After the sun has set Sunday evening, Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and his family are going to light a candle. In its small halo of flickering light, they will roam from room to room in their Overland Park home hunting bits of bread and pretzels. The next morning, they will burn their small collection of found morsels, symbolically ridding their house of leavened items, or chametz.
The Passover holiday commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt where they were enslaved. Once the pharaoh released the Jews, they hurriedly left Egypt. In their haste, they packed bread that hadn’t had a chance to rise. To commemorate their journey, the consumption of chametz, or leavened foods such as bread, pastry, and pretzels, is forbidden. Passover begins Monday evening, and for most Jews celebrating the holiday outside of Israel, it will last eight days. (In Israel, the holiday is celebrated over the course of seven days.)
The Yanklowitz family won’t find any chametz to burn other than the few morsels they’ve planted.
“There are really two options, either you burn your chametz or you lock it away and you don’t touch them for the week,” Yanklowitz said. “I’m trying to promote donating more and more. Let’s take all that stuff and give it away.”’
In the foyer of the Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park where Yanklowitz, 31, is the senior rabbi, a barrel labeled “chametz” sits next to stacked boxes of Passover-certified matzah bread and jars full of fuzzy-looking gefilte fish. The Jewish Family Services food pantry will collect the barrels and their contents a few days before Passover begins.
“The majority of Jews will observe Passover (dietary laws) even if they don’t observe kosher,” said Adrienne Kizer, director of the food pantry.
The pantry is the only kosher food pantry in the Kansas City area, making it an especially important service during Passover. The pantry opened its doors in October, one of several ways the Jewish community is reaching out to help the hungry, the lonely and the kosher.
Recipients don’t need to be Jewish to take advantage of the many services provided by Jewish Family Services, but about 75 percent of the families who use the food pantry are.
In preparation for the holiday, the food pantry has doubled its efforts, collecting traditional Passover products as well as discarded chametz to provide to non-Jewish pantry recipients.
Women in yoga gear pad lightly downstairs to the basement of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. The rooms that open into the long basement hallway are more private than those upstairs in the open, airy main floors of the center. There’s little chance passers-by will glimpse anyone wrangling with an awkward pose through the narrow windows of the yoga studio’s door. Adjacent to the yoga studio is a crossfit gym. Gymnastics rings hang from the ceiling, the only surface of the room not entirely covered with black foam pads. Any activity that requires that much padding is one whose participants may appreciate a little privacy.
The basement seems a safe place, a refuge. Which is why the Jewish Family Services food pantry occupies two rooms near the bottom of a staircase. The pantry aids more than 150 “food insecure” families.
“The world is tough, and we all crave gentle, caring spaces. The food pantry strives to create that safe, caring space,” said Yanklowitz.
Soothing music from a yoga class drifts down the hallway and mixes with the sound of humming industrial refrigerators as food pantry volunteers pack boxes for home delivery. Jerry Klopper, 75, jauntily goes about his assigned tasks, zipping between boxes, transferring plastic utensils and organizing produce. Klopper can afford to give his time to the food pantry, but not too long ago he had little of anything to spare and requested help from Jewish Family Services.
“I had a couple of bad years financially and I qualified for the in-home helpers. They were just unbelievable. They did little stuff that I just couldn’t do,” he said.
Now that Klopper and his wife have emerged from hardship, they feel a strong need to give back to the community that helped them.
“The last time I stocked shelves, I was 11,” Klopper said as he filled boxes with leftover food from that morning’s donor breakfast. “Volunteering gets me out of the house. It’s a good feeling. And it’s a comfort that they’re here. God forbid I ever need the food pantry, but it’s good to know that they’re here and that the people who run this don’t make you feel guilty about using these services.”
Kizer said many recipients are ashamed of their vulnerability and embarrassed to be seen in the food pantry.
“We don’t want to make them feel judged, so we deliver boxes to homes and offer to meet them at their car with their groceries if they come in to the pantry,” Kizer said.
