Josephine Basher rolls her shopping cart around a small store that looks like a 7-Eleven, its aisles and refrigerators stocked with everything from diapers to Frosted Flakes to fresh produce.
But unlike an ordinary market, the groceries here are free, and the Bashers — Josephine, her husband Hershel, their 14-year-old daughter Reena, Chava and Rivka ages 7 and 5, Aryeh and Penina ages 3 and 1½, and 5-month-old Menachem Mendel snuggling in his mother’s arms — are the only shoppers in the store.
They are at the Jewish Community Service (JCS) Kosher Food Bank in North Miami, where this holiday season 333 struggling families will be able to stock up not only on kosher staples, but also on candles, menorahs, dreidels, bicycles and toys to celebrate Hanukkah. Each family shops privately in half-hour appointments.
As the Basher kids dash around the store, excited as jumping beans to choose Hanukkah gifts ranging from MP3 players to shiny new bicycles, their mother says, “The JCS kosher food bank is an amazing resource to our family. We’re so blessed to be in the program.”
Bonnie Schwartzbaum, who coordinates the food bank, calls it “one spoke in the wheel of JCS services.” It is often a client’s first point of contact with JCS, but not the last.
When a person comes to JCS for food, their eligibility is determined based on federal poverty guidelines. In an interview, Schwartzbaum learns the reasons behind their need for assistance. “If they need a job, or a case worker, we can help them get that support,” she says. “Whatever they need to get on their feet again.”
Kosher food is more expensive, and for a person wanting to keep with tradition, it can mean a choice between buying food or paying the electric bill. “Even a $2 box of birthday candles means a choice over a loaf of bread,” Schwartzbaum says.
Recently JCS supplied all the fixings for Reena Basher to have a birthday party. “Her self-esteem and confidence climbed through the roof as she was able to invite friends and classmates to our home for a meaningful and plentiful event,” her mother wrote in a thank you letter. The Bashers’ relationship with JCS began 16 years ago when Josephine and Hershel served as foster parents for the agency. Now with children of their own, their limited income is strained to care for one of their children with Down syndrome.
“It’s not a source of pride to have to rely on a resource like the food bank,” Josephine Basher says, “but instead of feeling bad that we’re taking, they make us feel that we’re giving others the opportunity to do a kindness. We feel embraced. That’s the blessing of coming here.”
The Hebrew word for the spirit of giving is Tikkun Olam. It means ‘to repair the world.’
“Repairing the world is the obligation of every Jewish person,” says Schwartzbaum, who volunteered at the food bank before becoming its coordinator a year and a half ago. “When people ask if I find my job depressing, I tell them it’s just the opposite. To help people every day feels wonderful. I have the best job in the world.”
JCS collects kosher food year-round from synagogues, 18 schools, and vendors like Sysco, Best Value and Amazing Savings. One donor gives $400/month for dairy foods. Another ensures that for every visit, clients can get a pound of chopped meat and a package of kosher hot dogs. Still another with a farm in Redland in South Miami-Dade gives avocadoes and mangoes in season. JCS even has a QR code magnet that donors can scan with their smart phones to see an up-to-the-minute list of the 10 most needed items.
Schwartzbaum checks the Publix and Winn-Dixie websites for sales: “This week, all canned veggies are seven for $10. I’m a pro shopper, that’s for sure,” she says.
Known as the festival of lights, Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday, but its importance has grown because December is such a festive time of year. In the Second Century, the Maccabean Revolt returned the Holy Temple to Jews for worship, but there was only enough ritual oil to light it for one day. Amazingly, the oil lasted for eight days, allowing time to press more oil to keep the light burning.
Hershel Basher says eating foods fried in oil like potato latkes and sufganiyot — sugar-coated donuts filled with jelly or custard – celebrates the miracle. Eight candles are lit, one for every night of Hanukkah, signifying that good can overcome evil. “Darkness often represents evil, and the light of one tiny candle can fill a room,” Hershel says.
He explains that the game of dreidel recalls a time when Jews were not allowed to practice or teach their religion. Using coins and a four-sided top, the dreidel game fooled Greek soldiers into thinking the Jews were gambling, when they were actually studying their bible, the Torah.
It is Friday afternoon, and as the hour of the Jewish Sabbath approaches, the Bashers orchestrate their groceries, Hanukkah gifts and six children for the trip home.
“To observe our faith is important to us,” says Josephine Basher. “It’s purposeful. It’s meaningful. That’s how we’re going to raise our children: To be God-fearing and kind.”