Food Not Certain for Jewish Poor


For the city's Jewish poor, it's hard to celebrate this time of year even though a host of local organizations are busy delivering meals and grocery staples to keep them from going hungry.

Maria Stern takes flour, oil, water and salt and regularly makes pounds of macaroni noodles. She estimates it costs her about 15 cents, and she can stretch a pound of noodles for seven meals. “I’m from the old school,” said Stern, 83. “I know how to cook very economically. I cook differently than the younger generation. They don’t know how to use these things.”

But even with her frugal culinary sense, Stern doesn’t usually have the means to fill her pantry or refrigerator on her own. She spent more than 30 years working as a nurse in Florida, but now she has only a limited checking account and no savings. Sociologists describe her situation as living with food insecurity.

According to a 2009 Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia study, there are approximately 11,300 Jewish people living in southeastern Pennsylvania who are at risk of hunger. That amounts to more than 6 percent of Jewish households.

Some people have not recovered from the economic recession. Some of them lack health insurance. Some have skills for a 1980s workplace, not the one that exists today. Others have received notice that their social safety net programs have been cut. And still others don’t have family members who can help cushion the fall.

Organizations like the Jewish Relief Agency, the Mitzvah Food Project, the Klein JCC’s programs in Center City and the Northeast and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, all of which get funding from the Federation as well as public and private funding, offer a mix of prepared food, grocery staples and social dining events to help their clients avoid skipping meals. People who work for the nonprofits say the demand goes up every year.

On Friday mornings, Stern attends the Klein Center City Senior Program’s lunch and discussion event. There are usually about 70 Jewish adults inside the Jewish Community Services Building, many of them on fixed incomes. They eat a kosher meal and enjoy entertainment or a guest speaker. For Stern, it is her only social event of the week, she said.

She has lived alone in Center City since 1998. That is how she faced many of the struggles in her life — alone. Born in Italy, her mother brought her to the United States when she was an infant and left her at a convent in New York.

She was in training to become a nun when the convent let her out for a year. She met a Hungarian Jew. Instead of returning to the monastic life, she taught him English and converted to Judaism.
Then after having five children, two of whom died, they divorced. Stern said she hasn’t spoken to one of her sons in over 50 years; he hasn’t forgiven her for splitting from his father.

Asked about her plans for Thanksgiving, she shrugs and says she doesn’t have any.  She appears sincere when she says that she’s fine. She is steady on her feet and clearheaded when she speaks. But her financial situation is tenuous.

Each month, she receives a $1,000 social security check. Most of that goes to rent and prescriptions. She used to receive $80 each month in food vouchers through the governmental Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A year ago, she received notice that she only qualified for $60.

Once a week, a volunteer with the Mitzvah Food Project delivers a week’s worth of meals to her apartment at 19th Street and JFK Boulevard. She receives a package of staples every other month from JRA. “The money doesn’t last till the end of the month, so that helps a lot.”

•    •    •

Bruce Springsteen played two shows in September in Philly, and for the first time since 1978, Lenny Vinokur wasn’t there. Vinokur recognizes that may seem trivial to other people who aren’t so devoted to The Boss, but to him it felt “like a pain in your heart.”

He is borrowing money from his brother, an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, to pay rent for his apartment at 19th and Lombard streets. He receives help from Jewish and public food assistance organizations.

Once every few months, he said he will treat himself to some Chinese take-out. Concert tickets, though, are an impossibility these days. “It’s a hard way to live,” Vinokur said.
Vinokur, 53, has been unemployed since early 2009. He attended college in his teens and 20s, but never finished.

He ran the copy center at the University of Pennsylvania for 17 years and lost his job when Xerox offered the school a cheaper alternative. He worked at Ikon, a Xerox rival, for 14 years and again became expendable when Ricoh, a Japanese office company, purchased the company for $1.6 billion.

Now, Vinokur spends most of his time inside his apartment trying to ignore a tingling sensation in his right arm.

He had double-knee replacement surgery a few years before losing his job. Then he developed carpal tunnel in his wrists, the result of compensating for his weak legs by lifting his large frame with his arms. He had surgery on his left wrist while still at Ikon, but the right wrist wasn’t as bad and so he decided to wait. Without health insurance, surgery is no longer feasible, he said.

Vinokur connected with a lawyer a few months ago, who is helping him apply for long-term disability benefits. The process could take a few more months.

For now, he relies on his brother, organizations like the Mitzvah Food Project and $16 a month from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The office is a bus ride away from his apartment, though, and by the time he pays for the tickets, it almost isn’t worth it, he said.

Vinokur said he has become increasingly insular. He is anxious about going outside during the day.

“You can go to the park but, if it’s in the day time, you are aware of two things,” he said. “You feel like you should be at a job, and you’re not on vacation, so you think, ‘What am I doing?’ You are also always aware that you have no money.”

•    •    •

Susan, a 54-year old woman who lives in Elkins Park, loved her job at a local restaurant. Her boss told her he thought she was going to be there for life.

But her body didn’t cooperate, she said. Susan, who asked that her last name not be used, said her condition causes her to be in constant pain and working is not currently a possibility.

“My family doctor said you are a car wreck, and we have to treat you like a car wreck and put you back together,” Susan said. She now depends in part on the Jewish Relief Agency for food and other help.

During Superstorm Sandy, her furnace stopped working, which made her house very cold. JRA added her problem to a running list that volunteers can pick from on a website, The site connects volunteers with clients.

A volunteer has made two trips to Susan’s home to work on the furnace. Last Friday he made a third trip with a needed part and fixed the machine.

Susan receives health insurance and financial assistance through the state. But the JRA is what she said fills “her hope pot.” “It’s the food itself, but it’s also the knowing that JRA cares enough that they are watching out for you,” she said.

Susan has received Thanksgiving baskets in past years but has not heard about any this year. She understands nonprofit organizations’ limitations, but is disappointed she likely won’t be able to make her turkey. Her secret is stuffing the inside of the bird with an orange and pricking its peel. “I miss making my wicked bird.”


To Find Help

Jewish Relief Agency

Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Mitzvah Food Project
Email: [email protected]

Klein JCC Adult Services Lunch Program

Jewish Family and Children’s ­Service
Email: [email protected]


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