The kosher food pantry opened five months ago. Don Goldman, director of Jewish Family Services, said that, at the time, many of the agency’s life crisis counselors were working with clients who required food pantry services. Jewish Family Services took care of most of their needs, but had to direct them to pantries in the area that may or may not have kosher items on their shelves.
“The biggest challenge with the food pantry is keeping it stocked,” Goldman said. “Right now we’re well stocked, but that may not last long.”
The pantry aids about 150 families each month. By the end of the year, the number of recipients may top 250.
“If you look at the other services we were providing, it’s an oddity that we weren’t providing a food pantry,” said Kizer, director of the food pantry. “We had the opportunity, and it made sense to start providing the service, so we did. Now we can take care of all their needs right here. They don’t have to go someplace else.”
Before the food pantry opened, John Burstein, 58, of Shawnee, was barely scraping by.
“I needed help a few years ago because of money, and (Jewish Family Services) helped me,” Burstein said. “Before the pantry opened, they were able to provide me with some food, but not nearly the amount they’re providing now.”
Burstein is Jewish but not kosher. He does, however, have a restricted diet. As a diabetic, he tries to stay away from sugar and sodium.
Although his mobility is slightly hampered and he walks with a cane, Burstein drives himself to the pantry to pick up groceries each month. Because he can’t cook very well anymore, the volunteers help him pick out ingredients for easy-to-make dishes. They also help him find diabetic-friendly items.
“If I didn’t have the food pantry … I’d go hungry some weeks,” Burstein said.
When he gets home, Burstein loads his food onto a utility cart to haul it into his kitchen.
“I’ve got some onions and carrots and I’m going to get a roast one of these days and put it all in a Crock-Pot,” Burstein said.
This year, to kick off Passover, Burstein plans on having a seder. A seder traditionally involves a variety of kosher dishes, matzo, four glasses of kosher wine or grape juice, and a retelling of the story of the Exodus.
Burstein said he hasn’t had one in years, but this year he’s getting a special sack of groceries from the food pantry and a cooked chicken.
“I may invite some friends over. It’s just something special for me, something out of the ordinary, that I can do this year,” he said.
Most Jews consider being kosher a spiritual choice, others a mandate. Either way, kosher can be costly. Often the prices of kosher products reflect the costs of additional staff and specialized procedures required during manufacture.
The cost of kosher doesn’t end at the checkout line. Kosher laws require adherent Jews to separate meat and dairy entirely; a pan used to cook meat cannot ever come in contact with a dairy product. Typically, Orthodox Jews adhere to a strict kosher diet.
“Kosher dietary laws forbid the mixture of meat and dairy. We don’t eat meat and dairy together and we don’t cook it together. That requires us to have two different kitchens to make meat and dairy meals,” said Rabbi Simcha Morgenstern, administrative director of the Torah Learning Center in Overland Park.
Conservative or Orthodox Jewish families may not maintain two separate kitchens, but having separate sets of pots, pans and utensils is common.
Kosher dietary restrictions and regulations can magnify fiscal hardships for kosher Jews. The Jewish Family Services food pantry tries to keep such hardship in check and also ensure that recipients can stay true to their religious values and beliefs, especially through difficult times.
“In our small city there aren’t many kosher options,” said Yanklowitz. “I don’t know if there’s truly a problem with prices here or not, but I know there’s not a lot of competition, and competition is what brings prices down.”
For many Jews, being kosher is more than just a diet; it entails membership in a small, close-knit community. They eat at the same kosher-certified restaurants, shop at the same markets, and tend to worship similarly. Losing one’s place in the kosher community due to fiscal hardship or physical infirmity can add a layer of devastation to already difficult circumstances.
“Kosher comes to define your social community,” Yanklowitz said. “The food pantry makes sure that no one has to abandon their kosher conviction despite costs.”
Holidays can make hard times seem even harder. Particularly for struggling Jewish households, the Passover holiday can bring more heartache than joy.
