Helping the Neediest: An Interview With David Greenfield

david greenfield

David Greenfield is a familiar name to most Hamodia readers. After two terms representing much of Flatbush and Boro Park in New York’s City Council, he left politics in January 2018 to serve as CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Though Met Council is most widely associated with food distribution, it also provides a broad set of services to needy Jews around the city including: Holocaust survivor services, benefits access, volunteer programs, senior services, addressing domestic violence issues, crisis intervention, home repair, affordable housing and the JCC network.

More than a year and a half after moving to lead what he describes as America’s “largest tzedakah,” Mr. Greenfield spoke about some of the progress and plans that he and his staff have made over that time.

Photos courtesy of Met Council.

david greenfield

What are some of the key changes that Met Council has been able to accomplish over the past year?

We have been very focused on one of the services that we are best known for — our kosher food programs. The reason is that we did a comprehensive study with UJA-Federation which showed that there are 85,000 Jewish homes in New York that are “food insecure.” What “food insecure” means in real-life terms is that you open the refrigerator on a Wednesday morning and you have no food left.

Nearly every Jewish organization in New York that gives free food is part of Met Council’s network. Through our various pantries we are now reaching 55,000 households, baruch Hashem, but according to the study, that still means that we have 30,000 households to go. That’s why we are expanding our food services.

We provide food and benefit access services everywhere in New York, from traditional neighborhoods like Williamsburg to Flatbush and Boro Park, and also in Canarsie and Brighton Beach and on the Lower East Side and in Far Rockaway. We deal with every segment of the Jewish community with one simple rule: All the food in the pantries must be kosher. That gives us a wider reach than any other tzedakah, but also a wider responsibility to do more to find the people we are not servicing who need us.

Our two top priorities are: providing best-in-class services and developing new services for the community, which I’ll get to a little later. But before we did that, we wanted to double down on our core services and make a plan to cover more people and expand our food distribution, which is already the largest free kosher food distribution in the country.

Over the past year, we’ve added more staff and recruited Jessica Chait, formerly chief of staff at UJA-Federation, to run our overhauled food distribution department. We increased our distributions from 6 million meals per year to 7.2 million. There is still more to do, but a 20% increase really moves the needle.

We’re working on our infrastructure as well. We’re gutting our 30-year-old warehouse in Brooklyn and are in the process of a multi-million-dollar renovation to create an Amazon-style system that will help us move more food, more quickly, to more people.

In fact, this Erev Sukkos we are scheduled to launch what will be our 40th food pantry in New York City. It’s going to be in Canarsie, which has a low-income and underserved Jewish community, and will be based out of the Hebrew Educational Society (HES).

What’s new is that we’ve taken a strategic and methodical approach to finding out exactly where are the people in our community who need food and how exactly can we can get them the food they need.

That means finding the right partners to distribute the food in their communities. So, for example, this year for the first time, we are partnering with Chazaq, which is a well-known organization focused on harbatzas haTorah and kiruv in Queens. They work primarily with the Bukharian community there, and this year we started doing Yom Tov distributions with them. We have also partnered with new yeshivos, including Yeshivah Chaim Berlin, to help distribute food to talmidim and families in their orbit who are in need and don’t qualify for other programs.

Another key piece of our strategic effort is that we launched a digital food pantry program last year and expanded it this year. You know Fresh Direct? Think Pantry Direct. Instead of waiting in line at a food pantry, you order what you need online — either at home, on your phone, or in one of our offices at a computer — and then you don’t have to wait on line to get your food. Your package is prepared by volunteers and you just pick it up. We now have six facilities using that system, two more than last year, and the goal is to get it in all 40 within the next few years. This will really revolutionize how food is distributed. Can you imagine, in a few years, you won’t have to wait on line to get free food?

In fact, Amazon heard about what we were doing and sent a team from Seattle to look at our technology. They have an interest in some philanthropic work and we’re working together, sharing information to see how we can create a better digital pantry system.

Bottom line: We’re getting more food to more people than ever before. This year we had 82 distribution sites for Rosh Hashanah — that’s a new record. No matter what else we do or hope to do, this is priority number one, because if you don’t have food you can’t function, and nothing else matters.

Serving Holocaust survivors has been a big function of Met Council for quite a while. As this population ages and, sadly, dwindles, has this affected this part of your operation?

Baruch Hashem, there are still tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in New York City; unfortunately, as many as 20,000 of them are low-income. Of that group, we serve over 3,000 survivors each year with 13 different services. Many of them are helping with real essentials, but we also do something unique — we organize a lot of trips and events for Holocaust survivors. There was a fascinating study done in Eretz Yisrael that showed that Holocaust survivors on average live 10 years longer than the rest of the population, so you have quite a few people using these services who are, bli ayin hara, more than 100 years old.

