This article appeared in the May 23, 1014 Jewish Advocate.

Jewish organizations in the forefront of fighting hunger


By Susie Davidson

Special to the Advocate

Sheila Decter

Earlier this month, a sea of 43,000 people strode from the Boston Common and headed to points west. It was the 46th annual Walk for Hunger, an event that clearly resonates with many. Organized by Project Bread, it benefits 400 agencies that help alleviate hunger.

Poverty seems almost too big to grasp, but hunger seems understandable,” said Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action ( JALSA) Executive Director Sheila Decter, who has marched, organized, written, and otherwise worked on hunger and other social issues for decades. Decter said many local congregations march in the Walk.

But hunger alleviation means more than simply supplying food to the needy. Anti-hunger organizations in and outside the Jewish community tend to focus on the larger system of poverty, with the aim of empowering those in need through social change.

Project Bread, one of 30 food and health organizations in the Massachusetts Food Policy Alliance (MFPA), also administers the Northeast Regional Anti-Hunger Network, which helps shape federal policy for SNAP (the U.S. food stamps program) and child nutrition, and advocates for legislation and policy. Victories include increased Women, Infants and Children ( WIC) enrollment for eligible families, free school breakfasts, and limiting the availability of unhealthful foods at schools.

Is there a Jewish equivalent of the Walk? MAZON, the national nonprofit hunger group founded in 1985 by Boston-based writer and educator Leonard Fein, comes to mind. Fein is still active on the board of MAZON, which means “food” or “sustenance” in Hebrew. He began the organization in the wake of that year’s devastating famine in Ethiopia. The group seeks to end hunger for people of all faiths and backgrounds, in the United States andIsrael.

We take a holistic approach, fighting to ensure that hungry people have access to nutritious food today while also working to advance long-term solutions so that no one will go hungry tomorrow,” said Michelle Stuffmann, its director of outreach and communications.

MAZON’s outreach includes advocacy, education, partnership grants and strategic initiatives.

In the ancient rabbinical tradition, simchas could not begin until a portion of their cost was donated to the poor and hungry of the community, and MAZON thusly solicits from almost 1,000 synagogues and tens of thousands of individual donors.

Like many synagogues, Newton’s Temple Emanuel engages in direct outreach programs that include supporting Cambridge’s Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church.

Last month, the synagogue held the 25th annual Project Manna Spring Concert. “Proceeds support Project Manna, the church’s hot meals program and food pantry,” said Penny Scharfman, who said that each week, Project Manna provides nutritional assistance to more than 250 families.

According to Scharfman, who cochaired the April 6 concert with Sandy Thau and Amy Klein, the concert was created in 1989 by the late Rabbi Samuel Chiel and the church’s Rev. Howard McLendon. “Their vision was to unite their two communities of faith to benefit the homeless and hungry,” she said.

Temple Emanuel has also participated in ‘Saturday’s/Sunday’s Bread’ for over 20 years, and was one of the founding/sponsoring synagogues,” said program coordinator Abby Flam, who explained that many food and meal programs are not available on weekends. “This program engages churches, synagogues, and college service organizations to provide a home-cooked meal and a setting of comfort and companionship,” she said. Temple members, aged 16 and above, set tables, cook and serve the meal, converse with guests, and take down the tables.

Emanuel also collects and delivers winter coats to Bristol Lodge in Waltham and to the participants at Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church’s soup kitchen, and participates in the Synagogue Council’s Project Ezra, serving meals at Christmas as well as volunteering at shelters and nursing homes.

As part of the Action for Post- Soviet Jewry, Emanuel’s Social Action Committee collects shoes, which are shipped with clothing, medicine and other supplies to Jews in need in Ukraine.

Through our Chesed Caring Community activities, we strive to become a community in which we visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, and provide hospitality to the visitor,” write Social Action Committee Co-Chairs Ellen Kass and Barbara Goldman on Emanuel’s website.

In addition, our Social Action agenda summons us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and educate our youth.”

Another Temple Emanuel volunteer effort is with Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s ( JF&CS) Family Table, which, according to Family Table Program Director Bernice Behar, is the largest kosher food pantry in New England. “Each month we provide nutritious groceries, Jewish holiday items, and a caring connection to the Jewish community to more than 400 families,” she said, noting that nearly 70 percent of the food comes from the Jewish community. More than 100 towns in Massachusetts are served.

