Quebec Superior Court Judge Pepita Capriolo knows what it means to be on the receiving end of charity, and that is why she feels privileged to now be the one doing the giving.
“I come from an immigrant family,” she said at the inauguration of the MADA Community Centre’s now fully renovated and renamed headquarters, Edifice Carole & Andy Harper, on Sept. 13 in Montreal.
“I know what it’s like not to have a lot. I remember our first Pesach here – I was a child. We received a box from JIAS with matzah and I don’t remember what else. It was a wonderful feeling, we felt we belonged to a community. My mother did not feel demeaned, she felt embraced.”
Capriolo is one of the close to 2,000 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds that MADA relies upon each year to fulfill its mission of providing food to whoever needs it, irrespective of religion.
“MADA is making people’s lives more bearable, not only in terms of food and clothing, but also friendship,” said board member and major donor Samuel Gewurz.
MADA, a Chabad program, purchased the three-storey, 20,000-sq. ft. building at 6875 Décarie Blvd. over three years ago for $3.2 million and has been upgrading it ever since.
With demand for its services increasing, it needed not only more space, but major improvements to its kitchen, warehouse and other infrastructure.
The building has been extended in the front and given a more attractive entrance and spacious lobby. The adjoining cafeteria, which has an outdoor terrace, has been redone and is now flooded with natural light.
A new ramp, elevator and washrooms for the handicapped make the building much more accessible.
Founded 25 years ago by Rabbi Chaim Cohen, who remains its executive director, MADA began as a small program for the Lubavitch community, operating out of Plaza Côte des Neiges.
Today, MADA is open 365 days a year. Besides the cafeteria serving daily meals, it has a food bank that is among the largest in the city, delivers hundreds of Shabbat dinners to shut-ins every week, in addition to tens of thousands of other food baskets throughout the year, and organizes multiple Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners around the city.
It also provides clothing and home furnishings, and has a spacious reception hall that it makes available to families who would not otherwise be able to afford a space to hold their simchot.
The statistics are staggering: in 2017, more than 403,000 hot meals were served or delivered; over 5,000 kg of food was distributed through the food bank; and 132,500 clothing items and 2,650 pieces of furniture or appliances were given away.
Families of four, for example, may receive up to $1,000 worth of groceries a month, said assistant director Rabbi Yossi Drihen. With the help of a computerized system, clients can select the items they want off-site and pick them up at a drive-through, identifying themselves only by a number.
Capriolo was among the volunteers who served 500 people at MADA’s Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Gelber Centre. It’s hard, physical work, she admits, but a refreshing change from her job, which requires a lot of sitting.
“It’s an amazing gift I have received,” she said. “If I may use a pun, the soles of my feet were sore, but my soul felt better.”
As important as feeding “guests” is respecting their dignity, she added. That includes details like setting the table just so. “It doesn’t matter if the cutlery is plastic, the tables are beautiful,” she said.
Incidentally, the honorary president of MADA is Pierrette Sevigny, a retired Superior Court judge.
I know what it’s like not to have a lot.
– Pepita Capriolo
Easing the isolation of elderly people and putting a smile on their faces is a big part of the satisfaction that Ilan Sarid, a former Israel Defence Forces officer, gets when delivering baskets. He said that his cheery greeting, “Hello, my darling,” tickles his “favourite lady.”
“The first time I said it, she shrieked: ‘My late husband didn’t even call me that,’ ” he recalled.
Heart surgeon Manny Moss said that involving his four children in volunteer work is giving them an invaluable perspective. “I can’t think of a better lesson to make them realize how even doing a little makes a difference in someone’s life,” he said.
Among the volunteers are a number of former beneficiaries who want to give back, said Rabbi Drihen.
The building is named in recognition of the lead donor, 95-year-old Andy Harper, who said that helping the most vulnerable is what his late wife, Carole, believed in.
Born in Bucharest, he and his family fled the Nazis in 1940 and eventually made it to Havana. Before the end of the war, Harper obtained a U.S. visa, was promptly drafted and assigned to the air force’s intelligence corps.
After working for DuPont, in its advertising department, he started his own business in New York, where he met Carole. After their marriage in 1954, they moved to Montreal, where they worked together in a food importing business. She passed away three years ago.
After he retired, Harper had considered donating the business’s premises to the City of Montreal, to use as a soup kitchen, but then he learned about MADA’s exemplary work through the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal and has been a faithful supporter ever since.