National News

Yehoshua Hershkowitz, Founder of a Kosher Meal Program, Dies at 92

Posted December 28, 2017 5:42 p.m. EST

Yehoshua Zvi Hershkowitz, who more than 40 years ago was so concerned that his indigent neighbors would go hungry for the Sabbath that he founded a kosher meals-on-wheels program, which has been imitated by Jewish communities around the world, died Monday in Brooklyn. He was 92.

Leon Goldenberg, a close friend, confirmed the death.

Made aware that a neighbor was struggling to put food on the table, and reasoning that there must be others like him, Hershkowitz, a postal clerk, founded Tomchei Shabbos (the name means “supporters of the Sabbath”) out of the kitchen of his home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in 1975.

He and friends began gathering the ingredients of a traditional Sabbath meal and dropping off packages of food by station wagon at the homes of those they heard were wanting. On Saturdays, they would make appeals for food and contributions at synagogues in the area.

From this improvised start, Hershkowitz built an organization that every week distributes meals to 600 families in the Borough Park area, and also provides meals on Jewish holidays. The concept and the name were rapidly imitated. Today there are unaffiliated Tomchei Shabbos organizations that distribute meals to the needy in Los Angeles, Toronto, Washington, Phoenix and Miami in the U.S.; Antwerp, Belgium, and London and other world cities, as well as dozens in Israel.

By many accounts, the distribution in Brooklyn works with clockwork efficiency.

Either those who seem hungry or poor are pointed out by acquaintances, or needy people directly ask the organization for aid. Hershkowitz’s staff purchases food from wholesalers or collects donations from local merchants.

The products — uncooked produce and meats, sugar and flour, challahs and jars of gefilte fish — arrive at the group’s warehouse on New Utrecht Avenue on Wednesdays. On Thursdays, volunteers, including local schoolchildren, pack the products in cardboard boxes. Toward evening a brigade of a hundred or so drivers drops the packages off as anonymously as they can at recipients’ homes (though some recipients pick up their packages directly at the warehouse).

One Passover, the group distributed 30,000 pounds of onions, 4,400 pounds of matzo, 30,000 dozen eggs and 17,000 pounds of chicken to tide over recipients through the eight days of the holiday. The group also posts tin charity cans, known as pischkes, in stores to collect money for its work.

Hershkowitz, who was known to some friends by his Hungarian name, Jeno, and to volunteers as Mr. H, confided that his experience during World War II had shaped his commitment to providing food for the hungry.

Hershkowitz was born in 1925 in a village in Hungary. After the Germans occupied the country in 1944, he was deported to the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich and spent the next year there, surviving on meager rations of bread and soup.

Freed in 1945 by the Allies as they recaptured territory from the Germans, he learned that many members of his extended family had died.

He made his way to the United States, allied himself with the Hasidim of Borough Park and married Sarah Bracha Pinkcez, a European refugee who had come to the United States by way of South America. His wife died about 10 years ago. Survivors include three sons, Chaim, David and Moshe; three daughters, Charna Stark, Udy Paskez and Esther Chaya Stein; and many grandchildren.

Yehoshua Hershkowitz established Tomchei Shabbos a year after Meals on Wheels America was founded, and similar organizations had been started in the United States in the 1950s and even earlier in Britain. But few if any have grown so big after beginning on such a small scale.

The Borough Park program is a testament to the value that observant Jews place on the concept of tzedaka, a Hebrew term defined as either charity or, tellingly, justice. Not only is the giving of tzedaka commanded by passages in the Bible, but rabbinical writings prescribe ethical forms of giving, encouraging charity without the recipient’s knowing the donor or the donor’s knowing the recipient.

“Some families are ashamed,” Hershkowitz said in a 1984 interview with The New York Times. “So we don’t tell them where the stuff is coming from. We say it’s a grocery delivery and go away.”

In that spirit, Hershkowitz resisted efforts to honor him for his work; he even once rejected the prestigious sixth aliyah, or call-up, for reciting a blessing during the Sabbath reading of the Torah.

When a synagogue representative asked him if he would agree to recite the blessing, Hershkowitz replied, “I’m sorry, I’m a plain Jew.”