape juice, eggs, challos, canned goods, and everything a family needs to be sustained over the weekend and beyond. Special instructions are written on many of the labels, such as “no challah,” or “two packages of eggs,” or perhaps, “doesn’t need chicken,” based on each family’s requirements.

One of the volunteers explained the system as follows. There are various sizes of packages: small, medium, large and extra-large, for especially large families of ten members or more. The labels on each box describe the box’s size and contents and are numbered instead of named, to preserve the privacy of the recipients.

The boxes are also labeled according to routes, with numbers used instead of names and addresses. The route was drawn up with great care and precision so that no driver should deliver Shabbos packages in his own neighborhood and cause discomfort to his neighbors. Confidentiality is key at Tomche Shabbos. After the hundreds of boxes are filled and taped shut, at around 10:30, another crew arrives to take over, hauling the boxes into the delivery truck. Like the pony express, the trucks roll in snow, rain, sleet or heat, never missing a delivery. In fact, during stormy weather they often start their deliveries early, knowing that the families are more desperate.

One of the drivers related the following poignant story: One week he was running late and dropped off his first box at midnight instead of 11 p.m. As he was about to leave, he heard a child’s voice at the door, saying, “Mommy, the Shabbos box is here. Can we eat supper now?”

According to Mr. Rosenstock, for over fifty percent of the families receiving these boxes, these are all the groceries they will be living on for the entire week! For various reasons, many of the families don’t qualify for governmental assistance (this is especially true for former business owners who have gone bankrupt), and there simply is not enough money to buy more food.

Tomche Shabbos buys the food at a significant discount, directly from the suppliers, who place bids each week for this privilege. The companies which place the cheapest bids get the business and deliver the food products to the warehouse every week. Tomche Shabbos is funded entirely by donation. The chesed of the Rockland County community is beyond compare.

Mr. Rosenstock once compared two donations he had received that day: one was a three dollar check from a struggling mechanech who couldn’t give more but wanted to do his share. The other was a donation of several thousand dollars given by a generous man, with the provision that it go to his ex-wife and her new husband, who were struggling, but that they shouldn’t know who sent it. “Just reading the letters that accompany the donations and seeing how much people care is a true inspiration,” he recounts.

What about those families who are just about making it, but who could use a little help with their soaring grocery bills? “We have a program called Chodesh Food Outlet, which operates five times a year,” says Mr. Rosenstock. The program, run by two successful businessmen who want to help the community, is trying to expand to a monthly service.

The food outlet sells cases of paper goods, frozen foods, meats, grape juice and other groceries at a significantly reduced rate, about half the price that one would pay in the supermarket. Mr. Rosenstock urges all those who could benefit from this service to take advantage. “This isn’t just for those who have no food to eat; it’s meant for nearly every family who wants to save money. As one rebbetzin who stocked up recently at the food outlet said, ‘It’s zeh neheneh, v’zeh neheneh.’ Since we purchase this food at cost price, we can sell it at cost price and help our brothers and sisters without making a profit. With such a chesed, everyone benefits.”

Each Chanukah, Tomche Shabbos distributes toys to all the children whose families receive the food packages. The toys are donated by a local store, and the generous owner provides batteries to operate the toys as well!

It is well known that the highest level of tzedokah is helping people stand on their own two feet and be self-sufficient. To this end, Tomche Shabbos runs a successful computer literacy program, teaching computer skills to those in the job market, helping them find jobs that will enable them to be self-sufficient. The classes are held in the Yeshiva Spring Valley girl’s school, where a state-of-the-art computer lab was installed for this purpose. The teachers are all professionals with years of experience, donating hours of their time to help their brothers and sisters.

“We have one teacher who is a busy executive at a large company in Manhattan,” says Mr. Rosenstock. “He comes to the training center straight from the Monsey Trails bus before going home to rest and recharge, and spends over an hour teaching beginners how to use a computer mouse! Another administrator is a successful orthodontist, [and] the registrar is a plumber. It’s Klal Yisroel using our talents to help one another.

“We also run a successful job placement center and just matched up our 158th job! After all, this is our true success. Every Shabbos package we send out is a failure, a sign that the community did not do enough to help this particular family. At the same time, every job we find is another triumph.”

In addition to its job training and placement programs, Tomche Shabbos runs a financial counseling program, teaching people how to budget properly and make a dollar stretch further.

These programs bring truth to the well-known adage, “If you feed a man a fish, you’ fed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.”

**

A breakdown in numbers:

Each year, Tomche Shabbos delivers the following:

  • 10,890 lbs of matzah
  • 153,159 lbs of potatoes
  • 88,765 dozen eggs
  • 72,020 bottles of grape juice
  • 33,578 challos
  • 28,200 loaves of fish
  • 156,786 lbs of chicken

**

Testimonials from families helped through Tomche Shabbos:

This is just a sampling of the hundreds of letters received each year:

I barely have what to feed the children. When each week comes and I need to plan for Shabbos, I’m in trouble. When I put my little ones to sleep at night, we read, give each other a kiss, and say Shema. Then I go to the kitchen table with my wallet and try to figure out how I can manage to make the best of our situation. I don’t have a checking account, I’m without a car to keep my expenses as low as I can, and I still can’t seem to have enough in my wallet for the weekdays as well as Shabbos meals.

**

I have a stack of termination and collection notices on my desk from various companies i.e. utilities, phones, schools, car payments, health care providers, student loans, legal fees and even the mortgage company. In addition to all these headaches, our house is also in dire need of repair. We have a few areas in the house with toxic mold growing, [and] the shower in the master bathroom leaks into the basement. We have some cracked and drafty windows and a broken door in need of replacement.

With a pained heart and tearful eyes, I sincerely ask that you have mercy on my family and help us get back on our feet. I really try very hard to avoid writing letters like this as it is truly embarrassing, humiliating and degrading to ask others for money. Your financial assistance at this time is most appreciated.

**

In July of last year you helped me find a job and then we started receiving Tomche Shabbos food every Thursday night, [for] which we are very grateful. However, we now find ourselves in a grave situation. Our electricity is getting disconnected as I can’t even make the minimum payment and we are losing our home as I can’t make the rent.

We’ve had to sell our furniture just to put food on the table.

**

My parents are divorced and the house is terribly unstable. Our dinners usually consist of bread and eggs. There are cockroaches everywhere. I’m so used to seeing them stroll along the kitchen table that I don’t even flinch as they saunter by.

My favorite day of the week is Thursday night. Tomche Shabbos delivers a package and I always stay up waiting for it. I tell my mother that I love her and she should go to sleep; I’ll unpack. Truth is, I want to get all the goodies before the other children get to it.

**

I knew you would come tonight. Although it was freezing and the blizzard already started, I knew that you would come. I kept opening the door to check for my box but didn’t see it. Well, maybe this time you wouldn’t come. No! I had this strange comforting feeling that you would! Then I saw what looked like a pick-up truck with bright lights and a snow plow rumbling down my block. Yes, you made it! I opened the door and saw the freshly made footprints in the snow, brought in my box, and whispered, “You are my angels!” Who is like this wonderful nation? 


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