Yes, you can learn values at your mother’s knee — and your father’s.
“I got involved with the issue of hunger at an early age,” Joel Pitkowsky, the rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, said.
“My parents were involved in Mazon since it began,” he added; he’s been on its board for some four years. “My parents also delivered Meals on Wheels for many years through Jewish Family Service. They showed me it was very important to care about another person’s basic needs. I saw that there are people, just like us, who happen to be in a difficult situation and need a hand.”
That premise, that those in need are “just like us,” underlies Mazon’s traveling exhibit, This is Hunger, which will be in Teaneck on April 3, 4, and 5.
“A few years ago, Mazon commissioned a photographer to take a trip across the country,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “We had been hearing people talk about hunger, saying, ‘Yes, we know they’re hungry, but they don’t look like us, they’re other people.’ We asked the photographer to take pictures and record stories. We called the project Faces of Hunger, showing who really goes to food banks and shelters.”
So powerful was the exhibit, and so successful, “that we didn’t want to leave it as a 2-D exhibit, so we spoke with creative artists and museum exhibitors about how to get our message across,” he continued. The result, This is Hunger, “is an incredible exhibit — a high-impact educational experience housed inside a big tractor trailer.”
That truck is now traveling across the country on a 10-month tour. It already has traversed the Midwest and is headed in our direction. After a late-March stopover in various MetroWest locations, it will (literally) park at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.
“Rabbi Steven Sirbu has been an amazing partner and co-sponsor,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said; Steven Sirbu is the rabbi of Temple Emeth. “We’re excited to have people experience this multimedia educational exhibit — to hear some of the stories, see the photographic images, read the statistics, and have a chance to react.” The trailer expands on both sides when it’s parked, he said, giving it 1,000 feet of exhibit space.
Rabbi Pitkowsky said he became involved with Mazon “because I really like what they try to do. They address the core issues of hunger and try to solve the problem.” While they certainly do fund food banks and support food drives, “they try to go a step beyond that and prevent hunger in the first place, asking, ‘Why are they hungry? What can we do? What do we, as a society, owe other people?’
“We also believe that the role government plays is important. We cannot food-bank our way out of the hunger crisis.”
Mazon stresses the long game with strategic thinking, he added. For example, it sometimes funds research. “In the Midwest, they’re dealing with the serious issues of rural hunger, funding research into this.”
His own synagogue, he said, has a strong social action committee, participating in food drives and volunteering in shelters. But lately, “the shul has spoken more about the social justice side of hunger,” creating a social justice committee to look at these, and other, pressing social issues.
“More than 40 million people in our country are food insecure, not knowing if they will have enough food tomorrow,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “There’s no way that food banks can deal with that. Mazon believes that what we need to do is make sure our government is helping people in every way possible. The food safety net has been a strong part of our country’s policy for decades.” And this commitment must remain strong. “The idea of the group taking care of the individual really appeals to me.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said he particularly appreciates the annual Mazon board meeting that brings members to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress on particular issues, such as shoring up SNAP, the food stamp program, or addressing the issue of hunger among military families.
“We raised the profile of hunger in the military, bringing the issue to the public,” he said. “We’re trying to create a legislative fix for Congress to vote on. Much of it has to do with a quirk in the law, how the laws on food stamps were written. Young enlisted folks who move off base live at a lower standard of living because of how the law was written.”
While Mazon is involved with hunger on a national scale, the problem of food insecurity in Bergen County is being monitored and addressed by the Center for Food Action. Patria Espy, the group’s executive director, said “Many Bergen County residents struggle to put food on their tables. For many of our neighbors, hunger is one of the most difficult problems they face. The high cost of living in our county makes it difficult for the working poor, many of our elderly neighbors, folks unable to work due to disabilities, and the recently unemployed to get by without help.”
Ms. Espy stressed that “hunger and the risk of hunger is very real in Bergen County and across New Jersey. The Center for Food Action provided more than 64,000 food packages to people from nearly every town in Bergen County last year. A third of those helped were children, and 17 percent were seniors.”
Not surprising, some of those people are Jews.
“I’ve definitely seen hunger in the Jewish community,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “We have members of the community who come and ask for help because they can’t afford food on a weekly basis, especially for the holidays. I also volunteer for Tomchei Shabbos. There’s a tremendous amount of need out there. Those who think that hunger doesn’t affect Jews are mistaken.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said the exhibit clearly has had a strong effect on people who have seen it. Asked for “reflections” after viewing the project, one viewer from Texas said, “When I was unemployed for 15 months, I made $9 a month too much for food stamps. It shocked me that I even had to consider it.” Another, from Arizona, said “This brought back many memories. I was one of these people struggling with hunger and health. I became disabled. Many years later, I realized I wasn’t at fault…. Food should be a right as a human being, and one should never go hungry here in America.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said that people who see the exhibit will have “a greater understanding of the serious situation in our country” in regard to hunger and food insecurity, realizing that “people who are desperate to rise out of their current situation are relying on our help and support to live a better life.”
“In these days leading up to Passover, when we sit around the seder table, grateful for freedom, and lift up the matzah, the bread of affliction, and say, ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat,’ we should mean it. Part of the message is that the world we see around us is not the world as it is supposed to be. We each need to play a role to make the world as it should be.”
Happily, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, in Teaneck the Mazon project has garnered the participation of several Jewish streams. Beth Sholom is Conservative, Temple Emeth is Reform, and Congregation Netivot Shalom — whose religious leader, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, will talk about hunger at Temple Emeth on April 3 — is Orthodox. Rabbi Helfgot, who also chairs of the departments of Bible and Jewish thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City, and teaches Judaic studies at the city’s SAR High School, will offer a public lecture, “Let All Who Are Hungry Come and Eat: Moving from the Particular to the Universal in Eradicating Hunger.”
Rabbi Helfgot said in an email, “On Pesach night, we as Jews engage in elaborate and meaningful rituals to recollect the past when we were slaves and oppressed and were redeemed by God to reach a point of national and personal fulfillment and success. These mitzvot that we lovingly and carefully practice each and every year are not simply theatre and customs. They go to the heart of our [belief] that the human being, created in the image of God, should not be harmed or degraded in any way. The Torah constantly makes reference to our historical experience so that we will treat others properly and with dignity.”
“One of the modern examples of the degradation of the human being and spirit is the cold harsh reality that many people in our blessed country go to sleep hungry, and rise in the morning not knowing if they will have enough food to feed themselves and their family. This year before Pesach, we have the opportunity to take a bit of time from the hectic preparations and cleaning for Pesach to educate ourselves and friends about the realities of hunger in the United States of America.”
Who: Congregations Beth Sholom and Temple Emeth
What: Will co-sponsor MAZON’s exhibit, This is Hunger
When: On April 3, 4, 5
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
Cost: Free to the public, but attendees must register. Call Elaine Hanan at (201) 833-1322 or email her at email@example.com for help with registration or questions about the schedule. Go to thisishunger.org to learn more about the program and to see all the tour stops.