The Aleph Institute’s Project Shifra helps more than 80 families weekly with their food needs. Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, communicates directly to families through a WhatsApp group when fresh food arrives.
Until a few weeks ago, time was of the essence. The program’s ability to store food was limited and Vogel worried that some of it would go bad before those in need had the chance to pick it up.
Shifra had only one stand-alone refrigerator/freezer located behind the Aleph Institute that Vogel used for perishables, including dairy products. Food that didn’t need to be refrigerated was left near the back door of the building on Beacon Street. That meant easy access for those who needed the food — but squirrels, birds and other “non-human” city residents would sometimes have the first pick of the products.
Shifra is now able to ensure those getting the food are the families in need — either those in Vogel’s WhatsApp group or community members who learn of the deliveries through the Jewish Pittsburgh group on Facebook — thanks to a new 10-foot-by-16-foot “Shifra Shed” that contains an industrial freezer, a separate industrial refrigeration unit and shelves for bread and other non-perishable items.
A new keypad lock keeps the food secure.
“Squirrels do not know how to get in,” Vogel said.
Vogel noted that during the pandemic, Shifra distributed more than $130,000 in food. Demand hasn’t slowed over the last year.
Shifra gets donations from several sources, including 412 Food Rescue, the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and Giant Eagle. Soon, the rabbi said, Shifra will begin receiving donations of kosher meat and chicken from Costco.
It was the increase in donations that prompted the rabbi to secure the shed.
“Families come before and after school to get food on a regular basis,” Vogel said. “Breads, fruits, vegetables and other food that has been delivered.”
The rabbi is passionate about helping families obtain the food they need. Our society, he said, often is a story of the “haves and have-nots” and, too frequently, after weddings and other events, food is thrown away.
“That should be packed and frozen immediately and placed for the community to pick up,” he said. “It’s wrong for a child to go to bed hungry, and it happens every day in every country. It shouldn’t be happening. We’re working to make sure that poor kid can go to bed on a full stomach.”
Vogel knows, though, that he can’t solve food insecurity on his own and recommends those in need reach out to the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, which can help in a myriad of ways he can’t.
But, as a Tier Two food distribution center, Shifra is not required to collect data from those it serves, so some community members are more comfortable seeking help there.
“We don’t ask for any information,” Vogel said. “It’s none of our business. The food is here. Take it.”
Vogel wants families to know they can take what they need from the new Shifra Shed without others knowing they have the need.
“It’s discreet,” he said. “It’s as hidden as can be, thank God. We’ve got people from every walk of life coming here. There is no stigma.”
The construction of the shed, as well as the money for the new equipment, was made possible by community efforts, Vogel said. He credited David Nadoff Construction for helping construct the shed and installing a heating/cooling unit that will keep it below 84 degrees, helping to preserve the food. He also credited the Morris Foundation, Molly Davis, the Opportunity Foundation and UPMC.
Project Shifra’s expansion doesn’t stop with additional food sources or the new shed, Vogel said.
When the new school year begins, the program will provide meals at no cost for children. The government-funded food will be prepared at the Jewish Community Center of Squirrel Hill, which has a kosher kitchen and meets the highest standards of kashrut, Vogel said.
The meals will be served in a new space Vogel and his wife, Nechami Vogel, secured on Murray Avenue.
The former political office will be a place for women and their children to gather several times a week after school. There is enough room for the children to play in one room while their mothers meet in another room to have tea, hear a speaker or simply schmooze.
The space is stocked not only with games, puzzles and art supplies but also with school supplies to help students prepare for the next academic year.
Whether it’s food, school supplies or other types of aid, Vogel said the important thing is that the community knows there are resources available, and that people won’t be judged for using them.
“That’s the beauty of this place,” Vogel said. “There are no questions. If you need a loaf of bread, come and take it. If there’s something else you need, take it. That’s what we’re here for.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.