April 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Tomchei Shabbos: Performing Chesed Since 1990 and Going Strong

For the past 26 years, Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County has been providing meals to needy Jewish families. To date, close to one million such meals have been distributed. Each week these households receive food for Shabbat, allowing the recipient families to enjoy a full, traditional Shabbat meal as well as sufficient leftovers to help them through the rest of the week.

When the organization first started, there were many more immigrants and elderly people in the communities it serves than there are today. Those families were initially the focus of Tomchei’s assistance. As the immigrants became able to support themselves financially, many “graduated” from receiving Tomchei’s aid. However, the organization was not without families to help. The recession in the early ’90s hit many families hard and Tomchei was there to provide needed assistance to a growing number of families in the Teaneck/Bergenfield/Englewood communities. Today, in addition to families, Tomchei services over 200 children.

Tomchei Shabbos was initially started by four local women—Chani Schmutter, Claire Strauss, Lori Frank and Chaya Feigenbaum—and run out of Schmutter’s basement. Each of the women had recently lost a loved one, and they began the organization as a way to do something to honor these people’s memories. In the beginning, it was their vision and devotion alone that kept the organization going. Today, the founders have passed Tomchei’s leadership on to Sara Walzman and Sara Zilberstein, who now run Tomchei Shabbos, with the assistance of a dedicated team of managers and over 100 volunteers, from the large Bergenfield warehouse that is now the group’s headquarters. From a basement “startup,” the group has now grown into an organization with an annual budget of over $500,000. However, even with its increased budget, as the number of clients served continues to rise, Tomchei Shabbos is in need of support from the entire community.

When Tomchei first began, there was no Mapquest, Google Maps or Waze—the women had to drive around each neighborhood to formalize a route and then physically write the directions down for each driver. Obviously, that part of the job has gotten much easier in recent years.

Anonymity continues to be Tomchei’s focus. There are only two people in the organization who know who the recipients are. Drivers are carefully selected for each route, and before assigning a client to a particular driver it is first confirmed that he or she does not daven at the same shul or send children to the same school as the recipient. Drivers are also notified if they should be leaving packages at the door, rather than announcing themselves at delivery. Anonymity is of the utmost importance and the leadership goes to great lengths to ensure that recipients are getting what they need in the manner in which they feel comfortable receiving it. It is vital that all deliveries are made with dignity, respect and the utmost discretion.

Typically, the need for help is brought to their attention by, and confirmed with, other local organizations, including Project Ezrah and Jewish Family Service, area rabbis, school principals and others. Some people find the group on their own because they have heard of Tomchei’s services in their communities. Before services begin, each client is given a financial evaluation by either Tomchei Shabbos or the referring organization. Once they are formally “accepted,” each client is given a random three-letter code, known only to the previously mentioned two individuals in the organization, and placed on a numbered route, again, to ensure privacy and confidentiality. Services last as long as is necessary, and there is a continuous process in place to ensure that families who need it continue to receive services.

The participation of so many volunteers helps ensure that nearly 100 percent of Tomchei’s operating expenses go directly towards the purchase of food items such as eggs, vegetables, fruit, fish, chicken, challah and other essential basics. For Pesach alone, nearly 900 pounds of matzah, over 800 bottles of grape juice or wine, more than 8,000 eggs, over 2,200 pounds of chicken and close to 1,500 pounds of meat were distributed. In addition, clients were given a choice of receiving 90 items, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, oils, spices and more, that could help in their preparations for the chag. This past Pesach, as reported in the April 20th issue of The Jewish Link, Tomchei included in each Pesach package that went to families with children one $25 Toys ‘R’ Us gift card for each child in the family, ensuring the children received afikomen gifts just like their peers.

For more information, or to find out how you or a friend, neighbor, student or family can benefit from Tomchei Shabbos, or to donate, please visit http://tomcheishabbosofbergencounty.org.

By Jill Kirsch

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