In the hectic weeks before Pesach, the Chicago Chesed Fund loads up its 44,000-square-foot warehouse with matzoh, wine, meat, fish, canned goods and so much more. The organization distributes hundreds of thousands of dollars in food, clothing and financial assistance to those in need. The Yom Tov Assistance Program is a huge undertaking that begins months before Pesach.
“Pesach is the most expensive Yom Tov for families,” says Rabbi Yossi Fuerst, COO of the Chicago Chesed Fund. “It can cost at least $2,000 for a regular-sized family to make Pesach. We help hundreds of families during the year – some monthly, others every few months, and some when they hit a ‘bump’ in the road. For a lot of families, even if they are managing to pay their bills, Pesach is that ‘bump’ in the road.”
The Chicago Chesed Fund hosts two Pesach distribution programs, a free program and a subsidized/wholesale program. Together, they service over 450 families before Pesach. Many of the people who are helped have lost their jobs or recently found a job but need help until they can stabilize their situation and not go into debt. Mechanchim and kollel yungeleit also benefit from the assistance, and single mothers receive help as well.
Included in what’s distributed for Yom Tov are not just the bare necessities for a Pesach Seder. It goes beyond matzoh, wine and chicken. There are also dairy items, fish and eggs. The need this year is greater than ever before.
Rabbi Yossi Fuerst shares what they have done to increase the food selection in order to satisfy this rapidly growing need. “We added two massive aisles filled with many Pesach grocery items and disposable goods, including mayonnaise, oil, chocolate chips, canned fruits and vegetables, lady fingers and so much more.”
Rabbi Nachman Bogen, operations manager of the Chicago Chesed Fund, explains how the fund goes out of its way to maintain the dignity of the clients it serves. “We work hard to make sure that no one feels ‘guilty’ about getting what they need for Pesach for free. Just like you go to the bakery to pick up your order, you come here to pick up your Pesach order. No money is dealt with during the distribution. Everyone has a different order that matches their order form, and no one else knows who is subsidized and who is not.”
Although the main focus of the Chicago Chesed Fund during the month of Adar is turned towards the distribution of food packages to over 450 families, it also works with special sponsors who allow it to disburse other Yom Tov necessities, including shirts, ties, robes for girls, ladies shoes, suit vouchers and financial assistance.
As Pesach draws closer, things get even busier for the Chicago Chesed Fund. Many people are cleaning out their houses and have a lot to donate, so the organization’s trucks are sent around the city collecting people’s clothing, furniture, housewares, toys and more. “This year, we received hundreds of bags of clothing and hundreds of boxes of housewares. We are now sorting through all of it, and it will be used to restock our gemach shelves,” shares Leah Smolensky, director of clothing at the Chicago Chesed Fund.
“The monthly shopping appointments are arranged in a way that one client will not see another and each client’s privacy will be maintained,” shares Rabbi Nachman Bogen. “The clothing gemach looks more like a clothing store. It is set up neatly, with racks of gently used and new clothing tagged and sorted by size and item type so that the shoppers feel like they are in a regular clothing store, not a clothing gemach. Staff members spend hours sifting through all the donations to weed out the ripped and stained pieces so that the Chicago Chesed Fund is left with only fresh-looking items for its clients.”
The Chicago Chesed Fund has over 40 different programs and services that help more than 4,000 people a year. Aside from the kosher food pantry and the clothing gemach, there is an emergency loan fund that provides interest-free loans, a Job Link program that helps people find jobs, a SimchaLink program focusing on shidduchim for the community, and so much more. People come to shop for free for whatever they need: clothing, furniture, housewares, baby supplies, medical equipment, toys and books. The warehouse is constantly filled with staff members working hard, stocking shelves, answering phones and picking up donations to ensure that the Chicago community is taken care of.