When the kosher soup kitchen Masbia opened in Borough Park nearly four years ago, it served a total of eight patrons.
"Now, we have nights when we go over 200," said Alexander Rapaport, Masbia's executive director. And the need is growing.
With hunger and poverty growing in the Jewish community, Masbia is now planning to open three more kosher soup kitchens - two in Brooklyn and one in Queens. The first on Lee St. in Williamsburg is expected to open in June.
Among Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Williamsburg has the highest level of poverty, with 64% of households earning less than $35,000, according to a UJA-Federation study.
The council is looking for a second site somewhere in southern Brooklyn to serve needy residents in Midwood, Flatbush, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach and Coney Island.
The third kitchen will be in central Queens to serve Jackson Heights, Rego Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens.
"We're focusing on the areas with the highest concentrations of poor, working poor and middle-class people who have lost jobs and can't make ends meet," said William Rapfogel, director of Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which is partnering with Masbia in operating the soup kitchens.
The new facilities will be patterned after Masbia, which is set up like a restaurant, with artificial plants surrounding tables to offer diners a sense of privacy.
"This is about making sure people have a dignified way to have a meal in a clean, safe environment," Rapfogel said.
Social workers will regularly visit to make sure diners take advantage of other services they might be eligible for, such as children's insurance or Medicaid.
Rapaport said he was concerned particularly about the increasing numbers of children being brought to Masbia for meals. On a recent night, he counted 61 youngsters.
"We used to average around 20 a day," Rapaport said.
The downturn in the economy has led to a rise in middle-class diners at Masbia, Rapaport said. "Their shame is so much bigger. They don't know where to call for food stamps. They don't know where food pantries are. People have just fallen into this situation."