PEABODY – It was a Thursday night in January and Adele Kirby of Peabody was feeling lousy. Her head ached. She had a cough. Her throat hurt.
Her grandchildren had been visiting, she said, “and left me with the gift of COVID.”
Then the doorbell rang with another gift. It was Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman from Chabad Lubavitch of Peabody on his chicken soup delivery route, bearing homemade soup and matzo balls straight from his wife Raizel’s kitchen.
This soup service is a new pastoral gig for the Schustermans which they initiated after the Omicron variant spiked. She makes the soup, and he acts as courier. The recipients are mainly people with COVID but include those who’ve lost a loved one or who “just need a pick-me-up to know someone else is thinking of you,” Raizel said. “The world does not need another temple, another rabbi. It needs love and kindness.”
It’s not as though the Schustermans didn’t have plenty on their plate already.
“We have seven kids kein ayin hara,” ranging in age from 5 to 21, said Rabbi Shusterman. Raizel is a positive life coach, the educational director of the Chabad’s Hebrew School, and the shlucha (emissary) for Chabad, in addition to her considerable responsibilities as rebbetzin (wife of a rabbi).
“In Chabad, rabbi and rebbetzin are teammates with every responsibility from sweeping floors to hanging posters in the classroom to shoveling snow so kids don’t slip on the way to Hebrew School,” Rabbi Schusterman said. “Our obligations are more than just read the Torah, write a sermon, conduct pastoral services like weddings and funerals. If a soup delivery is the love and good energy that needs to be delivered to the world, we’ll do it.”
Here he digressed to impart a piece of rabbinic wisdom: “By the way, visiting the sick is a mitzvah, according to the sages,” he said. “And not just to show up and say hello. When you visit, according to the sages, you take away 1/60th of their illness. You help to make them better. Soup is that little panacea that makes one feel loved and cherished and cared for.”
This isn’t the first time Raizel’s kitchen has been the base of operations for delivering love and good energy. For Shavuot, she cooked – and the Rabbi delivered – some 70 servings of blintzes. She prepared a “Seder to Go” box at Passover that included matzo, gefilte fish (“not from scratch, you can buy loaves”), soup with matzo balls (also not from scratch), roasted chicken, butternut squash pie, and dessert, along with grape juice and candles.
It helps that she has a “gigantic” kitchen, she said. It’s bright and airy with white marble countertops, a huge island (where challah dough sits, rising) and separate sections for cooking meat, milk, and pareve meals – those that are neither meat nor dairy.
“Thank G-d I’ve had the privilege to redo my kitchen,” Raizel said. There are three ovens, two dishwashers, and a wall-mounted pot filler above the stove that eliminates the cumbersome step of lugging heavy stock pots from sink to stove.
There’s also a dedicated cupboard for plastic containers that she fills with fresh soup on Thursdays for a delivery that night or Friday.
“It takes a lot of organization, which is one of my strengths,” said Raizel. “I’m good at time management … And I do everything quickly. When you have seven kids you’ve got to move, move, move.”
She’s also a big believer in cutting corners when possible, using packaged matzo ball mix, for example, and placing the ingredients in mesh soup bags which makes it easier to remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot, and reduces the work of straining the soup. “Also you can take out the things you don’t want,” said Raizel. “I don’t want chicken bones all over my soup.”
But bones are central to her recipe. Instead of adding chicken, she just uses the chicken bones. She says the bones provide strong enough flavor for a tasty soup and there’s still a bit of chicken on them – enough to fry up with onions and make a nice meal.
Making chicken soup in large amounts “is not a big deal,” maintains Raizel. She’s cooking anyway for her family, and has been known to host up to 20 guests for Shabbat dinner. Her soup is rich and hearty, cooked with ingredients not always found in traditional recipes, such as ginger, garlic, zucchini, and yellow squash.
“Her soup is amazing, both for the richness of flavor and for the soul,” said Adele Kirby, now recovered from COVID.
Raizel, who is active on social media, began offering the service a few weeks ago, posting a photo of her chicken soup on Facebook, along with the message: “With a surge of COVID comes a surge of love.”
“The response was pretty quick,” she said. One week the rabbi made 17 deliveries. Among the recipients was Susan Rueckel of Lynnfield, who reached out for soup after a family member died and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral because of COVID. “I felt we could really use a little bit of home,” she said. “The soup was outstanding. Nothing makes you feel better than that.”
Rueckel, like many other soup recipients, does not formally belong to Chabad. But “every Jew that moves is part of our congregation,” said Rabbi Schusterman. “And even those who don’t, unfortunately.” Last week, the rabbi even delivered soup – and more – to a man who’s not Jewish.
Russell Miller, who is Roman Catholic, lost his Jewish wife three years ago. His daughter and two grandsons live with him in Peabody and attend the Chabad Hebrew School. Miller said he met the rabbi a few years ago, “and for whatever reason we hit it off. He calls me his ‘honorary Jew.’”
Last week, his daughter called the school to say her 9-year-old was recovering from COVID and would be absent from class. “All of sudden the rabbi shows up with chicken soup,” Miller said.
He also noticed there was no mezuzah on the front door, and promptly remedied the problem with a Lucite mezuzah he apparently had at the ready in his car.
“I had to run around the house to find myself a yarmulke. And then he literally installed it,” said Miller. “He is a great representative of what he does. He seems to care about everybody.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raizel Schusterman’s ‘I don’t use a recipe’ chicken soup
1 pkg. of chicken bones which she buys at the Bingo kosher food store in Monsey, NY
Mesh soup bags to hold the ingredients
A little bit of ginger “to give an Asian flavor”
“A few” onions
“A lot” of fresh dill
A few cloves of garlic, peeled
4 carrots, peeled
7 stalks of celery
1 yellow squash
1 sweet potato
Place the ingredients in mesh soup bags – one bag for the soup bones, one for the vegetables, and one for the aromatics (dill, ginger, onion, and garlic.)
Put everything in a very large stock pot, and fill the pot with water. Shake the box of kosher salt over the pot. (She doesn’t measure.)
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer.
Cook all day; as the water evaporates, keep adding water.