Circle of Giving

February 24, 2023

The People Who Power Lakewood’s Landmark Tzedakah

Elisheva Braun

Snow was falling and the ground was frozen.

The car’s tiny clock read 2 a.m. as Mrs. Shanik stepped out of her van to distribute reading material for families to enjoy.

A high school girl crossed the street, murmuring into the cell phone tucked against her shoulder. She looked up and noticed the nocturnal courier.

“What are you doing? Can I help you?” the girl asked.

That’s how Mrs. Shanik met Nechama Goldberg née Schreiber, who started as an occasional volunteer and eventually transformed Ahavas Tzedakah from a vintage mom-and-pop tzedakah to a multimillion-dollar operation.

Benefacting beginnings

For the iconic Shanik power couple, chessed is a central theme.

“Growing up, my home was always filled with people whom my parents were helping,” Mrs. Shanik remembers. “My father, Mr. Weiner z”l, owned a big accounting firm. One summer, my husband visited my father’s office. ‘Why were so many people there standing around doing nothing?’ he asked me afterward. The answer, of course, was that my father hired anyone who needed a job, no matter how unqualified, and he paid their salary.”

All throughout her childhood, the importance of helping people was impressed upon the young Mrs. Shanik.

“As newlyweds, we lived in Richmond, Virginia, where my husband was enrolled in medical school. I remember shopping for Yom Tov and thinking, How can I buy myself new things when so many people are too poor to go shopping? It wasn’t until we moved to Lakewood that I turned that into action.”

Forty years ago, back when Lakewood was a small, 10-block hamlet, Mrs. Shanik was told about a family that was struggling to make ends meet, and she began to raise money for them.

“After that, the recipient list quickly skyrocketed,” says Dr. Shanik. “Soon, my wife was single-handedly raising money for twenty-five to thirty local families. These families needed the basic necessities; we couldn’t turn them away.”

“I collected money every Rosh Chodesh and gave it to Rabbi Kuperman or Rabbi Kreiswirth zt”l, who would distribute the funds,” says Mrs. Shanik. “I called stores and gave them money, then arranged for the recipients on our list to shop there free of charge. We started holding block campaigns in which representatives would collect for Ahavas Tzedakah from their neighbors.

“I had young children then, and I would do pickups and deliveries at night when my husband was home to babysit. I would be out until one or two in the morning, delivering gifts to block reps, picking up envelopes and dropping them off. I don’t know how I managed in those busy years, but Hashem helped me.”

How did Mrs. Shanik handle Ahavas Tzedaka’s ever-ringing phones, always-growing lists, and exploding expenses?

“If you love a mitzvah and you do it with all your heart, you’ll see incredible siyata d’Shmaya. The more you do, the more Hashem gives you. And when Ahavas Tzedakah got too big to manage, Hashem sent me Nechama Goldberg.”

The team gets a new player

“I was a spoiled youngest who never did much for anyone,” Nechama says with a laugh. “When I saw Mrs. Shanik on that freezing night, all I did was offer to help out with the magazine distribution when I received my license a few months from then.

“That summer, I delivered magazines as well as gifts for the block campaign representatives. When Dr. and Mrs. Shanik asked me to help raise money, I reached out to my former classmates. I was so proud when the mailing made $5,000 that I decided to ask the broader Lakewood community for help.

“On the advice of Rabbi Wenger z”l, to whom I had initially reached out to inquire about doing a full town mailing, I arranged Ahavas Tzedakah’s first parlor meeting. The tent event was quickly filled with attendees, and the tzedakah earned $130,000 that night.”

The organization was growing fast, and Nechama decided that its operations needed to be streamlined. She collected data from the participating stores and compiled a list of the recipients and the amounts they were receiving.

“With the help of Rabbi Gavriel Finkel zt”l, we created an application for recipients, with one of the requirements being that the family rav sign the document. We also instituted a biannual recertification system so we would know when the families’ finances changed.

“Today, I manage Ahavas Tzedaka’s accounts and oversee its operations. I’m involved in every step and situation. The work is so satisfying; it’s become a key part of my life.”

Nechama’s is a high-stress job, and it’s one she doesn’t take lightly. “There are very challenging seasons, such as during our main fundraising campaign every summer. Before Yom Tov, the responsibilities are huge. I have to monitor the bank accounts and make sure that we’re meeting our commitments.

“The block campaigns bring in money until just hours before Yom Tov, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that checks are deposited, credit cards are processed, and Ahavas Tzedakah cards are reloaded. There are many times when I come home just minutes to Yom Tov. But to be able to not only be a listening ear but a source of real help is absolutely worth all the effort.”

A calling in the classifieds

Leah Sorotzkin, who helps manage Ahavas Tzedaka, never planned to play a central role in Lakewood’s landmark tzedakah.

