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The Family Store (TFS) is a subsidized grocery warehouse offering affordable food and household essentials to over 500 working-class poor families. Open twice weekly and run by our volunteers. Sundays 11:00am to 2:00pm and Wednesdays 7:00pm to 9:00pm

The Family Store and TFS Young Leadership is a collaborative project of the Chai Center and Montreal Torah Center (MTC.)

 

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‘The Family Store’: Montreal’s Vast Warehouse of Goodness During Pandemic

Federation CJA, Jewish Community Foundation and Chabad partner to help the needy


by Aharon Loschak - Chabad.org
January 26, 2021

Wednesday afternoons have turned into a hectic but satisfying time for Zachary Steinlauf and Davina Josepovice of Montreal. Volunteers at “The Family Store”—a massive, fully-stocked grocery that provides subsidized basic food items and household staples to customers—they can be found with fellow volunteers in the Chabad-Lubavitch facility taking orders, stacking shelves, and packing and delivering essential groceries to people of every background. With the coronavirus pandemic nearing its one-year mark of ravaging the city and people more desperate than ever for its services, this vast warehouse of goodness has reached a fever pitch of activity.

“It’s really incredible,” said Steinlauf. “After getting properly suited with masks, gloves and plenty of hand sanitizer, you walk in the store and are handed an iPad with a wrist band with your unique packing list. You start at the beginning of the store, exactly six feet behind the next volunteer, and you go on a line—never turning back or bumping into anyone else.”

With an advanced, sophisticated digital system now in place, the store is able to operate at unprecedented levels, with volunteers streaming in throughout the day and night to do whatever it takes to get the products into the hands of the people who need it most as fast as possible.

Josepovice’s recent involvement actually came through technology as well—a WhatsApp group, to be precise. “The world was shutting down, and I wanted to make a difference. Grateful for not being among those suffering, I wanted to contribute in any way I could,” she said. Noticing on Facebook that the Montreal Jewish Federation was looking for volunteers, she joined a WhatsApp group of volunteers, and was quickly asked if she was available to deliver grocery goods to frontline workers.

Together with Steinlauf, they started delivering goods all over the city and are now steady volunteers at The Family Store.

“It can be hard for organizations to find volunteers at such times,” noted Josepovice, “but it shows us how appreciative they are, and they have volunteers coming back. As a young Jewish community member, it motivates me to keep involved and help.”

A Chance Conversation on a Drive to New York

This vast not-for-profit enterprise traces back to a chance conversation that Rabbi Yossi Kessler, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chai Center of Montreal, had more than 12 years ago with his good friend Rabbi Itchy Treitel, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Montreal Torah Center. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that their brainchild would bring the entire Jewish community of Montreal together and touch so many people.

But, as with many things, that’s exactly what happened. And with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, and all the economic and social strains it has brought with it—particularly, food insecurity—their vision has reached an otherwise unimaginable level of service.

It was the summer of 2008, and Kessler had been dealing for a number of years with relief efforts for the Russian Jewish community, among his other responsibilities. In those days, Rabbi Yisroel Sirota was working with the Russian community under the auspices of the Chai Center, and one of the services they provided was a monthly food bank.

That summer of ’08, Kessler and Treitel were driving to New York to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory on 3 Tammuz. Discussing the state of the Jewish community they both faithfully served, Kessler mentioned to Treitel that the food services should really not just be limited to the Russian-speaking community, but to any Montrealer who could use some help.

Treitel was excited about the idea, and when the two rabbis returned to Montreal, they immediately got to work. After each rabbi secured one major supporter, The Family Storewas born. The idea was as monumental as it was simple: They would open a regular, fully-stocked grocery store that would provide—by membership only—basic food items at subsidized st prices to customers. To cut overhead costs, all staff would be volunteers only, a store that’s more of a family than a store.

A Veritable Factory of Good

And that’s indeed what it became—a family store.

“The first few weeks, those two supporters would come with their families and volunteer in the store,” recalls Kessler. Suppliers across the city got on board as well. “When we would contact suppliers and explain to them what we were doing, they responded so positively, partnering with us and supplying the goods at very competitive rates to benefit our customers,” he related.

As the weeks went by and word got out, customer membership grew, and along with it, volunteers. What started off as a small hobby that was the brainchild of two rabbis in a car had turned into a serious machine of good, and now it needed more stewardship.

Enter Rabbi Getzy Markowitz, a young, rabbi from Brooklyn, N.Y., with energy and spunk that competes only with his level of positivity. Brought on by Kessler and Treitel to lead The Family Store to new heights of service, Markowitz began commuting from Brooklyn to kick things off, eventually settling in Montreal with his wife Shaina and their young children to become the director of development and Chabad Young Professionals rabbi, serving the many young adults volunteering at the facility.

