Kosher food pantry at synagogue serves people of all faiths

The Alix Rubinger kosher food pantry is about the size of a closet, according to its volunteers. And it may feel even smaller to those who work inside, as the shelves are typically filled with nonperishable goods and condiments.

But volunteer Fran Rosen, of Massapequa, is quick to note: “It’s a very little room, with big hearts.”

The kosher food pantry was first established in 1998 with Congregation Beth El in Massapequa. About five years ago, the synagogue merged with the Bellmore Jewish Center and became Congregation Beth Ohr in Bellmore. Since then, the food pantry has had more volunteers than ever before.

Iris Astrof has been running the pantry since it began. Before the coronavirus pandemic, people came by to pick up food twice a week during designated hours.

Last April, Astrof and her husband, Sam, knew they had to pivot. Their idea was to create packages of kosher food for curbside pickups — people pull into the parking lot and Astrof and her husband place the items in their trunks. They offer this service every other week.

“We started out by looking through a list of people who had been there in the past couple months,” said Astrof, of Massapequa Park. They called about 15 people at first. “Since then, it’s grown to 55 people.”

The food pantry consistently has canned goods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and tuna. They also have condiments and cooking essentials — peanut butter, jelly, cooking oil, sugar and flour. Pasta, applesauce, pancake mix and cereal are also among the inventory.

The food pantry gets donations from Island Harvest Food Bank, and the volunteers also buy food.

Although the pantry is part of a synagogue, volunteers say they serve Long Islanders of all faiths.

“People come from all over,” Astrof said. In fact, she said they didn’t have many Jewish clients until the pandemic began, and isn’t sure why. It may have to do with the pantry getting more visibility online as a kosher food source.

Like Astrof, Barbara Wiener, of Westbury, has been involved with the food pantry since its inception. During the pandemic, her role has shifted from assisting inside the food pantry to making deliveries to those in need throughout the Town of Hempstead.

“Either they’re ill or don’t have access to a car,” said Wiener, of Westbury. “So now I make deliveries to them.”

Wiener said she delivers enough food to each home for a month. She feels strongly about helping to fulfill such a basic yet vital need for so many families.

“Delivering and talking to these people impacted me tremendously,” she said. “The way people thank me for doing something so simple as leaving a bag of food at their door — it makes me very sad that they need this service, but it makes me very happy that it’s something I can do so easily.”

Local food bank officials have said the need for food skyrocketed across Long Island as a result of the pandemic. Volunteer Adrienne Hausman has found the greater need from the people she talks to. She calls Long Islanders every other week to let them know which day the curbside pickup will take place.

“You see the same people over and over again, and they almost become your friends,” said Hausman, of Massapequa. “There’s one woman in particular, when I call, she’s always so happy to hear my voice.”

Hausman admires Astrof for keeping this effort going during the height of Long Island’s food insecurity.

“Iris has been amazing,” she said. “She started all of this and followed through. Her commitment to it is endless.”

Astrof believes it’s been a team effort all the way: “We would not have survived without all those volunteers.”

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