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All Who Are Hungry

Aryeh Ehrlich

It’s one of the largest Pesach distributions in the world. And if Rabbi Ephraim Stern had his way, no one would know the story of the man who makes it happen year after year

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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FULL SUPPORT Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter and Rav Yitzchok Tovia Weiss accompany Rabbi Stern every Chol Hamoed on his fundraising mission. With an annual budget of $5 million, thousands of families rely on his distribution to get through Pesach (Photos: Shuki Lehrer)

Erev Pesach in Yerushalayim. The smell of bleach rises from puddles in the sidewalks, while men of all ages carefully navigate the little streams of sudsy water, their boxes of shemurah matzos held high. 

A roadblock up ahead signals you’ve reached a segment of street that runs from the bustling Zvhil Square to Haneviim Street. Here no vehicular traffic is allowed. Instead, it’s filled with thousands of men and women. They wander through what looks like a gigantic wholesale market filled with fruits and vegetables, meat and wine, eggs and matzos — all in commercial quantities — and load up their carts. 

No, the Machaneh Yehudah market hasn’t changed locations. This is the Oneg Shabbos V’Yom Tov pre-Pesach distribution operation. Over the course of two days, some 15,000 families stock up here on everything their family will need for all seven days of Yom Tov — and every last onion is free of charge. 

The operation is carried out in remarkable order and quiet — no vendors hawking their wares here — save for the steady murmur of thanks to the man behind this gargantuan chesed enterprise, virtually unmatched in its scope. 

If Rabbi Ephraim Stern had his way, no one would know he is the askan who has made this distribution happen for nearly 40 years, during boom times and economic downturns alike. Totally disconnected from the showy publicity gimmicks of modern fundraising, he barely agreed to be interviewed. He prefers to remain behind the scenes, where he has been involved in helping to solve a myriad of communal problems — shalom bayis, pidyon shevuyim, helping families conquer debt, marrying off orphans and, of course, helping needy families make Pesach. 

RABBI STERN, a nephew of the Skulener Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Avrohom Portugal of Boro Park, was born in Yerushalayim and grew up there. In his late teens, he was sent to learn in the Satmar Yeshivah in Williamsburg, where he became close to the Divrei Yoel ztz”l. When he became of age, the Rebbe Rav Mordechai Dovid Kahana of Spinka ztz”l chose him as a chassan for his daughter. 

In the early years after his marriage he lived in America, but then returned to Yerushalayim. As a young man, he was close to the Steipler Gaon ztz”l, and today he can often be seen disappearing into the home of his son, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. For many years, he was the close confidant of the Raavad Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fischer ztz”l. Likewise, he was very close to the Beirach Moshe of Satmar, Rav Moshe Teitelbaum ztz”l, and is today a confidant of the Gaavad Rav Yitzchok Tovia Weiss and of Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter. 

His career as an askan began in 1979, after he married and returned to Yerushalayim. “I lived on Tzefania Street at the time,” he remembers . “One day I received a grocery delivery, and I happened to overhear a child who lived next door asking his father for something he had seen in our order — a basic item found in every home. The father told the child that he didn’t have it. I realized that if the neighbors didn’t have this item at home, then they were surely lacking other basics. I decided to give them the whole order, even though I was living on a meager kollel stipend myself. 

“A month later, I met the neighbor and he told me, ‘To this day we are eating from the delivery you sent us. It’s been a real techiyas hameisim for us.’ That was when I realized the extent of the poverty in Yerushalayim. I decided I had to do something about it, and I prepared a list of needy neighbors and raised money to send grocery deliveries to them every week. On Erev Pesach of 1985 I made another decision: Because Pesach involves so many expenses, I couldn’t just help my usual list of neighbors. I had to think bigger.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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