A Natural Path to Remission?

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By: Sophia Franco

“No matter how hard we tried every month, we were getting deeper into debt,” one mother describes her experience before she found SFF. “We were constantly worried about the bills and how we were going to pay them. We were eating three-dollar chicken on Shabbat, and really it was just scraps. I couldn’t bear to serve it to my family. Then suddenly, like an angel, Sephardic Food Fund came along, and now we are able to feed our family without worry. The credit card and the way this organization is run is with the utmost dignity and respect for us, and we greatly appreciate it.”

“Before we first called out for help we were a little hesitant, it was so embarrassing, to say the least. But from the very start the people at Food Fund were amazing! Before SFF I was using WIC checks. I would shop at midnight so that no one would see me using them, and I was only allowed to buy government-mandated foods, nothing really nutritious, just inexpensive. Now I can buy what is needed, my pride intact.”

ot being able to cook, serve a meal, or eat can just destroy you, not to mention stress you out, or make you nervous or sick. We have seven family members. On Shabbat that number grows. If not for the help from SFF, our children would literally be starving.” 

It’s the day before Rosh Hashana. Of course, I’m in the supermarket again, for the fourth time this week. Before this I was at the fruit store, and the butcher. Afterwards I’ll need the paper goods store, and the cleaners. It’s on days like these, as I stand on line among the craziness in heavy prep mode that I have to remind myself…be thankful. Be thankful you have people to cook for. Be thankful you have the strength and energy to do the work. But most of all, be thankful for the food.

Food. Such a basic necessity, and yet, not everybody is able to put food on their tables, no matter how hard they try. My mother used to say, “Eat. People are starving in Africa.” But it is not third world countries that I’m talking about now. What would you do if you found out that your next-door neighbors were eating hot dogs for Shabbat dinner? Or that your child’s classmate was put to sleep early tonight because her mom couldn’t scrape up enough money to make a decent meal? What about a mom that stacks expired cans in the pantry to present the illusion that there is food in the home?

Are your eyebrows raised? They should be, because I am not describing strangers here. You may think that these needy families are “other” people. People you don’t know or people from other communities. They are not. Their last names are the same as yours. It might be your first cousin, or your friend’s grandfather, or even your own sister. Believe me, people in need don’t walk around with signs around their necks, but it doesn’t mean their refrigerators aren’t empty.

An Idea of How to Help Takes Off

About fifteen years ago a question was asked in shul about feeding the hungry. What could be more important than food? David Sitt thought. Miraculously, just at that moment, Shlomo Mizrahi of the synagogue Beit Shaul v’ Miriam came over to ask him for money for families in our community who needed help. Shlomo was already helping some of these people, many of them mainstream families, adding to their credit at Kosher Corner, so that they could shop easily and buy what they needed. David joined the cause and began collecting money. An email went out, and checks began arriving. That email was forwarded, and forwarded again. It was amazing; they were literally putting food on people’s tables. A few families became a dozen, and then twenty, and then more. Clearly, this issue was more common than they had imagined.

At that same time Rabbi Raymond Sultan was working for a few generous families, including Raymond Ashkenazi, helping to manage their charitable donations. Raymond got an email describing this “food fund,” and brought Rabbi Sultan in on the project. “I want to get involved in this. How can we help?” Rabbi Sultan asked. He then joined the cause with David and Shlomo. Elliot Sutton jumped on board, raising funds and putting systems in place, giving the SFF the ability to grow. Many others were brought in to brainstorm ideas. They struggled to find a solution, a better way. They knew that many of these needy families were too dignified to have their names on a list, or to carry vouchers that screamed as loud as any scarlet letter. These were people who were trying, but simply could not make ends meet.

“What about a basic credit card?” Rabbi Sultan suggested. “If it was a typical Visa or MasterCard, but we paid the bill, who would know?” And back and forth it went. There would have to be bank approval, and that wouldn’t be easy. There would have to be a credit limit, a monthly allowance, and the families would have to stay within budget. The families would have to ensure that the money was strictly going to feed their families, and nowhere else. The organizers would have to use so much discretion to protect the people using the fund, but this could work. From there it was a domino effect. The Sephardic Food Fund was born.

How Does the Sephardic Food Fund Operate?

The way it works is quite simple. Sometimes SFF becomes aware of a family that is struggling, and goes to them, offering help. Other times the head of the family himself comes and asks for assistance. Often it is far later than it should be, and debt has already mounted too high. Once a family makes a connection with Food Fund they are in good hands. An application must be filled out, but it is not too invasive. SFF knows that filling out such an application is a difficult step. Sometimes it is the wife who comes, unable to admit to her husband that it has come to this point. Rabbi Sultan explains, “When people come to us with their heads held down, the embarrassment thick and hoarse in their voices, we know that they are at their last stop. They need us, and we can feel their pain. We want to be there for them. We have to be there for them.”

