They call it a modern-day “tent of Abraham,” a series of four cost-free restaurants—three in Brooklyn and one in Queens—where indigent Jews in need of kosher meals can sit at small, cloth-covered tables and be served by waiters five nights a week.
Called Masbia, Hebrew for satisfy, the free restaurants are a joint project of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, UJA Federation, and the Masbia movement. The first site opened in Borough Park in 2005. The idea, says Executive Director Alexander Rapaport, came from a man named Mordechai Mandelbaum. “Mr. Mandelbaum is an extraordinarily good person,” he begins. “To call him crazy good is not an exaggeration. His house is like a soup kitchen. He constantly has guests, people with nothing, who stay with him and his wife. I used to study Talmud with him—he’s now in his 60s—and as we’d study we’d also schmooze. During one of our schmoozes the idea came up to launch a more formal, systematic way of feeding the hungry. We came to believe that a place like Masbia was sustainable, that better-off people would share their good fortune with us. Mr. Mandelbaum gave us the initial seed money and we opened in April, 2005.”
The first night, he continues, eight people were served. Six months later, the restaurant was feeding between 100 and 120 patrons each evening. Since then, Masbia has continued to grow. A Flatbush restaurant opened in November; Williamsburg and Rego Park restaurants opened in March. Together, the four sites currently provide dinner to more than 500 people a day.
The idea to run Masbia as a fee-free restaurant—and operate without means-testing its patrons—is unprecedented. What’s more, in treating the poor as if they are deserving of respect, it demonstrates that social service programs can offer compassionate help without being punitive.
Brooklyn is the capital of Jewish poverty,” says William E. Rapfogel, CEO/Executive Director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty [AKA Met Council]. “When we released our most recent report five years ago, 30 percent of Brooklyn’s Jewish community was living at or below the poverty line.” That, of course, was before the economic recession. At that point an estimated 250,000 Jews in the metropolitan area were living in penury, less than $22,350 a year for a household of three.
While Met Council offers a comprehensive range of social programs to low income people—from subsidized housing to job training—alleviating hunger has become an increasingly prominent part of the organization’s work. Ten years ago, Rapfogel says, “We provided 200 people a month with food vouchers or bags of groceries. In October 2009, we gave out 15,000.” Rapfogel cites an even more staggering statistic: During the Jewish New Year last fall, 120,000 pounds of apples and 18,000 jars of honey were distributed.
“Every single day we see people who’ve lost their jobs. Many have maxed out their credit cards, spent down their savings, and in some cases have raided their pension funds. We see them when they’re on the verge of being evicted or foreclosed,” Rapfogel continues. “These are people who had a very good lifestyle and were financially stable until three, six, nine months ago. Now they’re at risk of losing everything. We see adult children moving back in with parents and adults who can no longer help their elderly relatives. The free restaurants are a place of respite for them, a place that helps them stretch whatever money they have.”
“Part of why I come to Masbia is because it’s social,” Malcah, a 73-year-old widow, admits. “A neighbor told me about it a few months ago and I’ve been coming ever since. I don’t cook anymore. I can’t walk much and have trouble schlepping groceries, so this place is a godsend. The bus stops right in front. I’ve made friends here so I don’t always have to eat alone. Plus,” she laughs, “the price is right.”
On a balmy April evening, a range of patrons sits and eats at Masbia-Flatbush: A young divorced mother and her two sons; a single 40-something college student; a group of teenagers; and numerous middle-aged and elderly adults.
Sixty-one-year-old Moshe says that he comes to Masbia two or three nights a week because he can no longer work full-time. “I have a job with a car service but my legs go numb and my back starts to hurt after a few hours of sitting,” he says. “After two or three hours I have to stop and take a break, move around. I don’t have health insurance so I haven’t been able to check it out. Coming here helps because I need kosher food. My rent is $500 a month; I can earn that working a few days a week. As long as I eat at Masbia I can make ends meet.”
Steve, a disabled 54-year-old, comes to Masbia every night it is open, five times a week. “I got a big cut in my food stamps, from $97 a month to $56. I have no idea why. I can’t feed myself on $56—one trip to the grocery store and it’s gone since kosher food is so expensive. It’s nice here. Clean. The people who wait on me are courteous and the food is good.” The night we meet, Steve’s table is laden with a wonderful-smelling supper: A bowl of soup, a soft drink, plus a heaping plate of broiled chicken, mixed vegetables, roasted potatoes, and bread.
After finishing his meal, Steve—like several other diners—walks a few feet to a small box where voluntary donations can be left. Rapaport reports that contributions typically range from a quarter to a few dollars. He makes sure to emphasize that no one is pressured to give—all food is completely free but any offering is gratefully accepted.
So how does Masbia raise the $30,000 a week it takes to run four cost-free restaurants?
According to Rapaport, the group is reaching out to the community to restart a tradition from the European shtetl [ghetto] that was largely forgotten once people settled in the U.S. “People used to share the simcha,” he says, “providing a meal for the poor on a day of celebration. In the old days people would make a special meal to feed to poor in their village on their wedding day or the day before they got married. Sometimes they’d even give the poor a small stipend. We’re reigniting that idea. People can donate the cost of one night’s meal at Masbia—approximately $6.00 a plate—or can have their wedding reception at Masbia and feed their guests as well as anyone else who comes in on that particular night.”
The idea, he says, is beginning to catch fire.
Aaron J. Sender, Masbia’s Community Nourishment Coordinator, is particularly excited about blurring the line between patron and donor. Sender, a Brooklyn native, spent several years working on an organic farm in northern California. While there, he says he began dreaming about starting a pay-what-you-like restaurant. Then, during a 2009 visit to New York, he met Alex Rapaport. He’s been working at Masbia ever since. “Food is so primal,” he says. “It’s one of the few things that everyone alive uses. On a very basic level, it connects people.”
His goal, he continues, is to make Masbia as community-supported as possible, with public schools, Yeshivas, and neighborhood gardeners eventually growing and then donating fruit and vegetables to the program. Although he acknowledges the enormous financial contributions of hedge fund manager Larry Robbins and entrepreneur and poker champ Henry Orenstein in setting up the restaurants, he hopes that people from all walks of life—Jewish and non—will visit Masbia and contribute what they can.
“I think it’s important to encourage people to come to Masbia when they want to eat out and by doing so, show that they support the idea of poor people eating well,” he says.
Sender is also adamant that Masbia not look like a typical soup kitchen. “No one needs to come through the system to eat here,” he says. He is revolted by the idea of poor people having to reveal their whole lives to get help. “I mean, you have to be fingerprinted to get food stamps. You have to fill out a ton of forms. You have to meet with a worker,” he says, his exasperation obvious. “That’s not what we do here. We want people to feel alive when they sit down and have a meal brought to their table by a waiter, served on real dishes. We want them to be able to step out of being needy and be treated with dignity.”
Masbia serves free Glatt kosher meals to anyone who shows up. The restaurants are open from 4:00-9:00 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Locations: 1372 Coney Island Avenue; 4114 14th Avenue; 65 Lee Avenue in Brooklyn; and 9808 Queens Blvd. in Rego Park. Contributions can be sent to Masbia, Post Office Box 191181, Brooklyn, NY 11219-9902