Hewlett resident Helene Slansky with a cart of Passover items...

Hewlett resident Helene Slansky with a cart of Passover items at Cedarhurst Kosher food pantry. Credit: Stop & Shop

Hewlett resident Helene Slansky has enjoyed Passover seders since she was a child. Now 97, Slansky is looking forward this year to celebrating with her family at her daughter's home. Slansky is planning to make some traditional staples — matzah farfel, a savory side dish, along with the boiled eggs and the haroset, the mix of apples, chopped nuts and wine that sits on the seder plate.

But it's not easy for Slansky, who lost her husband 40 years ago after a nearly 30-year marriage. Since then, she's been on her own, trying to make ends meet with assistance from her children.

About a year ago, a friend encouraged her to go to a Kosher food pantry at a Jewish Community Center in Cedarhurst.

“I fought it. I was ashamed. I kept thinking, 'Jewish people don't take charity,'” Slansky said. “But it's good to ask for help, to take it where it's necessary.”

Her words echo others in need throughout the region, and are especially relevant for Jews as Passover approaches. Many Jews rely on specially marked Kosher for Passover food that doesn't include leaven and is far more expensive, making it harder for those already food-insecure.

The pantry — which is part of the JCC's social services arm, known as The S.H.O.P., or The Sustainability, Hope, Opportunity Place — is critical for Long Islanders hoping to celebrate even when under financial strain. But too many are hesitant to ask for help.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of hand-holding work with them to make them comfortable,” said Rivkah Halpern, who directs S.H.O.P. and noted that the food pantry offers individual appointments for those seeking privacy. “On the surface, it appears they're doing well, but really they're drowning.”

That's true across Long Island, for families from all backgrounds. Food insecurity remains a growing concern; the number of people regionwide seeking assistance is up 35% on average from a year ago, according to Paule Pachter, who heads Long Island Cares, one of the Island's largest food banks. Too many are making impossible choices between paying for prescription drugs, gasoline, rent or, yes, food.

Organizations like Long Island Cares and fellow food bank Island Harvest are, importantly, expanding food options for specific cultures. Next month, Long Island Cares will open its sixth location, in Valley Stream, and is working to meet residents' needs for Caribbean food staples, like oxtail.

“Whether the Caribbean community, or the Hispanic community, or the Jewish community, they see it as an extension of community support, and that helps to reduce the stigma,” Pachter said. 

More than 800 families are using the Cedarhurst pantry this Passover, a 10% increase from last year, Halpern said. The pantry relies on donations, including 2,000 pounds of Kosher for Passover food from Stop & Shop and another 2,000 pounds from Long Island Cares. And it's not alone. Island Harvest will help at least 300 families associated with five different agencies this Passover, said its president, Randi Shubin Dresner.

“When we get food in for Passover, it's off the shelves before it even sits on the shelves,” Shubin Dresner said.

In two weeks, as Jewish families like mine gather for our seders, we will recite, out loud, together, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover with us.”

It's a passage that dates back many centuries. And it still resonates today, reminding us that whether we can help, or need help, we shouldn't wait to offer — or ask.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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