By Larry Gordon –
It had just snowed again, which means it could have been any day last week. There is an urban paralysis that usually arrives with snow, something of a cross between safety concerns and media hype. Lately, or at least this year, it seems to be more of the latter than the former. If it is snowing, windy, and cold outside, it is nice to be able to remain indoors once you have either shoveled your walkway or constructed a snowman with your children or grandchildren.
While we were busy with one of those things last week, Jeannette Lamm of Far Rockaway was setting up the play, so to speak, calling a food delivery audible for her team. Jeannette is the coordinator of the volunteer food delivery system developed by the local Far Rockaway and Five Towns Tomchei Shabbos organization that now delivers food of all kinds—free of charge with no strings attached—to over 300 families in this area alone.
So every Thursday night prior to the onset of Shabbos, and on other days prior to the advent of the holidays, scores of people fan out around the community to drop off food packages at the apartments and homes of community people identified as requiring food supplies in what are obviously particularly trying times.
Last week, there was supposed to be an additional snowfall on Thursday, so just to be certain that the weekly effort did not have to be canceled due to hazardous driving conditions, Ms. Lamm and her team of volunteers decided to move the distribution back to Wednesday night to avoid any difficulties. That also meant that my appointment to join one of the many food deliverers was changed, so I was ready on Wednesday evening instead to make the appointed rounds.
Just to set the record straight, I did some Tomchei Shabbos deliveries here in the Five Towns a couple of times before Pesach, when the organization works at full throttle through several nights prior to the chag to make certain that all families in need have the requirements and staples for the Sedarim and yom tov meals.
But this was the first time that I would be going out on a regular pre-Shabbos run. I was paired up with Cedarhurst residents Yakov Bodner and his daughter Shani, a student at SKA. The Bodners are part of the Red Shul rotation of volunteers whose task it is to make sure that their designated area is effectively covered and the deliveries made.
Jeanette Lamm explains how events unfolded some time ago and how it came to be that she wound up as the coordinator of this pincer movement that distributes food for Shabbos throughout Far Rockaway and the far reaches of the Five Towns.
She says that the organization, which was founded 25 years ago by Rabbi Dovid Shenker, the director and prime moving force today behind JEP–Long Island, used to work out of a few trailers in Far Rockaway back when it served about 30 or so families. It then moved over to Yeshiva Darchei Torah for a short while, and then, before setting up shop at TAG, it was supposed to be at the Lamm home in Far Rockaway for a few weeks, which ended up in actuality being for a few years. That’s the short version of how Jeanette Lamm took the helm of what would eventually become a massive Tomchei Shabbos operation.
Today, it is headquartered in TAG in Far Rockaway, where the 12th-graders, along with other students and administration members, oversee the packing of almost 300 boxes of food every Thursday for distribution around the community. Most of the food is purchased from wholesalers who deliver things like challah and cake fresh on Thursdays so that recipients can enjoy them for Shabbos. Last year, the budget for Tomchei Shabbos out here was $650,000.
This coming Sunday, February 23, the organization will host its annual fundraising breakfast, at the home of Ariel and Baruch Glaubach in Lawrence. The reception is the exclusive revenue-generating event of the year for Tomchei Shabbos. As Jeanette explains, it is about raising much-needed funding so that it can continue to provide this vital service, but it is also an opportunity for the community to come out and demonstrate their personal appreciation for Tomchei Shabbos’s efforts.
So, about last Wednesday—it was cold and icy and we were working in both the immediate aftermath of one snowfall, and directly prior to another. We enter the TAG gym, which is lined with several dozen remaining boxes. The large room is neat and well organized. Yakov Bodner signs in, a way of confirming that his area is covered for this week, and then we load the car with four large boxes for four families in those tall buildings on Seagirt Boulevard at about Beach 20th Street in Far Rockaway.
At about the same time, others are in the process of dropping off boxes at front doors of apartments and homes, the boxes packed with a bottle of grape juice, challah for Shabbos, and other items. Our boxes are loaded into the elevator of one of these buildings with hundreds of apartments. It is Wednesday instead of the usual Thursday delivery day, so some are reluctant to open their doors.
It quickly becomes apparent that while these deliveries are mostly about the food that is supplied, it is also about the social interaction that takes place, however fleeting it may be. We made four deliveries on three different floors in one building on Seagirt. I managed to walk partially into just one apartment of a man who resides alone. He told me he was 87 years old and that he looks forward to the deliveries and the people that bring them every week.
He had a heavy Russian accent, though he may have been living in New York for 20 years or more. I inquired about his well-being, and in that heavy accented English he was very soon telling me that he received a head injury while fighting for Russia in World War II. He pointed to his head and said something that I did not understand. Then he just kept repeating one word—contusions. He apparently was injured, and while I cannot be certain, here we are 70 years after the war and our friend waiting for his fish and challah from people who care is still living with pain inflicted during that war.
I asked Jeanette about the impression out there that there is some kind of contradiction between the existence of an organization like Tomchei Shabbos and the notion that the Five Towns is one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the world. “Wealthy areas also have people in need,” she said. “Beyond the façade, plenty of people are living in poverty,” she added, “and yes, there are people living near us who do not have money for food.”
Jeanette Lamm talks about the empty refrigerators that she has seen over the years and plenty of people who were doing OK but then fell on hard times and need assistance. As to how people go about receiving Tomchei Shabbos deliveries, she says, it usually comes about as a result of a rabbi or social worker or sometimes even a neighbor who has identified a family that can use assistance. It’s that simple.
Right now, Ms. Lamm and her full gamut of volunteer associates are focused on Sunday’s breakfast and the goal of raising the funds needed to provide for Purim and Pesach for those in need. Pesach food is a huge expense, Jeanette says, and the prices of food keep increasing from year to year—and the number of families requiring assistance keeps growing, too. So there is the challenge that Tomchei Shabbos is presented with for the coming holidays. It is one of those problems with a not uncommon but still nevertheless rather elementary solution—more money.
That is the matter at hand. So this undertaking and entire enterprise quite simply is about two things: there is food, and then there is food for thought.