Across New York City this Thanksgiving, hundreds of soup kitchens will serve thousands of free meals to people in need. Masbia, headquartered in Borough Park, Brooklyn, is no exception—but it does stand apart from the pack. Turkey and cranberry sauce will be on the menu at Masbia, but so will cholent, the bean stew traditionally served on Shabbat.
Masbia is New York City’s only kosher soup kitchen, with a large Orthodox Jewish clientele. “In the haredi world, the idea of a chag [holiday] is different,” said Masbia’s founder and executive director, Alexander Rapaport, himself a Hasidic Jew. Some religious Jews care little about Turkey Day; in the ultra-Orthodox community, for instance, schools are open on Thanksgiving, and most people aren’t watching a parade or a football game. But they do like to invoke the spirit of the Sabbath a bit early, so a bowl of cholent on Thursday evening it is.
And yet, Masbia serves diners of all backgrounds, not just Orthodox ones, so the soup kitchen embraces the secular holiday as well. Hence, the turkey and cranberry sauce. “From a charity point of view, we feel why not offer something to make everyone feel comfortable?” Rapaport said.
Perhaps even more than Masbia’s kosher certification, this focus on customers’ comfort distinguishes it from other emergency food providers. “If you close your eyes and think of a soup kitchen, you think of someone standing in line and a volunteer smacking something down on to their plate,” Rapaport said. The ambiance at Masbia’s flagship and two satellite locations (in the heavily religious neighborhoods of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Rego Park, Queens) skews toward a restaurant model: Meals are delivered to guests at their seats, and a volunteer wait staff brings baskets of bread and pours water tableside. The only thing missing at the end of the meal is a check.
Behind the scenes, Rapaport, whose characteristic black hat and chest-length beard are offset by a ready smile and seemingly boundless energy, runs around the city—shuttling between Masbia’s locations, managing payroll and bills, and finding creative ways to spread the word about his organization’s work. In August, for example, Masbia hosted a massive benefit dinner with a Chopped-style competition modeled off of the real-life challenges their chef and volunteers face each day. (Full disclosure: I was among the competitors that evening.)
The kitchen, meanwhile, is run by Chef Ruben Diaz, a non-Jewish chef who has become a master of the kosher laws—and also of culinary improvisation. Each day he transforms donations of beets or zucchini, frozen tilapia, or chicken necks into nourishing meals for an average of 500 diners. (The food is all cooked in the Flatbush location and then shuttled to the other sites.) At his side is a rotating cast of volunteers who contribute a combined 1,000 hours each week of chopping, washing dishes, and serving clients.
During Thanksgiving week, with so many people clamoring to volunteer, Rapaport said Masbia uses the extra manpower to get ahead. “We have them prep and bag fresh vegetables—squash, carrots, celery—for the freezer, so they can be ready for the next couple of weeks.”
Even without a holiday, Thursdays are especially hectic at Masbia. “It’s our busiest day,” Rapaport said; across the three locations, up to 700 dinners are served over the course of a typical Thursday. In addition, Thursday is pantry day, when families and individuals can pick up assembled food packages—enough fruits, vegetables, meat, and pantry staples to cook nine meals for each member of the family. Each week, Rapaport said, some 30,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, meat, and non-perishables move through Masbia’s doors.
On Masbia’s first night, in April 2005, volunteers prepped meals for two dozen people. Only eight diners showed up. But within a few months, the numbers began to swell. While Masbia is open to anyone who is hungry, regardless of background, kosher-keeping families continue to make up a significant portion of visitors.
The subject of Jewish poverty, meanwhile, is considered taboo and not widely talked about. But it should be: Nearly half a million New York-area Jews live in poor or near-poor households, and the numbers are growing. When Masbia was approved for membership to the Food Bank of NYC in 2008, “it was a big deal,” said Karin Fleisch, a consultant specializing in food security who worked for the Food Bank of NYC at that time. For the first time, she said, “hungry women, men, and children who kept kosher had a consistent source for a hot meal.”
Adding up the served dinners at three locations and the weekly pantry packages, Masbia serves 1.5 million meals each year—on a $2.5 million budget of private and in-kind donations. “Close to 1 million of those dollars is donations of raw food,” Rapaport said. In addition to relying on the Food Bank of NYC, City Harvest, and the government for food donations, “they source food from CSAs, farms, and food manufacturers,” said Fleisch. “It is very sophisticated.”
It is also very complicated. Rapaport said that inventory and cash flow are always issues, and his workdays are typically spent “moving from crisis to crisis” to keep things afloat. “In a perfect world, we would be fundraising for next year’s budget, not to pay today’s bills,” he said. When Masbia first opened in Borough Park, Rapaport’s vision for a dignified meal included a “no bread-line” policy—meaning that nobody was made to stand on the street and wait for a table to open. These days on Thursdays, he said, there’s a line out the door to the corner. “Sometimes it feels like hunger is winning,” he said.
Growing up, Rapaport’s family modeled an approach to charity that made a powerful impression on him. “At my grandmother’s, every Saturday there were guests, usually guests that no one wanted to invite to their table,” he said in an interview with NationSwell. “These are the people she taught us to care for.”
Today he tries to set a similar example for his children, but he admits that the hectic, 24/six work schedule takes a toll on him personally. “It is hard for my family to see me coming home late so many nights,” he said. The 10-year-old organization, he said, has not yet had the break where it moves from a grassroots to a more corporate model. There are some benefits to maintaining a startup mentality. In 2012, for example, it allowed Masbia to jump in and provide thousands of meals for people who lost their homes or were stuck inside on top-floor apartments after Hurricane Sandy. More bureaucracy would have made it harder to have such a speedy response.
Still, Rapaport dreams of the time when he might have the staff power and structures in place to transform Masbia into a well-oiled machine. For now, he takes things one day at a time, focusing on showing kindness and compassion to guests, wherever they are in the given moment. “The word masbia meals ‘satiate,’ ” he said. “For everyone who comes through our doors, that is exactly what we try to do.”