May 29, 2024
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Masbia Network Expands Outreach

Maria Rodriguez, a Christian native of Venezuela, is standing on a street corner here one recent windy afternoon, eagerly describing the familiar type of chicken she eats regularly seven-tenths of a mile down Coney Island Avenue in a small quasi-restaurant in the heart of Flatbush, a heavily Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“It tastes homemade,” she said, like the chicken her mother made in the family’s homeland. “The food is great.”

And the baked chicken is kosher.

Rodriguez, a migrant from South America who has lived in for two months, taking care of her children, in a small hotel where other migrants are housed by the city, eats many of her meals at a soup kitchen run by the Brooklyn-based, Chasidic-formed Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, an independent institution that for 18 years has fed the city’s indigent residents—and now, its asylum-seeking newcomers—on a nonsectarian basis.

Other migrants who live in the neighborhood also come frequently to the Masbia soup kitchen, located in the space of a former restaurant, which is located next to one of the organization’s food pantries, where the native-born and foreign-born show up to take home carts-full of fruits and vegetables and healthful packaged goods and frozen food.

Like everyone eating at the soup kitchen, she is served her meals by waiters—designed to maintain the dignity of people receiving gratis food.

Rodriguez spoke with The Jewish Link last week, a few days before New York City marked the official one-year anniversary of the first arrivals of south-of-the-border migrants who were shipped north by the government of Texas.

The majority of the migrants are from such places as Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala—and Venezuela.

Thirtyish, she spoke as her young, impatient daughter tugged at her arm, anxious to go and play, while Rodriguez (not her real name), described her path, with her husband and another child, from Venezuela, through Panama and Guatemala and “many jungles,” to the United States, where she is seeking asylum to stay permanently in this country.

Her words in Spanish were translated by Ruben Diaz, a Colombia-born Masbia site manager.

Like many of her fellow migrants, Rodriguez made the trek from South America to protect her family’s safety.

Was it dangerous to remain in Venezuela, an increasingly unstable land?

“Si,” she said—yes.

Rodriguez and her family are among an estimated 93,000-plus migrants who have come to the Big Apple—often with little advance warning from Texas or coordination with New York City immigration officials after crossing the Mexican border and being loaded onto buses—as the issue of the Biden administration’s migrants’ policies has escalated into a matter of political debate, and strained the city’s ability to provide for them. As of mid-July, the city was providing shelter to a record 105,800 people, the number swelled by those who arrived in the last year.

The city has “run out of room” for the migrants, who are a visible presence, sometimes sleeping on the streets until space opens up in the filled-to-capacity homeless shelters, Mayor Eric Adams said recently. “There is no more room.” A Democrat, he has repeatedly asked the national government for more money to finance the city’s activities for the migrants, and he has vocally criticized President Joe Biden’s response; the administration has failed to provide expedited work authorizations or to force other jurisdictions to help absorb the influx of migrants, according to the mayor.

During the past year, Masbia, whose volunteers and staff members have joined those from a few other local refugee-protection and human rights agencies, has provided aid of some sort to “more than 5,000” migrants, said Alexander Rapoport, Masbia’s co-founder and day-to-day director. The organization has offered some migrants temporary jobs (packing Passover food packages for 10,000 families) and job training (in construction).

Masbia’s outreach to the city’s growing migrant population is the latest example of its response to the needs of people outside of the Jewish community, Rapoport said. “We try to respond to any disaster,” which New York City’s fast-expanding—and often-homeless—migrant population is becoming.

When he heard Jewish high school students, who were working alongside the migrants in the Passover-package packing project, refer to the migrants as “illegal,” Rapoport scolded them, according to JTA. “These people who are working are asylum seekers,” Rapoport told the students. “They are fully designated as an asylum seeker, meaning to say, they are fully legal, because they have a day in court. They’re here, ready, willing and able to do beautiful work.”

Because most of the migrants are undocumented, their work in Masbia’s warehouses was their first job in the city, paid on the basis of a law that enables undocumented workers to earn income. Their work with Masbia came via a partnership with La Colmena, a nonprofit that helps find jobs for day laborers, domestic workers and immigrant workers, many of whom are housed in the city’s homeless shelters in Staten Island.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Rapoport has become a visible symbol of the city’s haredi community, usually before Jewish holidays, when Masbia increases its food distribution activities, and after international tragedies and fires in Greater New York, which displaces dozens of people and increases the need for altruistic assistance.

