Met Council on Jewish Poverty is operating in uncharted waters as the region’s Jews close in on the High Holidays.
Someone he prays with at synagogue who “was making real money before COVID” recently approached David Greenfield, CEO of the more than 50-year-old charity based in New York City.
The man told him that he “is now literally making no money, and just trying to keep his business afloat” and he “has employees but he himself has not actually made any money this year,” Greenfield told JNS. “To go from one extreme to another, it’s kind of shocking.”
Met Council is marshaling an army of about 700 volunteers this holiday season, distributing some $5 million in food at 141 locations across New York City and Long Island, and in parts of New Jersey, Connecticut and Upstate New York. A growing number of needy people in need can be found even in communities that are typically upper-middle-class.
‘Prices are still higher’
The end of COVID-19-related government programs, high inflationary costs of everyday essentials and aging workers who have struggled to adapt to a new professional environment have put many in dire straits this Jewish New Year, Greenfield told JNS.
“Even though inflation has slowed down, prices are still 20% to 30% higher than they were pre-COVID,” he said. “That’s really taking a bite out of a lot of people’s income and ability to purchase necessary products like food.”
At a Met Council distribution center, Greenfield spoke a few weeks ago with an accountant in his late 50s who was laid off from a large company and hasn’t been able to recover or find a job anywhere near his prior salary.
“He’s competing with 22-year-olds willing to work now for one-third of what he was making before. He’s doing the best that he can, and he’s downsizing, but the costs of everything have gone up,” Greenfield said. “You can never really catch up with yourself.”
Holiday brings ‘certain expectations’
“Many people can get through the day and eat a little bit less, then they figure things out,” Greenfield said. “But when it comes to a holiday, the family has certain expectations.”
It gets very uncomfortable to tell people they can’t bring their children or grandchildren over during the holidays because there isn’t enough food. “That ability, we think, is extra-special,” he said.
To fill the void, Met Council launched an ambitious $2.3 million emergency fundraising campaign that has so far met more than 60% of its goal.
The monies have helped procure holiday items like apples and honey, challah, matzah-ball soup, chicken, rice, and other fruits and vegetables that serve as staples of the Rosh Hashanah table. Many also aren’t typically found in neighborhood food pantries, which often have bare shelves anyway.
The High Holiday season is an especially apt time to do mitzvahs, whether donating funds, food or time and energy as a volunteer, noted Greenfield.
Some 2,500 volunteers pitch in at Met Council, including Hispanic, Asian and Indian Americans.
“Part of the work that we do as the largest Jewish charity in the U.S. fighting poverty is not just to provide a service but to educate people,” said Greenfield. “There’s no better way to educate someone than to have them show up and actually pack food for people who are in need, then deliver that food to the unemployed, to those struggling, to Holocaust survivors. Part of the Jewish communal experience is that it’s not just about writing a check.”