It’s a free, elegant establishment. For customers unfamiliar with Masbia’s reputation, its recently opened Rego Park soup kitchen befits the décor of an upscale diner, but without the costs that shut out those swept up by the ongoing recession.
“Rego Park and nearby Forest Hills have approximately a 30 percent rate of Jewish poverty,” said William Rapfogel, CEO and executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “These two Jewish neighborhoods are some of the poorest in Queens, and are in the most need of programs like a kosher soup kitchen.”
The soup kitchen, located inside a former restaurant at 98-08 Queens Blvd, opened on March 8 to a crowd of community leaders and elected officials, who hailed the kitchen’s work in providing a dignified setting for the poor.
“It fills a very important need during these difficult times, at the same time providing the service and dignity that all people deserve,” Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said.
While the food adheres to Orthodox Jewish kosher standards, the Masbia kitchen is open to everyone in need.
“You just come in, sit down and get a meal,” site supervisor Yisrael Laub said. “Anybody can come in. We cater to people who need it.”
Standing in the lobby, Laub welcomed visitors, sitting them down at one of 10 tables as a volunteer served them a tray of chicken, rice and pineapple cubes. Other customers wait in the foyer, where a curtain shields them from being seen from the street.
Among the diners, Esther Baila, a retired teacher from Forest Hills, praised the quality of the food.
“I’m impressed there’s white meat here,” she said. “In other places they only serve dark meat.”
She receives Meals-on-Wheels at her home, but prefers the social atmosphere of Masbia.
“I’m on disability and my wife recently had surgery,” said Kew Gardens resident Ira Aaronson. “It’s not always easy to pay for food. You can’t feel guilty about being poor.”
His wife Suzanne praised the décor of the soup kitchen. “They did a very nice job here,” she said. “You can relate to the people here.” On the walls, portraits of Jewish holiday scenes shared space with flowing curtains resembling sails and a polished wooden floor.
Though the couple planned on leaving after finishing their meal, they lingered to share some Jewish humor with another customer.
The facility was renovated by an anonymous donor, according to Laub. Funds for the food are provided by the Henry and Susie Orenstein Emergency Food Kitchens Network and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Masbia operates the kitchen.
“There are two types of people,” philanthropist Henry Orenstein said at the kitchen’s opening. “One type is too hungry and too down to care about where they are, and the second type still has dignity and embarrassment. That’s the difference about this soup kitchen — it allows people to retain their dignity.”
The Rego Park kitchen is Masbia’s first Queens location. Since 2005, it has opened branches in Borough Park, Flatbush, and Williamsburg.
“We want people to go in and feel comfortable, and eat with dignity,” said Queens Jewish Community Council president Warren Hecht. “It does not look like a soup kitchen. It’s a beautiful place.”
The Masbia kitchen is open Sundays through Thursdays from 4 to 9 pm. It will be closed for Passover. For more information, visit masbiaregopark.org. To contribute funds to the kitchen, visit metcouncil.org.