Masbia has grown from modest beginnings in a single Brooklyn neighborhood to three sites (two in Brooklyn, one in Queens) that pre-COVID fed 40,000 people a week, and has changed its focus from serving meals in a restaurant-style site to providing and delivering food from large pantries under its auspices.

Masbia is Hebrew for “satiate.”

Rapoport, who coordinates his work with the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, calls the organization’s humanitarian work “not politics,” not part of the ongoing political debate in the United States.

Masbia’s Jewish-inspired work on a micro, local basis, complements the macro, national activities of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), whose lobbying and legal-advice effort “seeks to safeguard and increase the rights of asylum seekers upon their arrival in the U.S. and throughout their journey to citizenship.”

This is in addition to a wide variety of activities done in the city on behalf of the migrants under Jewish auspices, much of it through the seven-year-old Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee and Immigration Crisis (synagoguecoalition.org), an independent interdenominational organization that began assisting the arriving refugees from Syria in 2016; the Coalition has also helped refugees from Afghanistan, and now includes 29 synagogues from Greater New York, six nonprofits, and Manhattan’s Marlene Meyerson JCC.

Working with the HIAS and the grassroots Team TLC NYC organization, members of the Coalition take part in such activities as donating clothing, meeting the migrants’ buses when they arrive in New York, offering tutoring sessions, assisting in filling out asylum applications and NYC identification cards, providing legal advice and counseling, locating apartments, sponsoring Sunday afternoon play alternatives for migrants’ children, and staffing the Little Shop of Kindness donations-and-distribution center in Manhattan.

In addition, Central Synagogue in mid-Manhattan, a Coalition member, has partnered with HIAS in a “Central Welcome Project” that assists refugee families—one from Guatemala, one from Venezuela—by setting up two furnished apartments, collecting needed items through a gift registry Amazon Wishlist.

The various Jewish participants in the outreach to migrants try not to duplicate each other’s efforts, said attorney Judy Bass, a co-chair of the Coalition.

Masbia’s Rapoport and other supporters and employees—including Hispanic immigrants—of the organization have met the buses of refugees arriving in Manhattan, greeting them with signs in Hebrew, Spanish and English, setting up tables stocked with free food and piles of free toiletries, razors, shoes and other necessities.

To pay for its increased outreach to the newcomers, nearly all of them non-Jews, during the last 12 months, Masbia (masbia.org) increased its fundraising, on top of the organization’s recent $10 million annual operating business, bringing in some $200,000 as part of an earmarked “relief” fund-raising campaign, Rapoport said. Ten percent of the annual budget comes from government aid, the rest from private donations.

The reaction of the organization’s supporters, most of them Orthodox Jews, to Masbia’s large-scale, highly publicized ecumenical effort? “We get the people who want to share [their resources], to share,” said Rapoport, a self-taught master at raising money and publicity, who was raised in a Vizhnitz Chasidic home.

Generating interest in the needs of the migrants has proven to be a tough sell, he said, not because his circle of contributors is reluctant to donate to a non-Jewish cause, but because the migrants’ issue has become heavily politicized and lacks a strong emotional pull. “On the news it’s all about politicians bickering,” not images of needy men, women and children, which prompts people to more readily feel sympathy and make donations.

And, Rapoport added, he feels that many political observers in the city sense that the moves of the city and national administration to discourage migrants from, respectively, coming to New York City and to the United States, makes those governments less likely to give moral support to Masbia activities that would make migrants feel welcome here. But he said he sees the value in the migrants’ presence in this country: “We believe that it is good for the city and for America for immigrants to come.”

Rapoport is talking about Masbia while sitting in the streetside front lobby of the soup kitchen, where a sign out front advertises “Ready-to-eat ‘MEALS.’”

The cuisine that day: beet soup, salads and a choice of two side dishes—and chicken. The “customers” in the restaurant-style room—all the food is provided free of charge—include some Orthodox Jews, a few African Americans and some Muslims from the Flatbush community. Reservations are suggested, but not required.

Rodriguez isn’t there that day, but the room’s six tables are crowded; people going into and out of the small space recognize Rapoport, a constant presence at the Masbia locations.

“Thank you, Mr. Rapoport,” a middle-aged woman pushing a cart says when she leaves the soup kitchen. “Thank you for everything.”


Steve Lipman was a staff writer at the Jewish Week from 1983-2020.

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