Come volunteer with us! Everyone is welcome. CBE Feeds (at Congregation Beth Elohim, Garfield and 8th Avenue) in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Monday thru Friday, every week, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. For more info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Like most chefs, I’m used to feeding people in good times.
But one year ago, I began a pop-up emergency operation in the second floor kitchen of a synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and as of today, along with hundreds of volunteers, have prepared and delivered our 100,000th meal to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
At midnight after the storm, Andy Bachman, a social-activist Rabbi, fired off an email to his congregation: He was looking for a way to feed several hundred people at a nearby Armory for a few days. These poor souls had been uprooted from the city’s nursing homes. Some were old, some were sick, and others in desperate need of a warm meal. I woke my husband and said…we need to do something. Credit card in hand, we raided our local Key Food and bought everything we could carry.
When we arrived at the shul, a platoon of volunteers was waiting. Within several hours, together we made 600 sandwiches. The next day, 1,000.
Everyone wanted to do something. We had few pots, pans or utensils but we managed. I asked everyone I knew for a dozen hard-boiled eggs and a loaf of bread. This simple request demonstrated the amazing power of community. Within 24 hours we were peeling thousands of eggs for sandwiches. Without everyone’s involvement, we would not have been able to reach our goals those first few days.
Cooking was one thing, but how to get the food to those in need? Many people had little fuel in their cars and gas stations were shuttered. More volunteers became the beneficent commanders who located drivers and dispatched them to the most vulnerable areas. They ensured that our promise was delivered from that day forward.
The next day Rabbi Bachman made another request. In addition to 2500 sandwiches, he told us he wanted to prepare 500 hot meals. My husband ran home to get his cleaver and we bought and hacked up 150 chickens from Costco. We made mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables and sent out cookies (and fruit when we could find it.) The next day, we did it again….and again…and again. We made sandwiches and cooked up whatever raw ingredients were donated to us. The chapel was filled with potatoes, onions and fresh green beans and canned vegetables. The upstairs ballroom, where meals were assembled, resembled an outsized army mess test. We cooked for 3000 hungry people that first Sunday after the storm.
We operated this way for months — feeding people without homes, without kitchens, without power, people who lived near markets that had no food.
That’s when it struck me: I realized that I never knew anyone who was truly, chronically, hungry. After all, at the age of 23, as first chef to New York Mayor Ed Koch, I knew more about catering political parties than hunger on the streets. Later, as consulting chef to the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World, I fed happier people in happier times, that is, until another tragedy took hold. But Sandy brought to my door the reality that people very close to my community grapple with hunger every day. Our kitchen, affectionately known as CBE Feeds, was able to lift some of that worry. Yes, with food and sandwiches — but also with spiritual nourishment — we showed up day after day, provided hope and connection, and proved that we cared.
The kitchen has become its own sacred space. Volunteers arrive from everywhere — from Staten Island, Riverdale, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and from all over Manhattan, church groups from Ohio, students from Harvard Divinity School. During the Christmas holidays there were people from California and Washington State, from Israel and France.
In the beginning, Anne Hathaway heard about our efforts and came to lend support. And so did Natan Sharansky who’d heard how we’d helped the Russian communities in Brighton and Manhattan Beach.
Today we feed those-in-need in the Gravesend housing projects, hungry students at the Red Hook Initiative, abused women and their children at the Sea and Salt Mission, volunteer construction workers rebuilding homes in Coney Island, and displaced folks at Chips.
My main job is not to make sandwiches, but to honor everyone who walks through the kitchen door. We ask their names and are eager to hear their stories. One woman who touched my heart had lost her Far Rockaway home yet came every day to cook for those who were less fortunate. She felt lucky; she had a friend in Park Slope to spend time with. We didn’t see her for awhile, her name was Alice, but then she came to the kitchen several more times. “We missed you,” we all said. Do you have a home, now? No, she replied, but I still want to help. That was months ago. Miraculously, Alice appeared at the kitchen today. One year later, still no home, but still eager to make a chicken salad sandwich.
For those of you who pitched in after the Storm, you know that this work is its own reward. Some 2,800 volunteers have walked through our kitchen doors, and with amazing grace put on a hair net and gloves and, one year later, continue to prepare food for others, with little more than a thank you and a cup of coffee. The need is still great, so join us — you might meet Alice.