“I saw an ad in the paper: Ahavas Tzedakah needed a temp to organize its dinner campaign. That was seven years ago; I’ve been part of the team ever since,” Leah says.

“When I started out, we were manually stuffing envelopes and marking down applications in Excel spreadsheets, one by one. Thankfully, we’ve come very far since then.”

What drew Leah to the job—and keeps her there years later—is the ability to help others. “Answering the phones and hearing people tell their stories motivates me to do what I can to help them.”

Pro bono programming

“Mrs. Goldberg reached out to me in 2015, looking for solutions. She wanted to create electronic gift cards that recipients could use with utmost dignity,” says a software developer who wishes to remain anonymous. “When I heard what Ahavas Tzedakah does, I was so impressed that I jumped right onboard and offered to do my work for them unsalaried. When I later explained Ahavas Tzedakah’s work to my non-Jewish, West Coast programmer, he was blown away and decided to do all the programming free of charge, too.

Baruch Hashem, we’ve been able to develop an amazing program which enables recipients to shop in a way that is undetectably different.

“We’ve also developed software that streamlines and automates Ahavas Tzedakah’s processes. This allows the office to run very efficiently, enabling the organization to help hundreds of families with a small staff and low overhead. Knowing that I play a role in helping so many people in a bakavod’ig way feels more rewarding than payment ever could.”

No family left behind

“Those who reach out to us are struggling to survive. They are often embarrassed to ask friends and relatives for help, and they call us as a last resort. We don’t have the heart to turn these people away,” Leah shares. “Once we take a family on, we commit to providing for them until they no longer need our support. Time and time again, we wonder, how will we pay for this? Over and over, we watch with awe as the numbers miraculously work out.”

“Our dream is to expand our budget so we can give the full amount and more to every family. Our goal is to raise $6 million in 2023 so we can fully meet our neighbors’ needs,” says Nechama.

The liaison

Seven years ago, the rosh yeshivah Rav Yeruchem Olshin approached Rabbi Menachem Savitz, rosh mesivta of Yeshiva Mikor Chaim.

“The rosh yeshivah asked me to help the organization as much as I could,” Rabbi Savitz relates. “Until that point, Rabbi Gavriel Finkel zt”l had guided the decisions. My job was to bring rabbanim and roshei yeshivah onto the rabbinical board and to act as a liaison between them and the Ahavas Tzedakah staff.

“Rabbi Yosef Zimbal, Rabbi Henoch Shachar, and Rabbi Eliezer Gewirtzman have since joined, and they answer every she’eilah that arises. These busy and prominent rabbanim return my calls within ten or twenty minutes; they are actively involved and care tremendously about the tzedakah.

“Every aspect of the tzedakah is approved by the rabbanim, from communications and campaigns to allotment and exceptions. Eligibility is one sensitive issue that the rabbanim address with their perceptive understanding of nuance and needs,” says Rabbi Savitz.

The rabbanim speak

What is it about Ahavas Tzedakah that makes Rabbi Zimball, Rabbi Shachar, and Rabbi Gewirtzman so passionate about its mission?

“Ahavas Tzedakah is an emes’dig, straightforward organization that helps hundreds of families who need the basics. Since its inception, the people who run it have shown tremendous care and concern for the recipients, putting them back on their feet and going out of their way to keep their dignity intact.”

“We all meet with Mrs. Goldberg from time to time, especially before Yom Tov, when the bulk of the tzedakah is given. We discuss the questions that come up, both general issues and particular situations. We also determine distribution policies to make sure the money is given to the people who really need it.”

“Giving to this tzedakah is a way of helping out the whole community. Anyone who donates to Ahavas Tzedakah should see brachos and hatzlachah, especially in chinuch habanim and in all areas in which a family needs hatzlachah to be a functional and happy unit.”

“We hope this article will be a kiddush Hashem,” the rabbanim conclude.

Real tears

Rabbi Eliezer Gewirtzman, rav in Lakewood’s Coventry Square, joined the Ahavas Tzedakah rabbinical board in 2016. “When I was approached to help out this chashuve organization, I knew I couldn’t refuse,” he remembers.

“A lot has changed in the last few years,” says Rabbi Gewirtzman. “In general, both expenses and salaries have gone up, and many families are feeling financial strain. One thing we’ve focused on recently is trying to help breadwinners increase their earning power. For example, if an application says that the father is working full-time and bringing home meager paychecks, we may get in touch with the family rav to explore why the person is making such a low salary and the alternate options he can pursue.”

For Rabbi Gewirtzman, it’s painful to have to deny families’ requests for extra funds.

“It’s different when you read the stories of poverty,” he says. “Of course, it hurts to hear about people who need tzedakah. But when you speak to the families, it’s real people, real issues, real tears. It’s much more difficult to bear.

