Vaad Hoeir fund reaches out to offer help at Passover


John D. Rockefeller Jr. once urged individuals to think of giving not as a duty but as a privilege. That can be a challenge for some people.

Merle Hartstein is not one of those people. For her, it’s both.

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“I’m doing it because it is what Jews are supposed to do,” she said. “As a Jew, I am obligated to do these things.”

Fortunately, Hartstein has a solid vehicle for fulfilling her obligations. The Rabbi Sholom Rivkin Moas Chitim Fund, which the retired bookstore owner has chaired as a volunteer for a decade and a half, helps supply kosher meals to Jews in need, especially around Passover. Moas chitim means “money for wheat.”

Most recipients receive gift certificates to Schnucks and a kosher butcher while others get fresh food from Simon Kohn’s on Old Olive Street Road in Creve Coeur.

The important thing, Hartstein said, is that the process is a private one.

“I can say without a doubt that this is the most discreet and confidential program around. No one knows. I know because I need to know and that’s it,” said Hartstein, who again returns to the language of obligation. “That’s what Jews are supposed to do. That’s their mandate, to always respect the other and give them the dignity that they deserve.”

Moas Chitim also helps to keep people connected to the community. That’s not as big of a challenge in Creve Coeur, University City or Chesterfield but Hartstein’s program often runs further afield serving recipients in cities around the region such as Troy, Fenton or St. Charles. In past years, it’s even brought kosher meals to prisoners.

“The people we help are Jews but the areas are not necessarily where Jews live,” she said. “I think the thing that touches me the most is that we just got a thank you note from someone who lives in South City. Many of these people are very distant from the organized and institutionalized Jewish community.”

The program provides food and money year round supplying 200 families but Passover is particularly important.

“Passover is a holiday that few people give up,” she said. “The memories are very, very strong and they want to maintain it. No matter where they live, they do know its Passover and they are grateful to be able to celebrate it.”

Hartstein said that the program’s beginnings in St. Louis go back to the 1920s, but as an idea Moas Chitim’s roots run far deeper than that. According to Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, which administers the program, Jewish law requires such charity.

“It’s a 2,000-year-old concept,” he said. “It is mandatory for to give money for Passover to the poor people of your city.”

And that money does have a direct effect helping recipients to pay for everything from food to utility bills. Zuravin said the Vaad takes great pride in keeping the operation, which is largely funded by private donations, running efficiently. He estimates administrative costs at about 1-to-1 percent.

“Most charities raise money and spent 30 percent on administration,” he said. “Here we’ve mastered the art of spending a very low amount in proportion.”

Names of the program’s potential recipients come from all over but a major source is Jewish Family & Children’s Service. Sue Rundblad, program coordinator and community outreach for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, said one rewarding aspect of the program is that it provides the opportunity to partner with Zuravin’s organization.

“The Vaad does a wonderful job,” Rundblad said. “They raise all the money themselves and what’s unique about it is they just say you tell us who needs help and we’ll make sure they have it.”

She also echoed Hartstein’s sentiments regarding the expressions of gratitude that have come in from recipients.

“The best part is that it’s really nice to get thank you notes and thank you calls,” she said. “Everyone is so appreciative of what’s being done for them. That’s the beauty of the whole thing.”

That means a lot to so many, especially in tough economic times.

“It gets so expensive for families that are having so many other things going on,” Rundblad said. “If we can make the holidays better then that’s what we are all about.”

To donate or for more information on the fund, call 314-569-2770 or mail donations to the Vaad Hoeir, #4 Millstone Campus Dr., St. Louis, MO, 63146. Checks should be made payable to Moas Chitim Fund.