PROVIDENCE – “Open your hand to the poor and needy Kinsman in your land” (Devarim 15:11). The Louis and Goldie Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry, a program of Jewish Seniors Agency of Rhode Island did just that; it opened its hands to the poor and needy.
It was the winter of 2009 and tough economic times were hitting Rhode Island. We knew from all reports that more and more people were using food pantries to help supplement their nutritional needs. The question arose – where could Jewish people turn if they needed kosher food? Certain pantries are not “clients’ choice” and clients just receive a bag of food. Envision a Jewish client receiving a bag of food that contains a can of pork and beans!
Even for those participants who are not strictly kosher, they still might not eat pork. Why should anyone have to put his/her beliefs on hold because of hunger? The answer is that they should not. This was the beginning of the journey for the only kosher food pantry in Rhode Island.
The major concerns for the Jewish community at large was how many people would actually come to the pantry and whether the need really existed. After meeting with kosher food pantries in neighboring Massachusetts, we learned that they faced the same questions. The reality that a Jewish person needed food was hard for the community to fathom. However, with seed money from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a sparse amount of donated food, our doors opened on May 19, 2009. We were not sure how many people would show up for food on that first day. As luck would have it, a car hit a nearby utility pole in the neighborhood and we lost our power. By the light of a flashlight, we helped our one, and only, customer on that day. In many ways, we can say that “the light of those we serve has been guiding us ever since.”
The impact of the pantry has been significant. Since 2009, we have distributed more than 140 tons of food. When I think about the kosher food pantry, I am mindful of the relationships that have been built. Hunger is a critical issue for families and one of the biggest misconceptions is that we are opened just for those who are homeless or poor.
Unfortunately, even though we have seen an increased number of people who are now considered the “working poor,” many are still too prideful to ask for help.
The face of hunger has changed and it is our responsibility to respect our clients and treat them non-judgmentally and with dignity. I am reminded of a family with a 14-year-old son and an ill father who is unable to work. What a brave man to walk through our door and ask for help. We tell him he is doing a mitzvah for us by taking the food off our shelves to feed his family.
It is our obligation to take care of our own. The Louis and Goldie Chester Full Plate helps not only to feed people, but we also nourish their souls. We help to sustain their identity, dignity and self-worth. Most of our volunteers are either current or past clients of the pantry. They want to give back. We know that one of the biggest mitzvot is to give back. For those who are not able to physically come to the pantry, our volunteers deliver food to them.
Recently, the vital need for a kosher food pantry was underscored when a Russian couple came to receive food. They have been clients since 2009. Their English is broken but they understand the Yiddish and Hebrew words that I speak. They seemed very sad on this one particular morning and I asked, as I always do, how their son was doing. He was a young man suffering from brain cancer and was going through chemotherapy. I asked how I could help them. They said since they grew up in Russia they never had the opportunity to learn how to pray and could I help them by saying a mi-sheberakh (prayer for healing) for their son. I promised them that I would and also asked their congregational Rabbi to comfort them.
Several weeks later, they returned for food and told us that their beloved only child passed away. They wanted to tell us and thank us for praying for them.
There is an old Jewish Proverb, “Worries go down better with soup than without.” Together, we fill their plates and validate for them that, no matter what they are going through, we, as a community, are here for them. People are not being judged because they need help when they come to the pantry; instead, they are applauded for coming in to take care of themselves and their families.
For more information: call Susan Adler, Coordinator of the Louis and Goldie Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry, 100 Niantic Ave., Providence, at 621-5374 or online at jsari.org.
Editor’s note: A longer article on the Louis and Goldie Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry appeared in the October issue of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.