Yad Ezra. The words are Hebrew and mean, “helping hand.” You might add, “loving kindness.”
For 24 years, those words also have been synonymous with the independent Jewish agency, supported by the generosity of thousands of families in metro Detroit, in order to distribute more nearly 1.2 million pounds of free kosher food and household items every year to individuals and families in need.
In terms of the sheer quantity and quality of the food it provides daily from its 16,000 square foot warehouse on 11 Mile in Berkley, Yad Ezra works more like a food bank than a food pantry.
“We’re exceptional in so many ways,” says Executive Director Lea Luger. Enumerating the reasons, she explains:
“We’re Michigan’s only Kosher Food Pantry.
We’re a total-choice supplementary grocery program.
We’re a volunteer-driven organization.
We purchase most of the food we provide.
We even have a drive-thru window.”
Michigan’s only Kosher Food Pantry, Yad Ezra provides a total-choice shopping experience to approximately 1,300 low-income individuals and families – about 3,000 people every month. Every client gets an assessment by family size and income for a number of “points” they have to “spend” at the pantry each month. They then choose items from a grocery list including canned goods, refrigerated foods, eggs and cheese, frozen meats and fresh produce. They come in and fill their baskets as they would in any shopping experience.
Unlike most food pantries that operate based on food donations, Yad Ezra purchases most of the food it provides. Last year, more than 1.1 million pounds of free groceries were distributed. In dollars and cents, that translated to $575,000 worth of food, $65,000 in household goods, $125,000 in school lunch assistance programs, $60,000 to schools for healthy snacks and $110,000 for holiday and Passover packages.”
And then there’s Dave, another Yad Ezra bonus.
David Jaffee is Yad Ezra’s house manager with an uncanny knowledge of sales and bargains. According to Lea, Dave goes out on “treasure hunts” to retailers like Costco, Walmart and Meijer. He knows where to get tuna for 20-cents a can, finds discounts all over the city, redeems bonus coupons and clears store shelves of sale items like mac and cheese. With food sources such as Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest and with smart shopping like Dave’s, Yad Ezra is able to go above and beyond to offer clients high quality and nutritious foods, as well as many bonus items, healthy options and fresh produce in season (free of points).
“Do all of Yad Ezra clients keep kosher, or do they care? The answer is no,” says Lea. “We readdress this issue every few years, because it always comes up. The feeling on the part of the founders – as well as the community – is that we intend to stay a kosher food pantry, because we want to ensure that everyone in our community can feel comfortable coming to us. For those who don’t keep kosher, it’s not an issue, but for those who keep strictly kosher, there’s no other pantry.”
Yad Ezra’s strength is a core of 150 volunteers of all ages. Many come multiple times a week to stock shelves, distribute food, register clients, deliver groceries, to do all the tasks required. Yad Ezra is a trusted and highly recognized resource in the community, a place to do something meaningful and help others who for whatever reason need help.
Everyone who comes to Yad Ezra for the first time is served. “It doesn’t matter if you’re observant or not, if you’re Orthodox or Reform,” says Lea. “Everyone leaves all of that at the door. Obviously, we don’t have a litmus test for proving clients are Jewish. Anyone can come to Yad Ezra for one-time emergency assistance. When clients come to us and say they’re Jewish, we take them at their word. As long as their income falls within our guidelines, which is 200 percent of the national poverty line, we take them on as ongoing clients. We’re here to help not withhold. Exceptions are known to take place when there are extenuating circumstances.”
Because people in need of groceries usually need other services, representatives from the Jewish Assistance Network help connect clients with agencies like Jewish Family Service, JARC and Kadima. As a supplemental food pantry, Yad Ezra is qualified to register its clients online for SNAP – the government Supplemental Nutrition Access Program. Yad Ezra is also the first nonprofit in Oakland county to partner with MI Café, Michigan Coordinated Access to Food for the Elderly, a nonprofit out of Lansing.”
Because Yad Ezra is a Jewish organization, holiday foods are always part of the mix. Zeman’s Bakery and Bake Station over-bake to make sure there’s always fresh-baked kosher bread for clients. Yad Ezra carries candles for Shabbos, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and the fixings for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Passover. Clients also can apply for household grants up to $500 from the “Simcha Fund” to be used for a Kiddush when celebrating a family Bar/Bat Mitzvah, wedding or bris/baby naming.
Ever sensitive to the individual needs, dignity and anonymity of its clients, Yad Ezra is the only food pantry in the country that offers drive-thru delivery. Volunteers also make deliveries to Yad Ezra clients in JARC, Kadima homes and to seniors in two apartment buildings in Flint.”
More than a food pantry, Yad Ezra is a community, fighting hunger and doing it for Detroit.
In the spirit of friendly competition between three worthy nonprofits fighting hunger, more than 75 people recently gathered at Yad Ezra to “Do It for Detroit” (Di4D), a program hosted in partnership with Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit and Repair the World, a national Jewish service organization. A spin on grassroots philanthropy, the event was a final round in a series of micro-grant allocations from the Do It For Detroit Fund for volunteer-based initiatives in the community. Past Di4D events highlighted organizations focusing on issues related to health, education and the environment.
Chosen from a field of more than a dozen applicants, the three finalists each pitched their initiative to the audience. All those in attendance were invited to cast their votes to determine the first, second and third place recipients of micro-grants of $3,000, $1,000 and $500 respectively.
$3,000 to Rita Ethington’s Ministry of Helps, presented by Janice Smith. From its humble start delivering sandwiches and bagged lunches to the homeless in the Cass Corridor, the ministry now serves families, children and seniors weekly out of the Diehl Boys and Girls Club on Collingwood near Dexter. Choosing nutritious foods, fruits and vegetables, ordered and picked up from Gleaners Food Bank, the ministry is run entirely by volunteers. The grant will be used to purchase a freezer to store meats and a desk copier for paperwork, with any surplus to be placed on a credit account at Gleaners to pay monthly bills.
$1,000 to Heart 2 Hart Detroit, presented by Larry Oleinick with Mark Jacobs. Serving the forgotten homeless and needy population of the city, a handful of volunteers go into the streets of Detroit, starting at Hart Plaza three days a week, rain or shine, to distribute lunches, clothing, toiletries and encouragement. In partnership with Southwest Solutions, Heart 2 Hart also assists people in getting properly identified and into temporary housing. Funds will be used to stretch the budget for food, socks, underwear and toiletries.
$500 to Spirit Farm, presented by Matthew Bode with master gardener, Kathleen Devlin. Organized in the summer of 2007 to increase food availability in the Spirit of Hope neighborhood, Spirit Farm has transformed a blighted corner into an urban garden in Midtown. Spirit Farm is rooting itself to be an exciting place for education, fresh food distribution and community fellowship. Funds will be used immediately to enhance the current growing season.
Commenting on the selection of finalists and the spirit of the Di4D event itself, NEXTGen Detroit Event Chair, Michael Rubyan concluded, “This event was a great opportunity to become more aware of the good work that is being done by so many dedicated members of the community to address hunger and to help ensure that our city’s most vulnerable families are included ‘at the table.'”
Featured in photo at the top of the page left to right: Bernie Jonas, Bert Stein, Mel Hersh (Yad Ezra 2014 Volunteer of the Year) and Art Weinfeld. Photos:VHenoch.