Volunteers ease food-scarcity shame quietly, gently

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

In 2007, about the time the economy was bottoming out, Rachel Lubchansky attended a national leadership conference where she heard about a program that assisted observant Jews in need of food for Shabbat. Lubchansky, director of communications and admissions at Epstein Hebrew Academy, knew exactly who to approach in St. Louis to help start a similar program: Merle Hartstein. 

“Merle was really involved in caring for people in our community in a quiet, gentle way,” says Lubchansky, 35, who is a member of Young Israel and the mother of 5-year-old triplets. “People felt comfortable talking to Merle, telling her if they were having difficulties. They knew she understood how important it was to keep their trust, to be circumspect and to maintain these people’s dignity.”

Together, the powerhouse duo of Lubchansky and Hartstein started the Vaad Hoeir-sanctioned Barbara Mendelson Tomchei Shabbos Fund, which assists with Shabbat and Yom Tov. Hartstein, who was named as a Jewish Light Unsung Hero in 2011, passed away in November at age 77.

“We began with six families in 2008,” Lubchansky says. “Now we serve closer to 40 families in the Vaad community. Our mission is to provide kosher food so that we empower families to prepare their own Shabbat meal.”

Families in need receive kosher chickens, eggs, produce, canned goods and even Shabbat treats for the children on a weekly basis. The nonprofit, which is committed to maintaining clients’ anonymity, operates a pantry where people can choose their groceries privately by appointment. Families are identified by a color instead of their names. If that isn’t enough assurance of privacy, they can arrange to get the food delivered.

“We hope that our services are temporary, until a family can regain its financial footing,” says Lubchansky, who adds that everyone involved in Tomchei Shabbos are volunteers.

Families usually are referred to the program by rabbis and leaders in the Orthodox community. But Hartstein knew of many who could benefit from this service and often reached out to them.

“We understand there is a lot of shame that comes in not having enough resources to provide for your family,”  Lubchansky says. “Merle especially understood this and kept so much to herself. She was quietly trying to identify more people who need our help. She held that information close and took it with her when she passed.”

In addition to weekly Shabbat meals, Tomchei Shabbos helps families with food and gift cards around the Jewish holidays. 

“At Passover, for instance, we give out additional matzah and chicken and eggs,” Lubchansky says. “For Shavuot, where traditionally no meat is eaten, we will give out dairy, blintzes, cheese and the like. It just depends on the holiday.”

Funding for the organization comes primarily from individual donors. 

“They know their money is going to feed those in need because our administrative expenses are so low and we have no paid professionals,” Lubchansky says. 

Additional funding has come from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and through a collaboration with the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

“Our congregation supports Tomchei Shabbos with collections and donations,” says Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion in Olivette. “The needs in the community are so great, especially now, with more people out of work and more single-parent families. (Tomchei Shabbos) is a blessing to the community.”

Lubchansky would like to see the program grow to meet what her gut tells her is a greater need. 

“One thing Merle taught me is that need comes in all different forms,” Lubchansky says. “There are more people in our community who would benefit from having the services of a food pantry.

“But the shame is so great. People are so worried about coming forward. What’s most important to us as an organization is that we always maintain people’s privacy while serving them as best we can.”