Suffice it to say that in these past few years, under Markowitz’s tireless stewardship, the store has grown exponentially. Now a bustling warehouse of a store teeming with volunteers, it is a veritable factory of good. Together with significant partnership from the Federation CJA (Canadian Jewish Appeal) and the Jewish Community Foundation, the efforts at the store serve as an important bridge that brings together Jews of all backgrounds across a community as large and diverse as Montreal. After all, when a family could avail themselves of the services rendered, there’s really no difference what “type” of Jew they are: Everyone needs it, and everyone can use it.

“These are the ethos that guide what we do,” said Markowitz. “The atmosphere here is one of family, where each volunteer intimately knows the people who shop and cares for them like a member of their own family.”

An important part of Markowitz’s work at The Family Store are his efforts with the young leadership. With so many young Jewish professionals coming by to give of their time and energy, the place to which they come to help others ends up helping them as well.

“The atmosphere is really positive there, and with so many other young people around, there’s a tremendous amount of networking opportunities available,” said Steinlauf, owner of a boutique fitness studio.

Markowitz capitalizes on the interest of the young volunteer demographic, organizing events throughout the year for holidays, multiple Torah-study opportunities, and, of course, personal mentoring for the hundreds who pass through the doors.

‘Able to Pivot With a Digital Pantry’

As much as the endeavor was a backbone for the community in “normal” times, its importance has catapulted to stratospheric new heights with the grim realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

When the pandemic first struck and forced many community services into retreat with social distancing and in-person engagement impossible, The Family Store was faced with a real challenge: How would they be able to service their many customers inside a bustling store that requires close contact between so many people? To remain open was not an option, so how could they retool their services to meet the continued demand?

“Within weeks, we were able to turn it into the most sophisticated technology for family services in the city,” Markowitz proudly described.

How?

After closing the store for in-person shopping, the staff created a simple Google form for people to submit their orders online. Store volunteers would receive the orders, pack them and, depending where exactly in the city they were going, either deliver the order with a volunteer driver or ship it.

But as more and more forms came in, it became increasingly clear that the primitive technology was untenable. Partnering with the Federation, The Family Store invested significant funds and resources into completely revamping the store.

Supremely impressed with their efforts, Mayer Gniwisch and his team at Self Point Technology stepped in and donated a sophisticated Point of Sale software that streamlines every one of the 1,300 stock codes for the store’s products. Currently, all members log on to an online “digital pantry,” which automatically generates a packing list for volunteers to fulfill in the store. To further streamline fulfillment, the POS generates the packing list in the precise order the items are laid out in the store, taking away the need to go back and forth and significantly cutting down fulfillment time.

“Our company offers retailers the leading digital ecosystem of solutions that enables them to seamlessly and rapidly execute and scale their digital transformation. ... We are thrilled to be providing our technology and team expertise to The Family Store, an innovative organization getting more food to more people with utmost dignity,” said Gniwisch.

“We recognize the important and vital work that TFS does for our community and for those in need. Throughout the difficult COVID-19 crisis, TFS has been there to meet the increased demand and was able to pivot with a digital pantry. Federation CJA and the Jewish Community Foundation are proud to have collaborated with them in finding volunteers and increasing its funding,” said Natou Suissa, chief development office of the Federation CJA, along with Yair Szlak, its CEO.

‘Reaching Thousands of People’

As the momentum keeps on building, The Family Store has recently expanded and purchased a large warehouse building next door, more than doubling its capacity.

Evan Feldman, a past president of the Federation CJA and a pillar of the MTC community, has been involved with its efforts since its inception and notes its remarkable growth.

“It started from humble beginnings as a simple grassroots attempt to provide food relief for our community’s less fortunate with dignity,” noted Feldman, admiring how the store has emerged “not only as a great community resource supporting the vulnerable, but was able to pivot using the latest technology in order to provide continued online services safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Feldman observed that over and above the basic food service provided by The Family Store, it has been a great opportunity to engage and connect with other members of the community—not only for those who may otherwise be isolated but also for volunteers giving back.

“As one of the early supporters of the Family Store, it provides our company and myself a way to give back and never forget where we came from,” said Feldman. “To be able to see the strength of the organization, the commitment of the donors and volunteers, and the number of families that are being helped is a Kiddush Hashem, and I am proud to be able to contribute in our small way,” he told Chabad.org.

“Reaching thousands of people with food, hundreds of volunteers and so many others supporting it from behind the scenes, The Family Store has grown into a tidal wave of goodness and kindness, a bright spot in the face of a pandemic that has left so many bewildered,” said Feldman.

As Kessler put it, “together with our partner supporters, suppliers, volunteers and customers, The Family Store has made something wonderful.”

Wed, December 8 2021 4 Tevet 5782