The SFF believes in the old saying, “Man makes money; money does not make the man.” For this reason, counselors always speak kindly to the families; they protect their privacy and give them both an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. For many of these families, money is so tight.  This anonymous letter is heartbreaking: “No matter what we do and how hard we work, the expenses just didn’t go away or lessen by any means. They just seemed to grow. It had come to the point where I’d think twice before going to the supermarket. I found out my kids were taking other kids’ snacks at school. You can’t imagine what it feels like to deny your family the foods they love and ask for. It’s not the way we grew up and definitely not the way we want to be. SFF helps us to at least keep that part of our lives normal. It’s ok to say no, and live without luxuries, but going without food is not an option. As I wipe my tears now while writing this, I say thank you. Not only for the funds you allocate to us every month but also for the way it’s done. We are able to shop with pride and stand in line at the market normally. How amazing is that? Hopefully soon with Hashem’s help my family will be able to reciprocate to anyone in need, as it is my goal ultimately to be in the position to give.”

Who Are the SFF Recipients?

Some of the recipients are elderly. They are the royalty of this community, people we’d stand up for as they walk into a room, but they are not exempt from hunger. They cannot work anymore, and their children are struggling too, so they cannot help them. Being able to buy their own food gives them peace of mind and keeps them feeling somewhat liberated. Other recipients are single parents. One single mom works from 7:30am until 7:30pm. She can’t fit in a second job. Some recipients are widows, or widowers. It’s difficult to find yourself “in need” after being independent your whole life. And when the provider cannot provide, it puts a tremendous strain on the family. For many of these families, SFF is a lifesaver. “The distribution of the credit cards has brought back the dignity that I personally felt was lost every time I went shopping.”

Food Fund helps the elderly and disabled unconditionally, but SFF does not claim or want to be a long-term solution. Until you find a new business, until you find a new home, or until you get back on your feet, Food Fund is there. Jackie Shwecky describes how he helps fundraise for SFF. “When we see people drowning, trying to put the pieces back together, it’s tragic. I truly ask for money from my heart, with love, and when that happens people can’t help but give.

“One time I got a call from a young girl. Her father had become paralyzed and couldn’t work. David and I went to see them. Their cabinets were literally empty. David emptied his pockets on the spot. We called in a few Syrian women who cooked and brought some meals over immediately. Who can say no to feeding people, really? Imagine you are fasting, and you open your fridge and see just an apple. Gd forbid a thousand times, this is what it feels like for some of these families. When the electric bill comes, you can delay; the same goes for the rent, and the car payment. These can all be delayed. But there are no stall tactics for hunger. When a kid tugs on his mom’s skirts and says, ‘I’m hungry,’ it isn’t just a financial burden; it is an emotional one as well. When we see how much someone is suffering, live and in action, we know that we are nothing. We are dust.”

SFF Involves the Youth of Our Community in Fundraising

Today, Jackie is sharing his love of fundraising with the youth of the community. “These guys are charity superstars,” Jackie explains. Among his many apprentices is Ralph Mizrahi, just 23 years old. Alongside many of his friends, Ralph has brought the young people to life through volunteering over the last nine years (since 8th grade!). While raising awareness, Ralph and his friends have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for SFF and other organizations through tournaments, runs, and show stopping events for their peers.

Today, there are so many causes, and our phones ring incessantly with people asking for donations, but Sephardic Food Fund is an exception. SFF is trying to feed people, thousands of people, literally impacting their lives. There’s a ripple effect. You give them food and you are boosting their confidence, so that they can get up and help themselves. How much more appreciative and humble do we become when faced with such struggles? SFF is blind on both sides. Recipients do not know who’s feeding them and donors do not know who they’re feeding. Quietly, and with dignity, SFF is changing people’s futures. There’s nothing more basic than that. 

SFF Provides More Than Just Food

Elliot Sutton explains, “If you knew the results of what we do and saw it live, you could understand.Food fund recipients do not live in luxury, they survive on the minimum, but every week they know they will be able to buy food and their children will not have to feel deprived. We are not only filling up people’s pantries, we are filling up their homes with a calm and peaceful atmosphere.”

David Sitt continues, “SFF not only helps financially, it gives recipients the opportunity to be more patient, calmer, and better parents.So many families have gotten back on their feet, turned their lives around, and donated back to the cause. That’s the goal, all around. We all pray that Hashem will provide, but life takes its twists and turns and when we are faced with exhausting financial difficulties, to the point of not being able to put food on the table. It is a gift from Hashem to know there is a number to dial. The only issue is that SFF needs more money.

SFF Needs Financial Support

Right now, we feed over 300 families. The credit limit varies according the number of family members, plus any special considerations that are taken into account. And yet, there is always a need for more. We are not raising enough money. We are not giving out enough money. Towards the middle of the month our recipients are feeling squeezed. ‘Don’t cut me down,’ they plead. This is something SFF hears every day. We need more money each month per family, and unfortunately, there are still more families in the queue, empty-handed, waiting for our help. Until we bring in more funds, we cannot help them.”

Rabbi Sultan adds, “It is said that when a needy person calls out to Hashem for help, Hashem answers, but when that same needy person cries out in thanks, Hashem answers by sending berachot to the messenger who helped that needy person.” Please be that messenger. The Food Fund welcomes support from caring individuals, families, and foundations that share its principles and are committed to the idea of tzedakah in its purest and most discreet form. Overhead is kept to a bare minimum, and virtually every dollar raised is used to feed the hungry. To donate or to acquire services please call Sephardic Food Fund (866) SFF-FUND.