For Jews who have struggled to maintain kosher or had to abandon kosher in order to feed their families, the Jewish Family Services food pantry can regularly provide kosher options. During the Passover holiday, the pantry is taking on the additional task of gathering and distributing traditional Passover items such as matzah balls, gefilte fish, farfel, and macaroons.
During regular operation, the food pantry stocks its shelves with food from Harvester’s food bank and collects kosher items from a different synagogue from around the area each month. During the month of March, every synagogue in the Kansas City area (most are in Overland Park) has been assigned one or two traditional Passover treats and the food pantry has placed barrels in each synagogue to collect them. Each synagogue also has a separate barrel for chametz.
“My synagogue views its central mission as finding avenues to give to others in need,” Yanklowitz said. “The holiday of Passover, in particular, is a time to think about the liberation of others. Many in our city are suffering from hunger and poverty, so we’re making that a theme of our Passover.”
Yanklowitz relishes the chance to tackle big problems and approaches them with indefatigable vigor. He said his vigor hasn’t flagged in the six weeks since his first child, a daughter, was born, though he’s spent more time burning the midnight oil to keep everything afloat.
A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, Yanklowitz has been named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of the most influential rabbis in America. He’s attended the past two White House Hanukkah celebrations and has founded two activist organizations: Uri L’Tzedek, which focuses on social justice issues, and Shamayim V’aretz, which advocates animal welfare and Jewish veganism.
Yanklowitz said he hasn’t specifically urged his congregants to donate vegan foods, but has tried to focus on larger issues.
“My basic theme is that Jewish tradition is not just about ritual, it’s about a moral transformation geared towards societal change,” Yanklowitz said. “So whether it’s animal welfare, social justice, or hunger — that’s what holidays are about for me. That’s what the ritual is about.”
Recently, Kizer, the food pantry director, referred 10 of the pantry’s neediest kosher recipients to Kosher Meals on Wheels, a new service beginning deliveries following Pass- over.
Susie Klinock, a recent retiree, established Kosher Meals on Wheels after gathering standards and best practices from Meals on Wheels organizations across the nation.
Klinock said she wanted to do two things two things when she retired: learn more about her religion, and get involved with charities. While pursuing her retirement goals, Klinock stumbled upon what she thought was a dire need in her community: a growing number of older individuals becoming estranged from the Jewish community as their mobility decreased.
Klinock said Rabbi BenZion Friedman and his wife, Esther, who regularly visit those who are homebound, told her many of the housebound weren’t only hungry for company, they were just plain hungry. The Friedmans, who direct the Torah Learning Center, told her some were receiving Meals on Wheels, but their inability to cook for themselves had spiritual side effects.
“It’s not necessary for our clients to keep kosher,” Klinock said, “but many have been kosher all their lives and when they could no longer cook their own meals, they couldn’t continue.”
Kosher Meals on Wheels will start serving 10 to 15 clients after the Passover holiday. In addition to delivering meals, volunteers will spend at least 10 minutes in each household visiting with the recipient.
“A big part of our program is the visitation aspect,” Klinock said.
Klinock’s goal is to serve 50 people by the end of the year, but she suspects the need is far greater, perhaps upward of 150 elderly and housebound individuals to whom kosher is an important value.
“Ten years ago someone did a research project and found the need for a kosher Meals on Wheels,” Klinock said, “but no group was willing to take it on because kosher food is more expensive.”
In addition to the food being more expensive, Klinock said the logistics of a kosher program is pricier than their nonkosher counterparts. The program will maintain two kitchens (one for dairy and one for meat) because of the sheer quantity of food it will be preparing. The first 10 recipients will get a single delivery of five meals, at least one of which will be refrigerated and ready to eat. The other meals will be frozen to eat later.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” Klinock said. “When we started I had no clue how big it was. But the need is so great. We’re talking about lots of meals, lots of food, lots of lonely people.”