In a modern-day version of an ancient charitable act, several Jewish organizations have organized delivery of matzo, kosher wine, gefilte fish and other Passover fare to needy families in the Los Angeles area.
Others have issued vouchers to help poor people secure the special foods that are a vital part of the eight-day holiday, while community groups have scheduled festive meals for those who have nowhere else to go.
The Passover charity does not help only Jews, organizers said. Mazon, a Los Angeles-based group whose name means food in Hebrew, has used the season for a fund-raising campaign that organizers expect to bring in about $100,000 to help fund grants to hunger-fighting organizations across the country.
Passover, which began at sundown Friday night, celebrates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt as recorded in the Book of Exodus. But charity is also an integral part of the holiday.
According to Rabbi Marvin Sugarman of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in North Hollywood, the Shulkhan Arukh, a medieval codification of Jewish law, says that the first rule in preparing for the holiday is to gather alms so that even the poorest will be able to take part in a seder. The seder is a ritual meal at which family members recite the ancient story from a traditional account called the Haggada.
"Many Jewish families throughout Los Angeles are in dire need of Passover products," Sugarman said. "We convey the impression that there are no poor Jews, but unfortunately there are."
The Haggada includes an invitation for "all who are hungry" to come in and eat, an offer that was more practical in the villages of ancient Israel and Eastern Europe than in big cities today.
"In our own time, we are sealed off from our neighbors, the more so from those who suffer from hunger and homelessness," said Irving Cramer, executive director of Mazon, which has worked through synagogues to ask community members for donations of $18 and up. The number 18 is significant because it is the sum of the numerical value of the letters that spell the word life in Hebrew.
Gives Meaning to Words
"We can give these words real meaning because people will know that their contributions will feed the hungry," Cramer said. "We're celebrating our liberation, so let's talk about funds to liberate other people from hunger."
Despite the relative prosperity of most American Jews, a recent survey found that the percentage of Jewish families below the poverty line is the same as that in the community at large, said Jean Kaplow, assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Centers Assn. of Los Angeles.
In certain areas, the concentration of elderly people, single-parent families and new immigrants brings the percentage of poor people even higher, she said.
The Jewish centers association sponsors a kosher food pantry called Sova, which distributes food from storefront offices in the Beverly-Fairfax District and in West Los Angeles.
Like several synagogues across the city, Sova has arranged for dozens of local families to pick up $40 to $50 worth of Passover goods in addition to their monthly allotments of canned goods and other surplus items.
Passover food is generally more expensive than normal products, largely because of the rabbinical supervision that is required to guarantee that it is free of yeast products.
Some of the Passover food is donated, but much of it is purchased through private donations, Kaplow said.
"It's expensive, and Monday we had to run out and buy more matzos ," she said. "The demand seems to be heavier this year than last year."
Similar programs were carried out by several synagogues, while other congregations gathered money to help the Passover Committee, a volunteer group that works out of the Jewish Federation building on Wilshire Boulevard.
2,500 Checks Sent Out
Clarence Gerber, a 9-year veteran of the Passover Committee, said the group has sent out 2,500 checks to help needy people buy the Passover necessities.
In addition, the Passover Committee buys Passover foods for 1,000 people in mental institutions, prisons and hospitals and helps sponsor community seders for another 1,000 people.
"The greatest reward you can get is the thank-yous from people who really need assistance," Gerber said. "They're really grateful."
At Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, members of the congregation donated more than $6,000 toward the Passover goods, said Arline Lerner, a program organizer.
Known by its Hebrew name as Maot Chitim, or "money for wheat," the program will be able to help more than 100 families this year, she said.
Volunteers have about $2,000 more to work with this year because a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and a 70-year-old man who had a long-overdue bar mitzvah all asked that gifts go to the Passover fund instead of to them.
Lerner said that plastic bags filled with borscht, applesauce, horseradish, matzo ball soup mix, fruit, vegetables, candles, eggs and frozen kosher chicken will go out to more than 80 needy families identified by the Valley Storefront office of Jewish Family Services, a social work agency.
"Together with the food, we give a Haggada," said Selma Polon, who heads a similar program at Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills. "It's a very gratifying experience for the people who participate," she said. "It's a mitzva (Hebrew for a commandment or good deed)."