Last year, 1,747 volunteers devoted over 11,000 hours of their time to pack and deliver food to Family Table recipients,” said Behar.

Other Jewish organizations offer direct services. Yad Chesed, for example, distributes money and food gift cards. Other groups focus more on a longer-term view by working to change public policy. Both are necessary components of charity, and go hand in hand.

Decter said some local organizations, for example, work to pass legislation promoting affordable housing, the forestalling of mortgage foreclosures, and permanent housing, as distinguished from aid to shelters.

Moishe Kavod House (MKH) of Brookline promotes education regarding food access and the killing of animals.

Farm to Shul is Moishe Kavod House’s initiative focused on building support for sustainable local agriculture and understanding food systems in the Jewish community, including issues of food justice in Boston,” said MKH member Aliza Wasserman, who founded the program in 2008.

Farm to Shul has co-hosted a Tu Bishvat Seder with Temple Beth Zion that highlighted local farmers and examined food purchasing and preparation in synagogues and organizations. “That includes MKH’s own food purchasing, led by our new Community Food Advisory Board (Co- FAB),” said Wasserman, who said the committee had created an online ketubah reflecting this work.

MKH joined JALSA, the Jewish Labor Committee and local synagogues at a 2011 rally in Boston in support of farmworkers. “We also explored, with JALSA, how local policy could improve access to healthy food in disinvested neighborhoods of Boston that have high rates of diet-related disease,” said Wasserman.

The Boston Jewish Food Conference grew out of Farm to Shul’s work. Held for the past three years, the first conference featured a panel of local leaders, including a representative from JF&CS, who addressed root causes of hunger and limited access to healthful food in Boston neighborhoods. Bostonbased Ganei Beantown founder Leora Mallach founded the conference with member Hannah Levine.

We run a network of institutional Jewish educational gardens, produce urban homesteading workshops, and community wide events that have included the three Boston Jewish Food Conferences,” said Mallach, who maintains its organic vegetable garden at Temple Israel. “All our produce goes to either the volunteers who work in the garden or are donated to Rosie’s Place.”

JALSA works with a non-Jewish group, Wholesome Wave of Connecticut, to increase the availability of fresh produce for low-income groups. Wholesome Wave was co-founded by former U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture and former Agricultural Commissioner for Massachusetts Gus Schumacher and the late actor and natural-food entrepreneur Paul Newman.

JALSA promotes programs such as Bounty Bucks at Codman Square Health Center. It also worked on the farm bill, which is a blanket term for federal legislation updating agricultural and food policies that is passed by Congress every several years. Certain components, such as those concerning business, trade, rural communities or the environment, are often fodder for debate and controversy.

In January, the House passed the Agriculture Act of 2014, anticipated to be a compromise bill certain to please neither side. The key Jewish group working on the farm bill has been the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), joined by several others.

AJWS, led by President and CEO Ruth Messinger, collected 18,000 signatures for a “Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill,” which was delivered to both Congress and the White House. In their materials, AJWS materials state that global food aid comes nearly exclusively from the U.S., and the problems include the fact that “it can take far too long to reach people in need … [and] once it gets there, it often undercuts local farmers instead of supporting them, creating even more hunger in the long run.” Messinger wrote in The Huffington Post in 2012: “Fiftythree cents of every food aid dollar that buys grain goes not for food but for shipping, markup and overhead. … The U.S. could be providing food aid to at least 17 million more people each year for the same money if, like the aid programs of nearly all other developed countries, our Farm Bill provided for local purchasing of food in the developing world.”

AJWS supports grassroots organizations in Haiti, Latin America, Africa and Asia, is the major Jewish response agency at times of world crisis, and sponsored a “Reverse Hunger” campaign for the Farm Bill reform. It also promotes an annual Global Hunger Shabbat that began three years ago.

Why is ending global hunger a Jewish concern?” Messinger asks in her Huffington Post column. “It is an effort that hearkens back to one of the most frequently cited biblical commandments: ‘Remember the stranger, the orphan and other vulnerable people because we, too, were once strangers in the Land of Egypt.’”

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