The deepest impact on my religious development came from my beloved childhood rabbi, Dr. Uri Miller, who was the spiritual leader of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, Beth Jacob. Rabbi Miller’s sermons focused on the ethical and moral disgrace that plagued the South during an era when the Jim Crow laws were in effect and racial segregation touched every aspect of our lives.
In his teachings, Rabbi Miller stressed two of the most important principles of Jewish life: “tzedakah” – we had an obligation (not a choice) to express care to all who suffered, and “tikkun olam” – we bore responsibility not only for our own moral, spiritual and material welfare, but also for the welfare of our society at large.
With this in mind my childhood rabbi explained that when we learned of a horrific injustice and do not speak out, we then became part of the expression of injustice. How very proud I was at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 to hear Rabbi Miller read the closing prayer. I knew of no one who deserved this honor more.
I thought of my beloved rabbi when I visited a project that can best be described as living art, one that expresses the essence of both “tzedakah” and “tikkun olam.” “This Is Hunger” is a powerful initiative made possible by MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. MAZON, which is Hebrew for “food” or “sustenance,” is a non-profit agency with the sole mission of ending hunger among people of all faiths and background in the United States and Israel.
Through a three year effort of the internationally acclaimed photojournalist, Barbara Grover, which MAZON made possible, I was introduced to men and women who had lost jobs, businesses, homes, every semblance of security. As a result, their children faced each night longing for food. Grover traveled throughout our country to locate her subjects. Through story and photo their shame brought tears to the eyes of several present, mine included. Those pictured whose stories were told went to bed nightly wondering where their family’s next meal would come from. They were not starving, but they were always hungry.
To experience the extraordinary collaboration between MAZON and Grover, last Sunday afternoon my husband and I entered a 53-foot long double-expandable semi-trailer, When parked the trailer opened on both sides, providing nearly 1,000 square feet of exhibit space. We were welcomed by board member Ruth Laibson who shared startling statistics with our group: 42.2 million Americans struggle with hunger. 13.1 million are children; 5.7 million are seniors. This means that more than 1 in 8 human beings in America are food deprived.
Those present sat around a long rectangular table. Before each of us was the mirage of a plate, created by lighting above us. The plate soon vanished, leaving nothing, and later replaced by sentences describing hunger. As this was occurring, through voices and photos in stark black and white we connected with Grover’s subjects. Because they lost everything, they received their SNAP (formerly known as food stamp) allocation. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program on average allows $1.40 per person per meal.
Grover’s subjects were not lazy. They either worked or were seeking work, but they suffered from a state that Abby Leibman, the organization’s president and CEO described as “food insecurity.” In Leibman’s words, “With this initiative we’re humanizing food insecurity in a way that no anti-hunger organization has done before. It is our hope that the more people know, the more they will join our efforts.”
At the end of the presentation, my husband and I studied the provided food items and their costs, trying to create a balanced meal for $1.40 per person. To do so, we could not figure out how to include any protein other than beans. Fresh vegetables and fruit were a near impossibility. Feeling the urgency of parents who were depriving their children of so much that we take for granted, we numbly examined exhibits and infographics that further documented a food crisis for millions. They surrounded what we now think of as an endless table of deprivation.
Challanging ugly, debilitating stereotyping about those in need is the essence of MAZON. Uniting to bring the conscience and compassion of “tzedakah” and “tikkun olam” to feeding our nation’s food deprived population would do so much to eradicate fear and rage. But there is more – the organization is fighting hatred with its most powerful adversary – love.