Matzos and Mitzvahs

Shoshanna Levi* identifies with the Passover story of Jews traversing the “narrow place,” yetziat mitzrayim.

Last Pesach, her Orthodox family celebrated a plentiful seder in their spacious home in the West Valley. But then Levi’s husband, David,* lost his job of many years; the family car was impounded; and Shoshanna returned home one day to find that she was locked out of her house. The family was being evicted, the notice taped to the front door said. They would be unable to retrieve any of their belongings.

With only the clothes on their backs, the Levis and their two small children moved into a cheap motel, where they lived for months until David finally secured a low-paying job. Today, the family lives in a cramped, L.A. apartment, where Shoshanna is agonizing over how she will be able to afford to celebrate Passover.

With David’s small salary, huge debts and food stamps that total only $185 per month, Shoshanna doesn’t think she will be able to purchase shmura matzo, which is preferred by some observant Jews and costs about $13 a pound. Kosher-for-Passover wine is pricey, and so is the tradition of serving meat for yontev meals. “As it is, we can hardly ever afford to eat meat,” Shoshanna says. “Kosher meat is so expensive.”

This Passover, a variety of Jewish groups are coming to the rescue of people like the Levis and others among the some 50,000 poor Jews living in the L.A. area. About 10 percent of local Jews live near or below the poverty level, many of them elderly, disabled or émigrés from the former Soviet Union, according to Pini Herman, author of the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey.

Most synagogues have a Passover fund for the down-and-out. Rabbi Reuven Huttler at Etz Jacob Congregation will give away 1,500 pounds of matzo. Chabad Russian Immigrant Program and Synagogue spends $60,000 on 15,000 pounds of matzo, two Russian-language seders and other services. The Izzy Steinberg Memorial Fund at Temple Beth Am, along with donor Nathan Shapell, provides thousands of dollars in Passover meal assistance through Jewish Family Service.

Jewish Family Service of L.A.’s Clarence Gerber Memorial Passover Program, done jointly with B’nai B’rith, spends $75,000 on Passover food and nine model seders where tickets cost just $2 a person. The JFS program also helps fund seders at other agencies like Jewish Big Brothers.

At the Fairfax site of SOVA Kosher Food Pantry of Jewish Community Centers of Greater L.A., located at 7563 Beverly Blvd., clients line up early to receive one or two bags of Passover non-perishables.

And at the bustling L.A. warehouse of Tomchei Shabbos, at 353 1/2 N. La Brea Ave., Rabbi Yonah Landau and up to 300 volunteers are packaging more than $100,000 worth of Pesach goods that will reach hundreds of families next week.

Every household will receive kosher chicken, roasts, ground meat, gefilte fish, grape juice and most everything else they will need for the holiday. Included will be the cleaning supplies necessary to kasher a home for Passover, such as dishwashing detergent, new toothbrushes and aluminum foil to cover kitchen countertops. “Passover costs us 10 times more than the average Shabbat,” says Landau, who receives donations from a variety of shuls around L.A. “The shmura matzo alone costs more than $10,000.”