Experiencing food insecurity? Help is available in a fast, sensitive, dignified and anonymous way.
In an educated community with many professionals, the experience of food insecurity is something most people assumed they would be able to avoid. However, COVID-19’s “new normal” of increasing layoffs, furloughs and financial troubles has changed all that. Now, more than ever, families and individuals are scrutinizing their grocery bills and wondering how to stretch funds into next week. Looking at the bank balances and worrying about where Shabbat groceries are going to come from takes a lot of energy.
Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County, co-directed by Sara Walzman and Sara Zilberstein, are no strangers to food insecurity. For the last 30 years, the group, which they have led for much of the last decade, has provided hundreds of Shabbat boxes every week to families, singles, seniors and other members of our community.
“Everyone has been affected,” Walzman said. “We want the community to know that we are here to help.”
Walzman explained that many changes had to be instituted for Tomchei to stay operational under COVID-19 conditions, but one of the most important was to create a more expedited sign-up process for new clients. “At a time when people are very overwhelmed with their new reality, we want to eliminate as much paperwork and legwork from the application process as possible,” Zilberstein said.
“Anyone who is experiencing food insecurity should know that help is available, in a fast, sensitive, dignified and anonymous way,” said Walzman, noting that there have been multiple families who have signed for Tomchei Shabbos temporarily, just to get them through this tough period. “Some signed up just for Pesach, and others signed up for Pesach and are continuing until they feel secure enough,” she added.
Walzman added that a family recently reached out to thank Tomchei, noting their intense sense of relief at having the extra support. “They said they hadn’t realized how much effort they had put into worrying about what they would put on the table for Shabbos. We want to be able to take that burden off them during this difficult time,” she said.
“This challenge might be temporary for some, but they need to know we are here for them. Everyone wants to do their parts to help their communities as a whole,” said Walzman.
Expanded Options, Including a Supermarket Program and Takeout
Many people may not be aware that Tomchei Shabbos has expanded their offerings in recent years, from the original “Shabbos box” concept of a box of raw materials for families and individuals to cook—for example, chicken, eggs, meat and fresh produce—to two additional types of help.
First, they have worked to create a supermarket program: gift card and store-credit options through local kosher stores and supermarkets.
This method of help was developed because some families were unable to accept a box for various reasons. “We are heartened that the stigma to receive a box has diminished over the years, but we realize that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for a community as varied as ours. We adapted to help families with specific needs and want to normalize the experience as much as possible,” said Walzman.
The second method Tomchei Shabbos offers is a prepared-food/takeout option, mainly for families and individuals situated in places where kitchen access is impossible, or if the recipient is too ill or otherwise unable to prepare food themselves. This program is sponsored by Noah’s Ark.
Walzman added that there is a common misconception people have about Tomchei, that all of its clients are elderly. “We are serving families, including over 200 children. These are families in Englewood, Teaneck, Bergenfield, Fort Lee, Fair Lawn and beyond. We always try to give it in a way that is easy to receive,” she said. “And families with children are very happy and grateful to receive the much-needed help.”
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, of Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham, remarked on the resourcefulness of the Tomchei Shabbos volunteers. “The leadership of Tomchei Shabbos has a spectacular blend of sensitivity and creativity that energizes the ever-expanding offerings, tailor-made to meet the needs of families, sometimes for the long run and sometimes for short-term respite, in a manner that protects the dignity and privacy of all involved,” he said.
A Modified Distribution System
But it’s not just the options that have changed; Tomchei Shabbos has had to change its entire distribution plan to adhere to COVID-19 safety standards and protocols. “There used to be 30 or 40 people in the warehouse at one time, with everyone working together to ensure all deliveries were ready for pickup,” said Walzman. Packing was completed very quickly because there were so many volunteers. All volunteers are now wearing gloves and masks and there is a limit to how many people can work at one time.
“Now, we have to have 10 people or fewer in the warehouse at one time, and they have to be 6 feet or more distanced away from each other. We have two shifts, one that starts at 12 noon and another that goes from 2 to 4 p.m., of volunteer packers; they have all learned the new system and are as efficient as ever.”
All the deliveries have to arrive much earlier in the day than before, but Walzman is grateful that all the distributors they work with have been flexible. Volunteer delivery drivers too now pick up their boxes fully outside the warehouse and adhere to new safety protocols. “No one is touching anything inside the warehouse, and we can no longer have drivers go into apartment buildings. It’s not safe for them or the recipients. All deliveries are left outside buildings, and the recipient is called and they come and pick it up.
“We still work to maintain anonymity of the drop-offs, but we have other recipients who don’t mind about the anonymity and have in the past appreciated help bringing their boxes inside. We coordinate drop-off with family members or aides now. For some people, we now put plastic bags in the box so they can make several trips more easily.”
Rabbi Neuburger again added his own contextual appreciation of the organization and its efforts. Tomchei Shabbos is “a remarkable example of how a small group of women with uncompromising empathy and determination to match have made a difference for some 25 years ago, for countless families every single week, and set one of the shining gems in our communal crown.”
To learn more about Tomchei Shabbos and to request assistance, please visit http://www.tomcheishabbosofbergencounty.org/.
By Elizabeth Kratz