MONTREAL — Hundreds of needy or isolated Jews of all ages are expected to enjoy communal Passover seders free of charge thanks to an unprecedented community-wide effort to make the holiday a happy one for everybody.
Children help with the packing of Passover food parcels at the B’nai Brith warehouse in St. Laurent.
The seders are being held on both nights at each of seven different locations in the Montreal area, through an initiative of the Chabad-affiliated MADA Community Center and Federation CJA. The participation of synagogues, the Va’ad Ha’ir and community agencies, as well as the generosity of numerous donors and volunteers, is also making the seders possible.
“Nothing on this scale has ever been seen before, either in the number of people being reached or in the level of co-operation within the community,” said Yossi Drihem, director of MADA, the largest kosher food bank in Montreal.
The guests will be treated to full-course meals with wine in what is promised to be a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
The food and other necessities are being paid for by privately. MADA also received a $100,000 “emergency” grant from the federation late last year to help cover the growing demand for its services due, Drihem believes, to the economic downturn.
The daily onslaught of news about the slump has had the positive effect of raising people’s awareness that others, if not they themselves, are suffering and that’s why there has been such an outpouring and willingness to work together, he said.
Costs are also being kept low because the venues are being donated and about 60 volunteers are doing the cooking and serving. The Va’ad Ha’ir is not charging for the Pesach koshering of the kitchen of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, where all the food was prepared in the week prior to the first seder, or for the services of a mashgiach at the seders.
The venues are the federation’s Gelber Centre, which can accommodate up to 450 people each night; the Beth Israel Beth Aaron in Côte St. Luc, which can take up to 250; Congregation Beth Ora in St. Laurent, which is hosting about 150; as well as the federation’s West Island branch in Dollard des Ormeaux, Chabad Kirkland, Chabad of NDG, and the Laval home of Rabbi Zalman Steifel, which can accommodate fewer numbers.
A rabbi and a chazzan will conduct each of the seders. Volunteers will serve the meals.
“These people have, in many cases, chosen to give up their own seders to help out,” Drihem said. “The beauty of this is that it is being done in the old, traditional way. These are not catered affairs.”
Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron, a major force behind the project, said his concern is that all Jews, no matter what their means, should be able take part in the holiday in a “dignified” way.
Celebrating Passover is expensive under the best of circumstances, and ever more so with the increased cost of food, he said. Preparation for the holiday also requires a lot of time, something those who may be working extra hours do not have, he added.
This may be preventing more Jews in Montreal than might be thought from holding their own seders, he said.
With the notable exceptions of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, congregational seders are not the custom in Montreal, so discreetly inviting needy guests to such tables was not an option.
“We did struggle with the possible stigma that might be attached to seders that are known to be free to those in need, but I do not believe this will be an issue,” Rabbi Poupko said.
Certainly, the demand is there, because by the middle of last week, Rabbi Poupko estimated that 1,500 meals would be served each night, judging by the registration up to that point.
MADA, which provides free meals 365 days a year from its base at Plaza Côte des Neiges, is in charge of intake for the seders. Community agencies like Ometz and the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors and many other groups that are aware of people who would benefit from the seders have made referrals.
Guests can come on both nights. Those who are able to contribute something to the cost of their meals can, of course, do so, but no one will be asked for anything. Reservations are a must. Call 342-4969, ext. 223, or go online to www.madacenter.com.
In addition to those feeling the financial pinch, there are many Montreal Jews who are alone, especially the elderly whose children do not live here, MADA spokesperson Susan Puritz pointed out.
MADA has organized communal seders in the past, but they have been small affairs mostly at Chabad houses.
MADA recently conducted an eight-day food drive in Jewish neighbourhoods. “The response was overwhelming,” Puritz said, “People want to give.”
Meanwhile, B’nai Brith Canada reports that demand for its Passover food packages is up between 10 and 15 per cent. David Guttman, co-chair of the long-running project, said last week he expected about 2,100 packages to be delivered.
Delivery was a challenge this year. For many years, Purolator trucked the packages free of charge, but because of the economic downturn, it could not provide that service.
Guttman had to scramble to find enough volunteer drivers, and last week he was confident all of the boxes would reach their destination in time. “There was a terrific outpouring from the community.”
As usual, all of the packing was done by volunteers as well.
B’nai Brith buys all the food in the packages, which, in addition to three pounds of matzah and cake, contain nutritious food like a chicken, gefilte fish, hot dogs, eggs, fruits and vegetables.
“With the higher food costs, we went over the budget this year, but we didn’t want to cut anything out,” Guttman said. The money is raised largely through an envelope campaign, and he is hoping donations will continue to come in.
B’nai Brith relies on community agencies, as well as hospitals and CLSCs, for referrals, and Guttman is confident the food is going to those who really need it, with few exceptions. “I would say the level of abuse is five to seven per cent, maybe not even that high. We do our best to keep it down.”