National Hunger Seder sees dark clouds

National Hunger Seder sees dark clouds

Local rabbi co-leads Mazon event at Capitol and emphasizes social justice

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck co-leads the National Hunger Seder at the Capitol with Abby J. Leibman of Mazon.
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck co-leads the National Hunger Seder at the Capitol with Abby J. Leibman of Mazon.

As it has done before Passover for the last nine years, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger hosted its National Hunger Seder in the U.S. Capitol. The seder, which drew some 35 attendees, Jews and non-Jews, was led by Mazon’s president, Abby J. Leibman, and Joel Pitkowsky, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

“We provide traditional ritual food — matzah, charoset, horseradish, and grape juice,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. For the past few years, the seder has taken place at the United States Capitol Visitors Center and its staff has catered it. “There are vegetarian meals for everyone,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said.

Participants were invited to read from Mazon’s adapted Passover Haggadah; this year, the seder’s fifth question was about veterans. “We asked, ‘How can we not take care of veterans, who put their lives on the line?’” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “What kind of moral statement is that? The key issue is that as a matter of mathematics, it is abundantly clear that it is impossible for private anti-hunger organizations to solve this problem. The only organization that can deal with this is the federal government.”

The Haggadah provides “an educational opportunity to bring one of the most enriching, powerful Jewish rituals of year into the social justice realm,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “It gives us an opportunity to speak about Jewish values as we understand them through the lens of the holiday, and also to address an issue we are passionate about.

“The seder itself, the traditional words of the seder, have a tremendous amount to teach us about hunger, welcoming the stranger, and our responsibility for one another,” he said, adding that in Mazon’s Haggadah, statements about hunger are interspersed with the traditional language. It also includes quotations from people who are hungry — one in eight Americans, according to the organization — as well as from those involved in advocacy.

“We go around the room and ask people to read,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said, noting that some visitors are not able to stay for the whole time, “so when they come in, we usually ask them to read right away. We also ask what prompted them to come, and what the issue means to them.”

One Jewish member of Congress spoke about her own Jewish values and how they fuel her views on the issue of hunger.

“The values of the Jewish faith instruct us to care for our neighbors and feed the hungry,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat. “Mazon puts these fundamental values into practice, and their efforts are more vital than ever, as federal nutrition programs fail to keep pace with families’ needs, yet face continued funding threats.”

The group also included people who wanted to take part in the conversation but did not necessarily agree with Mazon on the issue of taking responsibility for those in need. “They don’t believe the government should play a robust role,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. In his brief d’var Torah, he spoke about the impact the story of the Exodus had on the world. In a symbolically important section, we learn that neither Pharaoh nor his wise men could interpret the leader’s dreams, “because they couldn’t understand how the weak could overpower the mighty.” The idea that people who were less well-off also have a place in the world literally was beyond their understanding, he said. That idea — that people in need have a voice — is important for members of Congress to remember, he added.

Seder guests included members of Congress and their staffs, as well as representatives of other advocacy organizations. Several congressional speakers hammered home the theme that hunger in America is a decision.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, said, “We live in the richest country in the world at the richest time in our history. No American should ever have to go hungry, especially not our nation’s children, seniors, and veterans.”

“Hunger is a political decision,” declared Representative Jim McGovern, the Democrat from Massachusetts who is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition subcommittee. “There are a lot of problems that I don’t know how to solve, but not hunger — this is a solvable problem.”

Most hunger entitlement programs are under the Agriculture Committee, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, adding that Mr. McGovern, “a wonderful advocate for the anti-hunger movement,” has told him how “profoundly moving he finds the ritual every year. As an Irish Catholic, he finds it one of the most moving rituals he takes part in. He’s thrilled to have the opportunity to be with his Jewish friends and with people who share his feelings about the world and about what religion and government can do.”

Rabbi Pitkowsky, who was co-leading the national seder for the second time, said “the vibes at the seder were very positive,” and there was a great sense of camaraderie among those gathered for it. Still, he said, he detected “a greater sense of urgency and deep concern about the fundamental idea that government should take care of those in need. There’s a great deal of concern about what the government wants to do with the food safety net, in terms of radically altering it. We’re very afraid of what may be coming and feel we need to stand up and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” (He noted that the seder took place at a critical time, while negotiations on the 2018 farm bill were stalled.)

As it happens, those fears proved justified, said Liza Lieberman, Mazon’s director of public policy. Indeed, she said, referring to the farm bill recently released by the House committee, “we’re deeply concerned and troubled. It’s not the direction we want the country to go — at all.”

Ms. Lieberman explained that the farm bill must be reauthorized every three years. “It funds the agricultural community in a big way and sets nutrition policies,” she said. “It’s always been bipartisan. The chair and the ranking member have always come together and introduced a moderate, bipartisan bill representing both the needs of agriculture and the anti-hunger community.”

But that did not happen this year.

“We guessed this was coming,” she said. “We were seeing signals in this direction. It’s becoming very partisan. The chair didn’t share the language of the bill with minority members, who were becoming very frustrated.” When some of the language was released to the ranking member, he was outraged by “crazy cuts to SNAP. All the Democrats wrote a letter to [ranking member Collin] Peterson asking him not to negotiate on this. Fast forward to last Thursday, when the chairman released the partisan bill, the House Republicans’ bill. It’s the first time ever that it wasn’t a bipartisan bill.”

Among the policies Mazon finds most concerning is the growing emphasis on work requirements for people in the SNAP program (formerly known as the food stamp program). “It’s a concerning trend,” Ms. Lieberman said. “Cutting benefits is not a motivator to get people back to work, nor is it a real solution to helping them get and maintain meaningful work.

“They’re just losing assistance that lets them put food on the table.”

One provision of the House committee bill will require that recipients show that they are working 20 hours a week. There always has been such a provision, targeting people between the ages of 18 and 49. Now, however, the age has been extended to 59.

While it is troubled by the age requirement in general, Mazon is especially concerned by that change, Ms. Lieberman said. Some people — veterans, residents of rural areas, or people laid off from their jobs — “can’t just find a job.” Rather than helping veterans, or military families who are on food stamps, despite that ongoing military service, the new age requirement worsens an already bad situation. The new bill, with that proposed changed, is likely to pass the House, she said. But the Senate is working on its own bill — which is likely to remain bipartisan, as it historically had been.

“It might be more moderate,” Ms. Lieberman said. “And even if the House bill passes, it probably won’t pass the Senate.”

Whatever the outcome, hunger seders will continue. Josh Protas, Mazon’s vice president of public policy, described this year’s seder as “respectful and spirited, with shared expressions about the importance of taking care of the most vulnerable and supporting SNAP and other programs that do this effectively.  Based on the House Republican proposal for the farm bill, there are clearly different perspectives on how we fulfill this important responsibility.”

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