“Although it’s hard to deal with people’s tzaros,what keeps me going is staying focused on how I can help people.”

Invisible struggles

“When someone is unwell, their life is on hold. When a family faces poverty, though, the struggle is a silent one. Unless you’re privy to details, the person likely seems just fine,” says Nechama.

“We aren’t crass enough to verbalize it, but we tend to internally question those who face financial crisis. In the back of our mind, we wonder, Can’t they work harder, budget better? Why can’t they figure it out on their own?

“Some of Ahavas Tzedakah’s recipients pay exorbitant therapy or medical bills, and others cannot work due to physical or emotional disabilities,” explains Rabbi Savitz. “However, the vast majority are two-income families who work very hard to make a living. The sad truth is that many hardworking, carefully budgeting families cannot keep their heads above water in today’s financially troubled times.

“The people who are just out of the income bracket for government assistance tend to have the hardest struggle of all. Although they may not meet official poverty requirements, they simply aren’t making it. Especially with inflation, people cannot afford today’s overwhelming living costs.”

Preserving their pride

“Discretion isn’t great for PR. It’s hard to raise money while staying so low-key about what we do and whom we help,” says Rabbi Savitz. “But, as the Rambam discusses, treating recipients with dignity is a vital element of tzedakah. This is something Ahavas Tzedakah excels at.”

“Struggling families are experiencing enough pain. The last thing we want is for them to feel more shame and degradation,” says Nechama.

It may cost a great deal of money and time, but the organization stops at nothing when it comes to protecting the pride and privacy of its families.

Blocks unite

Mrs. Shanik masterminded the block campaign over 30 years ago. The idea was to cultivate a sense of communal responsibility through grassroots fundraising.

“Many of our reps are still with us from the ’90s, and they’re passionate and enthusiastic about helping Lakewood families,” says Leah. “We have 850 reps and counting, so there are a lot of moving parts in these campaigns. It’s a time-consuming project; we spend hours sorting, recording, and depositing. As the envelopes come in and the pile of checks grows, it’s very encouraging to watch the numbers add up and know that the pledges translate to food, clothes, housewares, and more.”

Giving what they get

Dr. and Mrs. Shanik, alongside local corporate sponsors who want to give back to the community, help cover Ahavas Tzedakah’s overhead expenses, so nearly every dollar the organization gets goes straight into recipients’ accounts.

“We have very low operating costs,” Nechama relates. “From the very beginning, Ahavas Tzedakah’s only goal has been to be there for the people who need us.”

Back on their feet

To date, close to 400 Ahavas Tzedakah families have been able to be removed from the recipient list. A large percentage of these graduates donate to the cause today.

“I get so emotional when a reapplication is returned with a note that the recipients are back on their feet and no longer need our help. Often, there is a check tucked into the envelope. It’s an incredible thing to see,” Leah shares.

Ahavas Tzedakah throws a lifeline to drowning families. There is no greater joy than watching them find the strength to swim again.

  • “My girls were dancing around the house when they tried on the new clothing they bought this season. They finally get to feel normal.”
  • “We appreciate the large choice of stores enabling us to pick what we needed.”
  • Baruch Hashem, our situation is improving as my husband’s business is growing, although we are still dealing with debt from years of buildup. At this time, we no longer need to decide whether to be behind in utilities, mortgage, or tuition payments. But when Yom Tov comes around, your assistance is invaluable as there is nothing extra. This keeps us from falling behind all year long. Thanks to you, we are not a family in economic crisis! I hope that very soon, we will no longer need the help at all. Thank you for helping us get there.”
  • “Thank you for turning our worry into relief and then happiness when we were able to give our family clothing, hosiery, shoes, and matzah for Pesach. Our Yom Tov was happy thanks to you. A special thank-you from our children for the books that they are enjoying and learning from!”
  • “I am a single mother with no support. You have no idea what a help and relief your Yom Tov cards are to me. They enable me to go into Yom Tov with peace of mind and give me the opportunity to truly enjoy.”
  • “Each time I get your envelope, I cry. A new shell for each girl, yarmulkes and tzitzis for the boys, real laundry detergent… Please know that your chessed literally sustains our family and gives us simchas Yom Tov. I daven to one day be a contributor. Until then, I can only say thank you.”
  • “Thank you for the incredible miracles you produce b’siyata d’Shmaya. You made our Yom Tov into zman simchaseinu with the security that we can buy something without feeling embarrassed or degraded. We also felt we were given the opportunity to decide what is most urgent for our family.”
  • “We would like to thank you very much for all the help we have received in the last few years. Baruch Hashem, we’re doing much better financially at the present time. Please remove our name from the recipients list.”