Essential value of Judaism

Essential value of Judaism

Students from Yeshiva Boys School packed food for inmates in correctional institutions and patients in state hospitals and group homes last week at the Aleph Institute. 

Photo provided by Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel
Students from Yeshiva Boys School packed food for inmates in correctional institutions and patients in state hospitals and group homes last week at the Aleph Institute. Photo provided by Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel

While thousands of families in Jewish Pittsburgh are in the throes of preparation for Passover, engaged in seemingly endless shopping, cleaning and meal planning, there are scores of individuals in the community who struggle to celebrate the holiday in even the most basic way.

Fortunately, local organizations and agencies gallantly step up to the plate each year to make sure that virtually anyone who wants to observe the holiday has the opportunity and means to do so.

“Every year, we make sure that our clients are able to celebrate with appropriate foods,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry. The SHCFP stocks more than 15 items specifically for Passover, including matzah, cake mix, soup mix, grape juice and cookies.

Not surprisingly, Passover “is one of our most expensive events of the year,” Bolton said, so in addition to foods specifically certified kosher for Passover, the food pantry complements those offerings with extra eggs and produce.

The SHCFP serves about 300 Jewish families, and that population comprises about 65 percent to 75 percent of its total clients, according to Bolton.

“We do serve different families this time of year,” Bolton said. “And we reach out to all the congregations to see if they have members in need as well.”

Special kosher for Passover baskets also are assembled at the SHCFP and are taken to congregations that distribute the baskets to those in need.

Ensuring that area families have what they need to observe the holiday properly is a “high priority” for the food pantry, Bolton said.

Likewise, a relatively new local non-profit called GIFT (Giving It Forward, Together) has been raising funds to create “Passover to Go” kits for those who are elderly or housebound. The kits include a large print Haggadah, a seder plate complete with all the items that belong on the plate, a box of matzah, grape juice, a potato kugel, and — to add a bit of fun — some chocolate frogs.

Last year, GIFT distributed 70 kits, but, based on need, is distributing 200 kits this year. The kits are assembled by residents at senior living facilities Weinberg Terrace and the Forward-Shady apartments, providing those individuals with an opportunity to help others as well, said Rochel Tombosky, the founder and creative director of GIFT. The kits are distributed to those in need in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and the South Hills.

Not all the GIFT recipients are those who cannot afford to celebrate the holiday properly, according to Tombosky.

“It’s not about money,” she said. “One person was a 60-year-old who was single and got sick a month before the seder and couldn’t get out. But if you can’t get out, that doesn’t mean you don’t want to celebrate.”

Although Keren Rachaim, an organization based in Squirrel Hill and run by Miriam Rosenblum, works all year raising funds to purchase gift cards for groceries to help those in need, efforts intensify right before the High Holidays and in the weeks prior to Passover, said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills and the son of Keren Rachaim’s director.

The organization is funded “though the generosity of the community,” he said. “And 100 percent of the money raised goes to those in need.”

There are many Jews in the area that may be hardworking, but who nonetheless struggle to provide for their families, according to Rosenblum.

“They can be people who work hard but have large families, or the work they do just doesn’t cover the bills especially when there is a bump in the budget like Pesach,” he said.

Keren Rachaim can be a lifeline for those families; and those who donate to the organization know that if they contribute to it, all of those funds “go to somebody who needs them,” Rosenblum said.

Other Chabad Lubavitch initiatives get underway prior to the holiday, such as the distribution of matzah by students from the Yeshiva Boys School, who take boxes to senior citizens in their homes, or sometimes just stand on Murray Avenue handing out boxes to whoever needs them, said Chezky Rosenfeld, director of development at Yeshiva Schools.

People requiring a little more help around the holiday can also turn to Pittsburgh’s Jewish Assistance Fund, which provides Giant Eagle and Murray Avenue Kosher gift cards, according to Cindy Goodman-Leib, the JAF’s executive director. The organization also provided boxes of matzah to clients seeking grants in the weeks prior to the holiday.

“Helping Jewish families at Passover and throughout the year is our mission,” Goodman-Leib wrote in an email. “Passover is a busy time of the year as people prepare to gather around the seder table with family and friends. These preparations involve additional expenses which often pose a challenge. With community dollars we raise, the Jewish Assistance Fund helps local Jewish families during holidays and throughout the year.”

For those Jews who are newly arrived to the United States, at least one local congregation provides complimentary gift cards prior to Passover, continuing the ancient custom of ma’ot hittin, assisting the poor with the provision of food. With no questions asked, hundreds of new Americans line up to receive a free $25 gift card to Giant Eagle to help purchase food for the holiday.

Community seders abound at area synagogues, and many congregations will allow those who do not have the means to pay to come for free.

A seder is also offered to those members of the community with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities who live in Jewish Residential Services housing. That seder, which will be held on April 13 during chol ha’moed, will be led by Rabbi Eli Seidman, director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging. Other options for residents of JRS are available as well, according to Linda Lewis, director of operations at JRS.

“Rodef Shalom always offers us an opportunity for our people to come to their seder,” Lewis noted. “Last year, 16 people came, free of charge. And it was great. Rodef Shalom has always been so kind to open their doors.”

Seders for those residents of senior facilities operated by the Jewish Association on Aging also are conducted by Seidman, according to Beverly Brinn, the JAA’s director of development and community engagement. The seders bring a familial warmth to the residents.

“There are a lot of the folks in our homes who are on Medicaid and who are alone,” Brinn said. “We are their family.”

It is an essential value of Judaism to ensure that all are allowed the ability to celebrate the holiday of Passover, according to Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, northeast regional headquarters, which serves the needs of imprisoned Jewish men and women and their families.

“As we announce ‘hei lachmo anyo’ (this is the bread of affliction) at our seder, we reach out to our brothers and sisters who are destitute spiritually and physically, to join us in celebrating our becoming a nation,” Vogel wrote in a Facebook post. “Regardless of our status we are part of the Jewish people and belong at the seder.”

Vogel explained that for Jewish men and women in prison, providing the items necessary for the seder plate has been a challenge: “how do we get a kosher egg into prison, how do we get the shank bone (chicken neck) into the institution without it spoiling? The charoses needs to be ground … we need to supply that too, and it should not spoil,” Vogel said.

This year, Aleph was able to provide all the items with the help of modern technology.

“The dried charoses is made in Israel. We ordered this item six months ago and included it in over 100 seder plates that we shipped to institutions,” he said. “The eggs have a two-year shelf life and do not require refrigeration. The same is true for the chicken neck and horseradish.”

Aleph has another 10 seder plates at the ready in case there are last-minute arrests, said Vogel. “We also have several hundred meals in stock — they have a three-year shelf life — which are kosher for Passover and are ready to go out to the prisons.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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