As the coronavirus crisis exacerbated food insecurity for many Jewish community members, Rabbi Chezky Rosenfeld saw a need not being fully met by other programs and social service agencies.
“A lot of the programs out there are restricted to people in different demographics and with various requirements,” said Rosenfeld. “I was being contacted by different people who were in need or people that were aware of other people in need.”
At the same time, other families with a surplus of food were reaching out to Rosenfeld to see if he could find a use for it before the food spoiled.
So the rabbi began picking up food left on porches and delivering it to others who needed it. Eventually, he said, he decided to set up “a central space where people can bring all this stuff.”
The result is a free pop-up kosher store in the heart of Squirrel Hill, located in the former Shabbox space at 2118 Murray Avenue, next-door to the Milky Way kosher restaurant.
Because the pop-up space has a refrigerator and freezer, Rosenfeld can now include fresh items that he couldn’t previously store, as well as food that won’t be used immediately.
Most important to Rosenfeld, the pop-up location allows community members to maintain their dignity while picking up their food. In fact, the rabbi makes it a practice not to be there when the free store is open.
“I want it to be really open,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to feel like someone is watching who’s coming and taking things.”
The store doesn’t have a sign-up list, registration or income requirements, and the food is available to anyone who needs it.
While the store offers free kosher food, Rosenfeld said he doesn’t intend to compete with other services and organizations, like the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. In addition to catering to different demographics, Rosenfeld said, he doesn’t have the capacity the Food Pantry does and he isn’t offering the type of long-term solutions available from other some charities and organizations in the Jewish community.
The food available at the pop-up store, is a mixture of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products and prepackaged meals like pizza and lasagna.
Volunteers check the donations to ensure they are kosher.
“And obviously, we only take closed packages,” Rosenfeld said. “We’re not taking things that are made in people’s kitchens.”
In addition to private donors, Rosenfeld said he received a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which helped secure the pop-up store’s location, as well as equipment.
The money came from Federation’s COVID-19 relief fund, said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing. To date, Federation has distributed more than $9.1 million dollars from that fund.
“The emergency relief is targeted for emergent needs,” Hertzman said. “A pop-up food corner was something the relief committee saw that met an emergent need in the community.”
Federation and its beneficiary agencies, including Jewish Family and Community Services and the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, are seeing far more than the average number of families in need because of the pandemic, Hertzman said. The Federation can coordinate agencies to respond to needs quickly and efficiently, he added, pointing, as an example, to an emergency relief grant to purchase a van shared by JFCS and Hillel JUC that is used for food deliveries.
“This is built on decades of collaboration, communication and trust building, of which I would like to say, Federation played a key part,” Hertzman said. “It’s on the strength of that that we were able to meet some of the COVID relief needs in such a strong fashion.”
Rosenfeld said he doesn’t have long-term plans for the free store, but intends to keep it open at least through the summer.
“I’ve been approached by some people who have asked me about keeping it open through the High Holidays, where there’s a greater need,” he said. “We use a lot of food during that time. We’ll see. Right now, I have it planned through the end of August. We’ll take it from there.”
The free pop-up store is open Thursdays, 9 a.m.-11 a.m., and Fridays, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.