Considering the enormous cultural and economic gulf between Millburn, New Jersey, and McRoberts, Kentucky, it’s actually surprising that it takes only 10 hours by car to get from one to the other, said Rabbi Steven Bayar.
The religious leader of Congregation B’nai Israel was looking for a tzedaka project for his synagogue’s members that would target a specific area, but one not so close to home. His goal, he said, was to “open congregants’ eyes” to the “overwhelming need in the United States for people to look out for each other.”
The project he found was, according to all reports, eye-opening.
Partnering with the Good People Fund — whose founder, Naomi Eisenberger, is a B’nai Israel member — Bayar took 11 congregants on a tzedaka mission to the rural town of McRoberts in the heart of Appalachia in early June.
Because of the very difficult economic situation in northeastern Kentucky, he said, the experience “was grueling — very rewarding, but grueling.”
Eisenberger explained why. “Only 25 percent of their kids go on to any kind of higher education after high school [and] there are no jobs and very little hope. Those who graduate high school have choices: They can work in Walmart or a restaurant. There are no professional jobs.”
The Good People Fund, which is also in Millburn and was established in 2008, recognizes and supports the work of small grassroots organizations and individuals.
Eisenberger described what the mission members found in Kentucky. “This is not Harlem. This is not Newark. This is something most people have not seen, and it is compounded because the town is so remote,” she said. “It took me three days to get out of the depression I was in from being there.”
McRoberts has a population of 700 and no viable commerce. Founded by Consolidation Coal in 1912, the town’s median income, according to the 2000 census, was $18,000 for households, and a full 33 percent of the population was listed as living below the poverty line. McRoberts is 40 miles from the nearest movie theater and a half-hour’s drive to the nearest large supermarket, according to Eisenberger.
GPF got involved in the town when Eisenberger learned that many of its children were receiving federally funded meals in school, but often had nothing to eat on the weekends. The first project the fund supported was supplying backpacks filled with food for the weekend that children could pick up as they left school on Friday.
On the mission that the B’nai Israel members were on, which Eisenberger accompanied, most of the group spent the bulk of their time at the middle school/high school campus that serves McRoberts in nearby Jenkins. For three days, the volunteers unloaded two large truckloads of goods: housewares, books, clothing, and the like. The volunteers set them up in a local school gymnasium and then served as “personal shoppers,” helping local families find the items they needed.
It was Eisenberger’s third trip to the area, Bayar’s second. In addition to the B’nai Israel contingent, she brought other GPF associates, including mitzva clowns from Long Island, a member of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, and a couple who belong to Congregation Beth El there.
For Eisenberger, the project was a coming together of a number of the “good people” her organization supports. The trucks were sent from Redistribution Center, Inc., in Denver, which takes donations of household goods and clothing from major retailers who can no longer sell the items and gives them to people in need. (B’nai Israel worked with the organization before, distributing goods in Newark.)
The food was provided by the Youngstown Food Pantry, also supported by the GPF.
During the mission, Bayar said, he and a few B’nai Israel members also met with a group of youngsters and adults at the high school, serving as “ambassadors of the Jewish community” to the people of McRoberts, many of whom had never met a Jew before.
Art Fredman of Millburn, one of the B’nai Israel participants, described the culture shock of arriving in McRoberts. He felt, he said, “like we might be in another country. I had never been among people who seemed so devoid of hope about their future and so generally defeated in their lives.”
During his stay in Kentucky, Fredman said, he had the opportunity to drive into the “hollows” — pronounced “hollers” — where many local residents live. “You leave the paved main road and go up a one-lane road overgrown with bushes and scrub trees…. Every 50 feet or so there’s another home. They are broken-down camphouses built for miners at the turn of the last century. Some are barely standing; some of the houses tilt. They’ve never been painted and they’re all in terrible condition.
“The people are sitting on what look like unsafe porches, just kind of staring,” Fredman said.
Steve Moehlman of Short Hills called the experience “life-changing.” And yet, he said, he was surprised to discover how much he has in common with some of the Kentuckians he met. “What I took away was how special the people are,” he said. As he “shopped” with the locals, he chatted with them. He remembered talking with a machinist about 50 years old who has three children. “He was very proud of his children,” something, said Moehlman, he can relate to since he himself is the father of two teenagers.
“By the end of the conversation, we were friends — even though he wears overalls and looks like a hillbilly. Once you get past the layers, we had a lot in common,” Moehlman said.
That commonality didn’t necessarily stop, he said, when the topic of Israel or his being Jewish came up. The machinist was extremely supportive of Israel and applauded the Jews for their business acumen, an attitude he said he learned from his father. “I didn’t delve too deeply but I was impressed with his views,” said Moehlman, “since there are not any Jews there.”
Which is not to minimize the vast differences between the visitors and the local people they encountered. The New Jerseyans noted the illiteracy prevalent among many of McRoberts residents and the poor health they seem to suffer from — rotting teeth and obesity are commonplace — exacerbated by the lack of quality medical care. There is also rampant abuse of prescription drugs. It was not uncommon for the volunteers to discover that the people they were assisting were raising their grandchildren. “An entire generation has been lost to prescription drug addiction,” said Eisenberger.
Ina Wallman of Short Hills, a mother of four children ranging in age from 11 to 16, went to Kentucky despite difficulties in scheduling. “We live in such a privileged community. We are blessed to be able to do so,” she said. “But it’s also a myopic, closed-off society. We forget the real world is a different place. I needed to get some perspective on what’s worth having. And I want my children to know there are people who can’t afford to live in houses, to buy food, clothes, even linens.”
She said she would go back “in a minute.”
One goal of B’nai Israel’s participation, according to Bayar, was to create the foundation for a long-term relationship between the synagogue and McRoberts, with the hope that they will be able to bring educational advantages and a more positive outlook to the people of Kentucky.