There are survivors who don’t have close relatives or family who live nearby, and for them we do a lot of socialization events — like lunch clubs and Yom Tov parties. To us a Holocaust survivor is the most special client we have, and, thankfully, there are many government grants and private funds that we tap into that allow us to deliver for them.

Met Council has been engaging more in helping victims of domestic violence. For better or worse, we can assume this operation has also expanded.

There isn’t a community in the world that does not suffer from family violence, and ours is no exception. Many other organizations refer their Jewish cases to us, since we do comprehensive case management and have a whole suite of services to support victims — psychological, financial and legal. There are many instances where we make it possible for an abused wife and her children to get to safety by helping pay for expenses related to things like moving, clothing and even summer camp so that the kids have a break from the challenging environment they are in.

david greenfield

We currently service 841 clients from all over the city in this department — that makes us the largest Jewish provider in America. That may not sound like a lot, compared to our 180,000 food clients, but every single one represents hundreds of hours of time and tremendous financial resources to help these victims of family violence put their lives back together.

As it gets more and more expensive to live in this city, how have your affordable housing projects been affected?

It’s where we’ve had our biggest breakthrough, because we are now in the final stages of what will be our first new affordable housing project in a decade. We are the largest Jewish communal owner of affordable housing in the city, with 1,400 truly affordable units. We charge our tenants on average of $390 per month. That includes utilities! There is a lot of demand, though there is simply not enough available space in the city to develop the units we need. But we believe that every bit helps.

This new project is for 100 units, which is not a lot, but the only way to make progress on this problem is to take what you can get and work little by little. We are the only Jewish city-wide affordable housing organization, and we are trying to focus our efforts to expand to more expensive communities.

We have more than 50 people in our office who work to manage the housing projects, and now we have begun an integrated system that allows them to cross-reference with other departments to better serve their needs. The goal is to offer tenants a whole suite of services that most of them likely need, including food, social services, and the like.

Have you been able to harness your extensive experience in government at the Met Council?

This year, we launched a young leaders’ public policy group, which is the first Jewish organization in New York dedicated to advocacy on poverty issues. There are groups that lobby on religious liberty or Israel or yeshivos, and those things are important, but we felt it was time to have a group that focuses on how to change the law in the city and state to help people who are struggling to make ends meet.

We added staff members, hired both internal and external lobbyists, and a group of 12 young professionals — successful business people — joined us to travel to Albany to talk to legislators about the issues that can help struggling people in our neighborhoods.

david grenfield
Greenfield at a pre-Pesach food distribution event in the Lower East Side. (Photo by Benjamin Kanter)

This year, we successfully passed two pieces of legislation, both focused on the “benefits cliff.” One, sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Lentol, addressed the unintended effects of the minimum wage hike.

To make it real, we’ll say that there is a divorced mother named Malkie* with three children who was making minimum wage, which used to be $13.50 per hour. Now the state has raised that to $15 an hour. Before her salary went up, Malkie qualified for a lot of government services to help pay her bills. Now, she’s making more money, but she is still poor — and she has lost some of her benefits from the raise she got. In Malkie’s case, because she’s making $235 more a month, she’s losing more than $600 in benefits such as food stamps. So, she’s worse off!

That’s the benefits cliff. The legislature basically admitted it was a mistake, and that it’s affecting tens of thousands of New Yorkers. We passed a bill that created a task force to find ways to address this unintended consequence.

The other bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, relates to a program that is very popular in our community, the Summer Youth Employment Program. The money from this program goes directly to the child, but it was being counted toward the family’s income, and many low-income families were losing their benefits because of it. There’s still more work to be done, but it’s another example of how we have expanded our impact across New York this year.

One of the most intriguing ideas that Met Council discussed was a comprehensive system that would help low-income individuals with job training and placement, in the hopes of lifting them out of poverty. How has this progressed over the past year?

It’s an original idea and a very complicated one. We have probably spent more than 1,000 hours on it combined, and baruch Hashem, have made progress in making it a reality. UJA-Federation has agreed to be our prime partner, which means that this will now have the seed funding to happen. They are also a sponsor of the organization known as Kemach in Eretz Yisrael, which is what this idea is based on. They have had a great deal of success with helping the chareidi population there, and we are looking to learn from them and build a model that can work here in the United States.

We are looking at possible locations, most likely near Boro Park and Flatbush, which will be our Brooklyn Community Hub. Now, as the name implies, this center will not only be about jobs, but will attempt to offer other key services for those who are struggling — from free food distribution to free legal advice to interest-free loans — all under one roof.

