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Too Rich to be Poor

Barbara Bensoussan

The Met Council has just carried out its biggest food distribution of the year, providing 2.65 million pounds of Pesach packages to more than 50,000 Jewish households in the New York area. “You don’t have to be poor to be needy,” says council head William Rapfogel, who’s spent the last two decades alleviating the pain and hopelessness of thousands of New York’s elderly, poor, and crisis-ridden.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Before Pesach a volunteer from Met Council arrived at the listed address and was surprised to hear children’s voices behind the door, as she was used to delivering packages to the elderly. When they let her in, they told her their mother was sick and resting, but their father would arrive soon.

“The father had lost an administrative job, and was driving a taxi and only bringing in half of what he used to,” says William Rapfogel, the executive director of Met Council (Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty) since 1992. “He showed up a few minutes later, and when the volunteer prepared to leave, he told her, ‘Wait.’ Then he fished a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and gave it to her as a donation. ‘I feel I have to give something back,’ he told her. ‘That’s how I was taught in yeshivah.’”

Between a major recession and Hurricane Sandy, thousands of New York Jewish families have found themselves stripped of their livelihood and hard-earned possessions. “It’s heartbreaking to see how many ‘regular’ families have had to turn to us for the basic necessities,” Mr. Rapfogel says. “Today, you don’t have to be poor to be needy.”

Met Council, which retains a large corps of volunteers who deliver weekly food packages to the needy — especially to the homebound and elderly — has just carried out its biggest food distribution of the year, providing Pesach packages to more than 50,000 households in the New York area.

“People ask us, ‘Why are you giving to 50,000 households at Pesach time, whereas the rest of the year you only give to a third of that?’ But for many people, Pesach is overwhelming,” explains Mr. Rapfogel. “Giving them two or three hundred dollars’ worth of food may make the difference for them in being able or not able to afford to make the holiday.”

From the Met Council warehouse in Canarsie, over 2.5 million pounds of food was distributed at 115 sites. (Annual distribution is about 5.2 million pounds.) That meant 1.5 million pounds of produce, 1 million pounds of Pesach products (including matzoh and grape juice) and 20,000 pounds of poultry.


Beyond the Safety Net

Originally founded in 1972, Met Council grew out of a larger, national “war on poverty” declared by President Lyndon Johnson and promoted in New York by Mayor John Lindsay. “In New York, there were a lot of neighborhoods that had changed — the South Bronx, East New York, the Lower East Side, the Rockaways. Most of the Jews had moved out, and only poor, elderly Jews remained,” Mr. Rapfogel relates. But in a kind of reverse discrimination, “It hadn’t occurred to anyone to consider them as part of the poor.” A few grassroots activists, headed by Heshy Jacobs (now the citywide president of Hatzolah) began to advocate with the government and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (later to become the UJA-Federation) on their behalf.

Four decades ago, the organization’s original aim was to coordinate local community councils into an advocacy organization for needy Jewish neighborhoods. Partnerships were formed with Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Young Israel, the ADL, and the American Jewish Committee. “In those first ten years, it became clear that the Jewish community councils were serving very different populations,” Mr. Rapfogel says. “Because there were so many unmet needs, the organization moved into providing services directly.”

Forty years later, Met Council boasts a budget of $130 million, of which 90 percent comes from the government and the rest from a combination of fundraising, UJA funds, and private donors. While this sounds like the GNP of a developing nation, Rapfogel is quick to qualify that the lion’s share of the budget — close to $80 million — is dedicated solely to Medicaid-sponsored home care for the elderly. “We have about 4,000 home attendants working for us, providing daily care,” he says. “I used to think ADL meant the Anti-Defamation League. Now I know it’s ‘Activities of Daily Living’ — those things like being able to dress oneself, take a shower, prepare food, all those checklist items to assess a person’s level of need.”


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