‘Wheat money’ ensures seders for prisoners, elderly

A century ago, people lined up around the block at Sinai Memorial Chapel to receive bags filled with chickens, matzah and wine to ensure a sweet and kosher Passover. Today, through the practice of Ma’ot Chitim, or “wheat money,” Sinai still donates to agencies that serve the less fortunate.

“We’re no longer handing chickens out the door, but we feel honored that for over 100 years we have carried on this tradition of being mindful of people who want to celebrate Passover but don’t have the resources,” said Sam Salkin, executive director at Sinai, the only Jewish funeral home in Northern California.

Eighth-graders from Brandeis School of San Francisco get ready to prepare seder sacks. photo/courtesy jfcs

Ma’ot Chitim, Salkin noted, is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was compiled more than 1,600 years ago. Originally, the funds were intended to cover the cost of flour for matzah.

This year, the chevra kadisha, or burial society at Sinai Memorial Chapel, will donate $8,108 in “wheat money.” The money, which comes from a surcharge on each funeral, is used to help bury the poor and to help pay for seders in prisons and senior residences, kosher lunch programs at local Jewish agencies and meals for the impoverished homebound.

“Jewish poverty is invisible because we don’t live in Jewish neighborhoods and we have a stratified society,” Salkin said. “A small number of people at a small number of institutions and agencies know where the neediest of the Jewish people are and we send the money to them.”

The need is greater than ever in prisons. Salkin said the Ma’ot Chitim donation to Jewish prison chaplains has increased over the last three years because the state has cut the budget for chaplaincy programs in penal institutions.

“Sinai should be praised for doing what they do,” said Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director for the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. “We transfer the wheat money from Sinai to the chaplains so they can buy whatever the prisons can’t or don’t provide, and based on emails the prison chaplains send me, the donation from Sinai helps significantly.”

Rabbi Paul Shleffar, Jewish chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, pools the Sinai funds with donations from inmates’ families, community members and other programs to create a seder for about 100 Jewish inmates.

“The seder is unbelievably well received and practically brings tears to the inmates’ eyes,” Shleffar said. “So many tell me they haven’t had anything like this in 25 or 30 years. They look forward to it, they appreciate it and it’s the highlight of the year as far as religious services go. It has a huge impact.”

The traditional Passover meal is served, with the exception of wine, Shleffar said. And for those inmates who aren’t permitted or are unable to attend, he packs individual meals and delivers them personally.

Working through Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay, some 40 volunteers will deliver Passover food on Thursday, April 21 to about 185 homebound elderly Jewish residents in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Donations of groceries from Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville and Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, in addition to the wheat money, make the program possible.

Also, some 300 volunteers working at five Bay Area locations  will pack and deliver “seder sacks” to about 3,000 Jewish seniors, people with disabilities and the needy.

The annual program, sponsored by S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, kicked into high gear last week when volunteers packed food bags in Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Mateo, San Rafael and Santa Rosa. Some volunteers make delivery runs with their families.

“When a family shows up at the door and a 3-year-old says, ‘Happy Passover,’ well, it melts the clients’ hearts. They love it,” said Rachel Kesselman, director of volunteers for the agency.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.