With the howling winds of Hurricane Sandy bearing down, we pulled out the flashlights in case electricity went out and filled pitchers with water in case it stopped flowing through the faucets of our Brooklyn row house. Thankfully none of it came to pass in our area, though just a few neighborhoods away Sandy left that and worse in her wake. On Wednesday, in the heavily impacted Red Hook neighborhood, hundreds of residents dragged sodden mattresses and other belongings out of seawater-flooded basements, filling the containers that have sprung up like curbside mushrooms. One of New York City’s largest supermarkets, Fairway, was discarding every bit of food in the store, which was contaminated by the tainted waters.
Though New Yorkers had to deal with this, and even greater troubles, Hurricane Sandy also brought me an unexpected pleasure. The day after the storm I, like countless other New York City mothers, wondered how to keep my cabin-fevered children occupied for another school-less day.
I saw an announcement that Masbia was looking for volunteers. Masbia is, as its founder, Boro Park Hasid Alexander Rapaport likes to describe it, “a restaurant without checks.”
Masbia receives donations of raw ingredients from farmers markets, kosher food distributors and food pantries like City Harvest. Rapaport and his small kitchen staff, with the help of volunteers, manage somehow to turn this into a hot three-course meal every day of the week except Shabbat. All of his staff lives outside of Midwood, Brooklyn, where the kitchen is located, and since there was no public transportation running, Rapaport concluded that, the day after Sandy visited, he wouldn’t be able to provide meals to the 500 hungry people who usually dine at their three locations in Brooklyn and Queens each day.
He had already put up signs on Masbia’s windows saying they were closed for the day, Rapaport said, when New York City Council member Brad Lander called asking if Masbia could provide fresh, low-sodium food for the more than 400 ill and senior citizens who were evacuated to an armory in Park Slope from assisted living facilities in Brooklyn and Queens.
As soon as I saw his post on Facebook I knew we could put our day to use. I got my daughters, 11 and 13, quickly dressed and recruited a friend whose daughters attend their Jewish day school. On our drive around Prospect Park’s outer edge on our way to Masbia, we were stunned by the number of enormous old trees uprooted by the storm, lying across cars that they had crushed like soda cans. City and park crews were already busy clearing the fallen giants off roadways and turning them into wood chips but there was much, much more still to be done. Police barricades blocked park entrances – all city parks were closed until they could be checked for dangerous conditions.
When we arrived at Masbia, a handful of volunteers were already busy peeling sweet potatoes, butternut squash and carrots. Small dining tables were pushed together to create long work spaces, covered with plastic sheets nearly invisible under the discarded peels. We grabbed peelers and knives and got to work. As soon as a large metal bowl was filled with prepped vegetables it was whisked into the kitchen, to be turned into that night’s dinner and tomorrow’s meals. A sense of urgency permeated the afternoon.
After a couple of hours we were finished with the raw veggies. We turned our attention to filling plastic containers with soup, and single-serving tins with pasta and tomato-sauced eggplant and zucchini, which were then put into portable warmers and rushed to the armory.
Until food was brought from Masbia, Rapaport told me at the end of his long day, armory volunteers were struggling to heat up city-supplied ready-to-eat rations with chemical heating packs in little paper containers to twice as many evacuees as had been expected.
All told, Masbia provided lunch and dinner to the 400 seniors and people with medical needs who are riding out Sandy’s aftermath on armory cots while their regular residences are pumped of flood water and their power restored.
In the end there was also enough food prepared that day for him to serve dinner to Masbia’s regular customers at the restaurant without checks, Rapaport told me. Masbia is funded by direct donations and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, along with UJA-Federation of New York. It serves anyone who walks through Masbia’s doors. Dinner guests include the poor and near-poor from the Jewish community. At the Midwood location, most guests are Orthodox or Russian but also others in need who live nearby, including non-Jews of Hispanic and Southeast Asian origin.
One of the things I like best about volunteering at Masbia is that all of us who pitch in there – some with peyes down to their shoulders, wigs and long skirts, others in jeans and t-shirts – are gathered to do good, brought together for the sake of a mitzvah. There is no sense of division, no tension between us as we chat while we peel.
Knowing that we were volunteering in a Jewish context to provide food for vulnerable New Yorkers of every religion and ethnicity at a moment of acute need felt particularly gratifying.
And seeing my kids eager to peel potatoes and clean off tables for the sake of doing good, that may have been the best feeling of all. Now if only I could figure out how to get them to help out at home