Every year, Ellen Mandelbaum helps distribute Passover goods for needy Jewish families in South Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s a practice she started with the first distribution nine years ago.

“I first met Rabbi David Okunov right after he moved to Brighton Beach; he was looking for a minyan, and I helped introduce him to many of the neighbors,” recalls Mandelbaum. Shortly afterwards, Okunov, associate director of F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), approached Mandelbaum about a Passover distribution for many of the neighborhood’s poorer Jewish families. According to a 2011 Jewish Community study on Poverty, a whopping 72 percent of Russian-speaking senior Jewish households live below the poverty line.

“I remember the first year, all we had was a large shipment of kosher-for-Passover lady fingers,” she says of the cake-like snack. “Every year, it’s grown. Now we’re distributing matzah and fish, and so many other essentials. This year, with everything going on, it felt more important than ever to take part.”

Organizers and volunteers for F.R.E.E. moved the annual distribution from the Warbasse Jewish Heritage Congregation, where Okunov serves as rabbi, to an outside location in order to accommodate social-distancing measures during the current coronavirus crisis. Those in need gathered outside of the local Key Food supermarket, where volunteers distributed food from pallets of eggs, potatoes, matzah, grape juice, gefilte fish and other Passover staples.

“The gift of a Passover food package is especially meaningful this year, as so many will be alone,” says Okunov. “It’s crucial that we take extra measures to respond to the challenges of many of our most vulnerable, who may be facing social, physical and spiritual isolation, to show them that they’re really not alone.”

Some 300 people came to the distribution, one of three that F.R.E.E. has hosted in Brooklyn. Additional deliveries are taking place throughout the week to another 500 homebound and isolated seniors across New York’s five boroughs.