How the Flatbush Community Fund has Quickly Become a Lifeline for Local Families in Distress

This past Pessah, thanks to a new community initiative, hundreds of needy families who otherwise might have gone without proper provisions for the holiday didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. For them, this holiday was indeed different from all other holidays – because there was a new organization at-the-ready to step up to the plate.

Flatbush Community Fund (FCF) has, for the past three years, been a lifeline for countless community members – those struggling paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, those in desperate need to pay for the necessitates of life. And that is particularly true during the past year, when so many have been economically devastated by the pandemic.

Thankfully, more than $1.5 million in food aid was given out to community members, so that they could partake in festive meals, without empty stomachs, shame or indignity.

But one might ask: what about the scores of existing community social safety nets? Aren’t they already taking care of struggling families?

The answer, surprising as it sounds, is that some families fell through the cracks. Although there are scores of charitable organizations all doing fine work, only one – Flatbush Community Fund – has arisen to forge partnerships with other assistance programs in order to reach more people in need.

“A One-Stop Shop”

Three years ago, a philanthropist in our community who had been helping a family in financial distress quickly came to the realization that there were other families like them who didn’t know where, or to whom, to turn. Not everyone who needed help knew of a program or a person to ask. And this donor wasn’t alone; some of his peers who helped the needy also understood the problem. So many in the community were defaulting on mortgages, facing utility shut-offs, or going into overdraft to simply buy the basics – with nowhere to turn for the help they desperately needed.

Together, these generous donors decided to plug the gaps, and provide more resources, by creating a central hub where anyone of any background could find help: the Flatbush Community Fund.

FCF touts itself as a unique multiservice organization, helping with food, bills, clothing, and interest-free loans.

“We are trying to make it a one-stop shop, so that the people who need help have one address that they can turn to,” said Yitzy Weinberg, Executive Director of Flatbush Community Fund. “At the same time, we are rallying our community around those hit by poverty, illness, pandemic, and unemployment to bring us all together to help each other.”

The rapid growth of the organization in such a short amount of time is astonishing, with millions of dollars fundraised and distributed. Its success in three short years is nothing short of stunning. It has distributed $2 million in aid to 1,200 families, distributed more than $400,000 worth of grocery vouchers to over 550 families, helped raised funds for 65 weddings, and funded $500,000 in interest-free loans.

And, FCF has evolved from a small organization with a cubical in a shared office space, to a real location and two full-time staffers.

Some 400 volunteers have stepped up to the plate to distribute goods and services, and the board is dedicated to investing their own spare time to help in as many ways as they can.Board member David Heskiel proudly states, “I am privileged to be involved in the truly remarkable and heroic work the Flatbush Community Fund does on a daily basis to alleviate the financial stress of needy families in our community.”

Unique to our community, they provide free tutoring services to 200 children on a monthly basis, as part of a program that has demonstrated enormous tangible results, receiving praise from schools, donors, and students. The goal of the tutors, say organizers, isn’t merely to attend to those students who have slipped academically, but also to ensure they are proactively keeping up with their studies.

These initiatives have received the emphatic endorsement of an exceptionally wide range of community institutions and leaders. They have the support of 200 local shuls, and of prominent rabbis such as Rabbi Yisrael Reisman, Rabbi Elya Brudny, Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Leiff, and Rabbi Moshe Bergman.

Teamwork

Realizing that no one single organization can do it all, FCF immediately networked with an array of other organizations to more effectively serve the community. UJA Federation, Met Council, Tzur, and COJO are just a few agencies that have teamed up with FCF to provide more assistance to more families.

Tzur has a wedding fund matching scheme, dollar-for-dollar, that has given a half-million dollars to offset simha costs. Leon Goldenberg and COJO have offered various resources to process interest-free loans, with $1.5 million already collected by FCF and given out to those who need a helping hand. For their part, UJA has offered grants and funds, financial mentoring, and helping with the food pantry. And Met Council has also joined in, as a channel to help those with emergency utility and rent expenses.

“We just gave wedding assistance to a single mother,” Weinberg says. She reached back out to me to thank me. She was incredibly amazed. She couldn’t believe it. She filled out the application, we went through the vetting process, and she got thousands of dollars toward her wedding expenses. She wrote a whole long letter. She couldn’t contain herself about the burden taken off of her. Besides the financial burden, there was the emotional component of feeling that there are people there for her.”

This wasn’t unusual, Weinberg noted, as thank-you letters, voicemails and emails come in on a constant basis from those who have felt incredibly impacted by the work FCF does.

“It was also the fact that someone was there for them, and cared about them, that they were part of a community. It meant something to someone. It really brought home, to me and others, that these efforts really help.”

Streamlining Charitable Efforts

Weinberg became involved shortly after the organization was conceived, and quickly learned that there was a widely-held misconception that the need wasn’t so dire, a belief that because so much money is typically raised for so many causes, everyone was taken care of. Alas, that wasn’t the case. As Weinberg puts it, “Many people were getting lost in the shuffle. There were gaps, despite the number of programs available.”

And even when an individual could be helped with several different services, he noted, “a person, especially in a crisis, doesn’t have the headspace to go from organization to organization.”

What he saw in FCF were committed and dedicated individuals who wanted to create a better, more streamlined, solution, and he jumped at the chance to become involved.

“It’s so gratifying to be able to know that you are on the front lines of providing help, every day, for people when they need it,” Weinberg reflects. “There are many needs in the community that aren’t being met sufficiently. We are trying to fill those areas. We are trying to be the organization that everyone in Flatbush knows they can turn to if they have a problem.”

Weinberg works with Yonason Schwartz, FCF Director of Operations, both the only hired hands at FCF.

“We’ve taken on this monumental challenge and helped create this unique organization that we now have,” Schwartz says proudly.

Of critical importance for him to express is that FCF provides not only critical aid, but also a method whereby people can request help discreetly, in the form of an online application.

“People already go through a lot of shame, and discomfort, when things get bad,” Schwartz explains, noting that this is one of the reasons why many people shy away from asking. “They shouldn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of reaching out for help.”

A Plea for More “Fuel”

As incredible as the growth of the organization has been, however, there is an ever-growing need for donor contributions, in order to keep up with rapidly increasing demand for grocery store vouchers, food pantry items, loans, and other vital forms of assistance.

If there was a time-sensitive message to our community Schwartz and Weinberg want to leave us with, it’s that we can all chip in wherever we can, and all do our part to come to the aid of our fellow Jews.

“We have the vehicle to help people, but we need to be fueled more,” Schwartz pleads. “Help your friends and neighbors, and let’s all give to this cause!”.

Added Weinberg, “We need to get community leaders to buy in, and help us help the community. The sum is greater than its parts in the Flatbush community. There are needs in every shul in Flatbush. A stronger Flatbush community is better for everyone.”

For more information, please visit FCF’s website, www.fcfund.org.