As the number of families struggling to put food on the table this season grows, the need for Family Table volunteers, donations of food and $25 Hanukkah gift cards for children is dire. The number of ‘food-insecure’ Jewish families on the North Shore now stands at 78 Jewish households, a 23 percent increase from 2017.
Family Table, a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) in Waltham, operates out of Temple Sinai once a month when a gathering of volunteers sorts, separates, labels and bags groceries that volunteers deliver to eligible families in need on the North Shore.
For such families, the idea of buying Hanukkah gifts for their young children is not a priority.
“I imagine whatever the resources these families have are already limited, especially if they have more than one child,” said Bernice S. Behar, director of Family Table at JF&CS.
“Hanukkah is a luxury. The gift card is a lifeline for them. It’s giving parents the opportunity to allow their kids to be kids,” said Behar. Of the 116 children served by Family Table, 32 on the North Shore will receive the holiday gift card this December.
Ten years ago, JF&CS conducted toy drives for children but the organization now gives gift cards so a parent can bring his or her child into a store and allow the child to choose a gift.
“It’s empowering for the parents to give the gifts to their children,” added Behar.
The majority of those receiving groceries from Family Table are older people who cannot live on their fixed incomes or pensions. About half are over 65 and about 20 percent of those people are over 80 and about 10 percent are Holocaust survivors. This is very sad that there are so many in poverty,” said Behar.
The recipients also include disabled people who can work only a limited number of hours, single mothers and victims of domestic abuse.
“The level of food insecurity in the Jewish community is the same as elsewhere,” said Behar. While most consider Marblehead and Swampscott to be wealthy suburbs, these social problems exist here, too, even though “they’re not on everybody’s radar.”
Members of participating synagogues leave canned goods and packages of food in several large containers – at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, Congregation Shirat Hayam of Swampscott and elsewhere – that are all brought to Temple Sinai for distribution. Each participating synagogue gets an assignment of goods needed, such as the number of boxes of pasta, cereal, crackers and canned goods.
“Not all the synagogues on the North Shore are involved,” said Behar. “We could use more involvement. Our challenge is getting enough volunteers to do the work given that the number of clients continues to expand.
“But our most urgent need is food. We’re always looking for it. We bring a lot of food from Waltham because we don’t have enough donations of food on the North Shore. We’re always working on this,” said Behar.
Barbara Rosenstroch and her husband George Gammel of Marblehead had been volunteering for Family Table long before the earlier North Shore program run by Jewish Family Service of the North Shore merged with the JF&CS program in 2011.
Twenty years ago, Rosenstroch remembers there were only 23 to 25 Jewish families in need. After the merger with JF&CS, the number of recipients jumped. She feels the expanded services from JF&CS, the addition of fresh produce and a kosher chicken in every delivery added to the popularity of the program.
Volunteer Sandy Brenner has been a regular at Temple Sinai’s monthly Family Table since she moved to Marblehead nearly three years ago.
“I know the people there, and I’m happy to do it. It’s part of my routine. I wouldn’t miss it. I feel honored to be part of this vital service. People don’t understand the extent of food insecurity in this country,” said Brenner.
“I’ve worked in food pantries in Connecticut. This pantry is just very special. It’s a wonderful environment. People are welcomed, recognized, everyone knows your name and treats us well,” added Brenner.
She said all the food is fresh, including the kosher chicken, the fish and the produce. Cans are checked for expiration dates and for the kosher symbol. Brenner is pleased that there is “nothing highly refined or overly sweet. Before Jewish holidays, there will be cooking oils, matzah. They make it special.”
The $25 Hanukkah gift cards will not only be added to every Family Table grocery bag where children are in the family; the gift cards will also be used in other programs of JF&CS, such as the Newborns and Infants program. Behar said 500 gift cards of $25 each are needed for the Hanukkah season.
JF&CS has a staff of eight part and full-time employees. There are 1400 volunteers, which includes adults and children volunteering more than once.
“We count everybody who walks through the door,” said Behar.
JF&CS serves 108 cities and towns in Greater Boston and the North and South Shores.
To learn more or to contribute, contact Lisa Katz, volunteer coordinator for the program, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-693-1231.