The state’s Jewish federations and other Jewish organizations are spearheading an interfaith effort to cope with the rising problem of hunger in New Jersey.

In a Dec. 15 meeting in the State House Annex in Trenton, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant clergy and community leaders teamed up with several New Jersey legislators to urge more state and federal action, especially on behalf of the 20 percent of families with children who lack adequate income for food.

Although not represented at the meeting, a Hindu community organization is also supporting the effort.

The New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, a program of the Center for Food Action, is seeking state Senate passage of three separate bills that would expand and expedite applications for the Special Nutrition Assistance Program.

All three measures passed the state Assembly within hours after the meetings adjourned. No votes in the state Senate have been scheduled as yet.

The SNAP program, formerly known as Food Stamps, was cut drastically in the most recent Farm Bill to pass Congress last fall.

“We were very concerned when the Congress cut the budget making New Jersey one of the 15 hardest-hit states on hunger,” said Melanie Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “In the Jewish community itself, our kosher food pantries cannot service the increased needs of people. We felt we could not sit by; we are looking for a bipartisan solution, and we believe legislators on both sides of the aisle are committed to ending hunger.”

Also present at the press conference was Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“Addressing the issue of hunger is a major priority for JFNNJ,” she said. “This year our federation invested nearly $590,000 in hunger relief locally and overseas providing over 110,000 meals plus additional food support through pantries. Locally this represents about $500,000 on nearly 67,000 meals plus pantry support. Overseas this represents about $87,000 on nearly 43,400 meals plus pantry support.”

Other Jewish organizations involved in the anti-hunger effort include the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations; the CRC; the Greater MetroWest federation’s affiliated family service agencies, JFS of Central NJ and JFS of MetroWest; and various family service organizations and community relations councils.

“It is unacceptable to have one million people in New Jersey who are food insecure,” said Kenneth Rotter, the cochair of the MetroWest CRC’s government affairs committee. “The majority of them are children and seniors.”

At the event in Trenton, one by one, religious leaders insisted that faith-based initiatives alone cannot meet the enormous needs of the hungry. They cited statistics that more than one million people in New Jersey suffer from food insecurity and hunger, and some 45 percent of them are children.

Responding to religious leaders, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) said, “We are in your corner. We are your champions. We need to help you bring our message to our fellow Democrats and Republicans. We all know that hunger is not a Democratic or a Republican issue.”

Among the other state legislators at the meeting were Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle ( Dist. 37), Assemblyman Timothy Eustace (Dist. 38), Assemblyman Gary Schaer (Dist. 36), and Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia (Dist. 33).

There were no Republican lawmakers present.

“We invited Sen. Kean and Assemblywoman Munoz and several other Republicans to the meetings, but all of them said they had other committee meetings they had to attend,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.

“We are going to have to drag them there,” Lesniak said of his GOP colleagues. “All the faiths – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim combined – can impress both Democrats and Republicans to understand that hunger strikes everybody whatever their faith is. We cannot fail on this.”

“It is clear that hunger affects everyone,” said Toporek. “It crosses ethnic lines and religious lines and affects all of our Jewish family service agencies. It plays on a nonpartisan basis.”

Other speakers included Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Center of Basking Ridge; Father Tim Graff, director of human concerns at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark; Archdeacon Peter Jackson of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark; the Rev. Sara Lilja, director of the Lutheran Office of Government Ministries; and the Rev. Guy Campbell, president of the General Baptist Convention of New Jersey.

Looking ahead, the North Jersey Jewish Community Relations Council will be initiating The Food Stamp Challenge the week of March 16. The Food Stamp Challenge is a national effort to raise awareness of the issue of hunger. Community members and legislators will be enlisted to live on the nationwide average food stamp benefit of $29. 40/week or $4.20/day.

“This is directly tied into advocacy for the passage of federal and state legislation for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which assists nearly 45 million low income people to purchase food for their families. More than 900,00 residents in New Jersey received SNAP benefits in September,” said Ms. Kurland.

New Jersey Jewish News. Larry Yudelson contributed to this story.