We are speaking to architects to custom-build the space to best serve the needs of the community in a comprehensive way. We are also speaking to Rabbanim and askanim to get their input as to what would appeal to needy members of their kehillos.

We want to offer as broad a package as possible and are taking our time to do what will, im yirtzei Hashem, be a multi-million dollar project the right way — based on rigorous research and planning. Our projected timeline now is for it to come to fruition in three to four years.

How broad an effect do you think the Kemach-style hub in particular could have on poverty in the community?

I really believe the community hub could be a game changer. It will allow us to have professional staff sit down and talk about how we can help a person put their finances in order or get legal advice or even financial counseling to help them break free of their situation.

Let’s say a person lost their job and needs benefits, so they come to the hub for that. We’ll have a social worker to help them, but if he also fell behind on his mortgage, we would have a lawyer there to help with that as well.

And the center of this would hopefully be a piece that would focus on employment, with a gamut of classes, from interview skills to real job training, that can help people upgrade their parnassah.

david grenfield

Now, every demographic has very different needs, so we need a very multi-faceted and flexible program. Somebody who just got married has different needs than someone who has five children and now needs to leave kollel and find a job, and they are both very different from someone who is working but is still not making it and needs to find a higher-paying job.

Let’s say you have someone working 40 hours a week in a warehouse but not covering his expenses. He can’t just quit his job and go to school. But, maybe he could take a course at night for nine months and learn to be an electrician’s assistant. It’s the type of job he could make more money in and would have a lot more potential for growth than where he is now. We have no interest in competing with Touro or other traditional college programs. Our goal is to provide opportunities to folks that right now don’t have them.

We are also talking to potential employers to see what we can do to have jobs lined up for people once they go through the system. Following through with our example, we can speak to an electrician with a medium-sized business and ask him about the qualifications he would want for a starting employee and work to cater towards that — so we are not only giving education, but also an entry-level position. I think it’s something that could make a real change in the community for a lot of people, who, through no fault of their own, are just stuck.

It is no secret that Met Council struggled to recover from the 2013 scandal, which certainly affected its public image and necessitated some internal changes as well. How did you help Met Council get past this unfortunate stage?

I’ve used the analogy before. If a restaurant does something to lose its hashgachah, if it wants to stay in business, it has to do whatever it takes to get the best hashgachah in order to bounce back.

And that’s exactly what we did. When I joined, I told our team that we must now be the best and most transparent organization with the highest ethical standards. After my first year, we voluntarily submitted ourselves for audit to GuideStar, the most widely recognized and respected organization that reports on non-profit organizations, and won their gold seal for transparency this year. We also wanted to prove that our standards exceed those of even private businesses, so we did the same with the Better Business Bureau and recently received their independent certification. We happen to be the only tzedakah that has both. So, it’s one thing for us to say, “OK, we’ve cleaned house, now you can trust us,” but it’s quite another to have two of the most reputable outside organizations come and look at our books and operations and give us their highest marks.

david greenfield

Our new executive staff is top notch, picked from the top tier of the biggest and best non-profits in New York. Our CFO came from the Rockefeller Foundation. Our in-house counsel is a former Assistant Attorney General, and other executives came from UJA, Food Bank, AIPAC and JASA. We have totally rebuilt our senior staff over the past two years, and at this point I think our leadership is unrivaled.

We have top business and communal leaders serving on our board, which says a great deal about the new status of the organization. Richard Mack, one of New York’s most successful real estate investors and philanthropists, is our new chairman. Ben Tisch of the famed Loews Corporation is our co-president. Joseph Allerhand, the senior corporate litigation partner at Weil, is our other co-president. We’ve added five new board members in just 20 months, and are serving more clients than ever before.

It was painful for me, as a public official, to watch what happened years ago, because I know not only how important Met Council’s work is, but what a chillul Hashem transpired. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to make things right, and I think the message has gotten across that we’re now operating at the highest standards of any non-profit in the country. Equally important, the media has recognized this as well. We have had more good press in the last 20 months than in the last 10 years combined. Any organization could have a few bad apples, and anybody who was connected to what went on in any way, shape or form has been permanently removed from Met Council.

The biggest proof, however, is that our donors have faith in us. Our fundraising is up by 32% this year — that has allowed us to do a lot more — and we are planning to move to new office space to further expand our services. Even our new offices will have an innovation. We are adding to our 26th-floor office an on-site, fully-stocked food pantry, so if someone comes to apply for services they can leave not only with forms but with groceries.

I’d say that we’re not only back, but baruch Hashem, we’re better than ever. Today our leadership is fresh and forward-thinking. We are the largest tzedakah in America. We take that achrayus seriously and are working strategically every day to improve the lives of the neediest.