Tucked behind a rambling, wooded driveway in South Euclid is an old stone building. Years ago it was the address of Cleveland’s Chabad synagogue; now it serves as Cleveland’s kosher pantry.
The kosher pantry, formerly known as the Russian/Kosher Foodbank, opened its doors more than 30 years ago when Shula and Rabbi Zalman Kazen launched it to provide food and spiritual nourishment to newly arrived Jews from the former Soviet Union. Their foodbank, created in partnership with the Cleveland Foodbank and local donors, began in the Zemach Zedek Congregation on Lee Road.
“My parents suffered greatly during the Holocaust and the Russian communist era,” says Devorah Alevsky, the Kazens’ daughter who along with her grandson Rabbi Yossi Friedman now runs the kosher pantry. “They understood what persecution can do to a person’s soul and have devoted their lives to acts of chesed and loving kindness to everyone in need.”
When the elderly Kazens moved to New York last year, Alevsky and a group of volunteers stepped in to keep the foodbank going. Under the auspices of the Cleveland Foodbank, they are providing weekly packages of kosher food to 200 Jewish and non-Jewish families and monthly food parcels to an additional 200 families.
Although members of Cleveland’s Chabad community administer the program, the people they serve must span all religious beliefs. To qualify, clients must meet the Cleveland Foodbank’s general eligibility requirements in terms of financial need and number of members in the household.
The food distributed by volunteers at the kosher pantry includes staples like pasta, sugar, oil, rice, oatmeal, peanut butter, tuna fish, and various canned goods like tomato sauce and beans. Fresh apples, potatoes, onions and cabbage are distributed when available. Unger’s and Lax & Mandel donate kosher bread and pastry.
“Our kosher bakers give us whatever they have left over at the end of the day,” says Alevsky. “All our clients, Jewish and non-Jewish, consider a piece of challah a real treat.”
The economy has changed the face and doubled the number of clients Alevsky and her volunteers are currently serving. “The rise in unemployment has greatly affected us,” she says. But once either a husband or wife has found a job, “they are eager to stop asking for assistance and be self-sufficient.”
Many of Alevsky’s Jewish and non-Jewish clients live in government-subsidized apartments on Mayfield and Warrensville Center Roads or at Cedar Center. “Our low income, elderly residents often have to decide whether to buy medicine or food,” says Valentina Adams, resident services coordinator for an apartment building at the corner of Warrensville and Mayfield. “The extra food 92 out of our 111 tenants receive from the kosher pantry makes a huge difference to them.”
During Jewish holidays, kosher foodbank clients, regardless of religion, are treated to parties held in their apartment social rooms.
Purim parties come complete with hamantaschen and shalach manot baskets. During Passover, everyone enjoys matzah and kosher wine. Chanukah is celebrated with a kosher chicken, latkes, donuts and chocolate gelt.
“We are very fortunate to have this pantry in the South Euclid area that plays such a key role in food distribution,” says Karen Ponza, Cleveland Foodbank spokesperson. The number of those who are hungry continues to increase, “so it is important to have (Alevsky and her volunteers) feeding so many people each month.”
Alevsky and her team also manage the Kazens’ original Lee Road foodbank location. It is still being used to serve 100 Russian émigrés, many of whom remain like extended family to the Kazens.
Despite her parents’ move, “my mother is on the phone 10 times a day, talking to some of these people or giving me advice about how to run the pantry,” says Alevsky. “Giving and helping others is an essential part of her life.”