Mensch or Meshugana, He Nourishes Many Souls


flatbushAnn Farmer of the NY Times reports:
To most people who know him, Raphael Hazan is a true “mensch.” Roughly translated from Yiddish, that means “a good person.”
Some people, though, consider him a “meshugana.” “That’s a ‘crazy person,’ ” Mr. Hazan explains with a smile. “They say, ‘You should go and enjoy your life. What are you doing this for?'” Instead, for four years, Mr. Hazan, 47, has been running a kosher food pantry, the Bnai Raphael Chesed Store and Food Pantry, on Avenue K in Midwood, Brooklyn.On a recent Tuesday, Mr. Hazan sat in the 2,000-square-foot facility next to a shelf brimming with bagels and rye bread, greeting people as he explained how he had invested all of his inheritance and money from his trucking business to start and maintain the kosher food pantry, which provides food to 1,500 households a week.

“I believe this is the true religion,” said Mr. Hazan, an Orthodox Jew. “One should extend a hand to fellow brothers in need.”

Surrounding him were fully stocked shelves of canned and boxed goods, juices, fresh produce, toiletries, and freezers filled with frozen fish and meat. Everything is free to families who register with the pantry. Posted rules include “Take only things you need.”

Mr. Hazan grew up in a Brooklyn family that was not particularly observant. By his late 20s, he had married and owned a grocery, then a trucking business. Despite his success, he said, he felt unfulfilled. That changed when he embraced Orthodox Judaism and began pursuing charitable work. “People usually go to religion when their luck is bad,” he said. “But for me, it worked opposite.”

He initially spent $300,000 to open the pantry, which receives weekly donations from nonprofit groups, including City Harvest, the Food Bank and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. More than 300 wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers also provide donations. Running the pantry costs more than $40,000 a month and despite private donations, Mr. Hazan still must dig into his pocket and so far, he said, has spent more than $500,000 of his own money.

The number of people registered with the pantry membership has nearly doubled in the last year. “He doesn’t refuse anyone,” says Bruce Stipe, 58, a volunteer describing how Mr. Hazan donates nonkosher food to other food pantries.

When Mr. Hazan recently heard that a kosher grocery store in Postville, Iowa, was having a hard time stocking its shelves, he sent a shipment of food. “Rafi got a whole tractor-trailer and filled it from top to bottom,” Mr. Stipe said.

Mr. Hazan, who spends about 55 hours a week at the pantry, was not feeling very energetic on Tuesday. That morning he had undergone chemotherapy to treat a rare and aggressive form of cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma. He has lost his hair. Yet, he insists, “I’m lucky. The chemotherapy hits me Friday afternoon on Sabbath, so I don’t lose as much.” His volunteers, however, worry that his health problems may cause the pantry to close.

Mr. Hazan holds families together with more than food. He gets to know each new member and all their problems. One needs a sofa. Another has marital conflicts. Another is fighting depression. His cellphone seems to ring every minute.

“If I laid out all my cards, you wouldn’t believe it,” he says, referring to all his contacts that enable him to steer people to the right places. “I’m not here to judge nobody. They have to step up and ask for help.”

One beneficiary is Steven Katz, 48, who was laid off about 14 months ago from a charity organization and remains unemployed despite sending out hundreds of résumés. He points to a spot in the pantry where he broke down crying the first time he walked in.

“I was so ashamed,” Mr. Katz said. “I was always able to take care of myself.” But his spirits were lifted after he met with Mr. Hazan: “Rafi came over and removed my shame,” he said. “It was the way he said it, with a big smile.”

Mr. Hazan’s charity doesn’t stop at the pantry door. Since separating from his wife six years ago, he has taken four men facing financial setbacks into his four-bedroom apartment above a synagogue in Mill Basin. He pays most of the rent and arranged it so that each man has his own room. They share the bathroom and kitchen.

He does not have time for social events. If he wants to eat out, he goes to a pizzeria. The last significant vacation he took was nine years ago. “If I lived a high-class life, I couldn’t do charity stuff,” he says. “I have very high aspirations. If you believe in something, you should work for it and give 100 percent of yourself.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


  1. Dedicating your life mission to help others can only be accomplished by a “MESHIGANA”. After the gush katif explusion he sent massive clothing, funds and food for the residents without homes. He is busy now 24/6 preparing people for the yom tov of Pesach – his energy, love of klal yisroel, and non judgemental way is what makes him a MESHIGANA in the eyes of all. We love you RAFI, you are our model of an aved hashem. (he works on shidduchim, helps orphans, kids with energy and anyone who needs a hug).

  2. We are recipients of Bnai Rafael’s chessed. I am shocked adn saddened to read that he has cancer!!! It’s obvious that Yidden need to daven for this man. Maybe that is why he has it? Please daven for this tzaddik.

  3. Rafi, May Hashem grant you a refuah shleima b’karov and enable you to continue your avodas hakodesh ad me’ah v’esrim.
    (Editors: Name for tehillim?)