Mazon was launched in 1985 to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Despite today’s sobering reality, with increasing numbers of families entering the ranks of the food insecure, the Jewish nonprofit still believes this outcome to be an achievable goal.
“We believe that hunger is an issue we can solve if we have the political will,” Joel Pitkowsky, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, said. “And the best, most effective, and only way to solve this is by getting the government behind the effort and strengthening the social safety net.” Mazon works to make that happen, he added.
Rabbi Pitkowsky recently recorded a podcast that’s part of the Leading Voices in Food podcasts produced by the World Food Policy Center at Duke University. In it, he discusses the Jewish values that ground and guide Mazon’s work.
The 15-minute podcast, the first of what is intended to be a series from Mazon, is targeted to “people who are interested in food policy, whether from the agricultural perspective, religious perspective, or health and wellness perspective — whoever is interested in learning what is on the cutting edge of food policy,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said.
To accomplish its goals, Mazon partners with legislators and like-minded organizations around the country. The effort “needs the whole country behind it,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “Food shelters are incredibly important tools and, thank God, synagogues and churches and organizations like JFS have pantries, because people are hungry today. But those efforts are not solving the issue.
“Of the 100 percent of food or money donated to feed people, 95 percent comes from the federal government,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. So although people argue that private charities should do this work, “it’s impossible, not to mention morally bankrupt.”
In addition, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, using federal funds to address hunger makes not only moral but financial sense as well. It makes sense financially because people who eat can go out and work, and their children can grow up to be productive members of society.
“Tzedakah is not charity, but the just thing to do,” he said. “Jewish tradition tells us that every human being is made in the image of God. That’s in Genesis, chapter 1, and it’s fundamental to Jewish medical ethics, social ethics, and our understanding of the world. If we take that seriously, it has to be our primary value in how we view every concern. We can disagree on what it means and how to help people, but it’s fundamental to the Jewish view of the world and centers everything we do.
“We have to get away from language such as ‘They deserve it’ or ‘It’s someone else’s problem,’” Rabbi Pitkowsky continued. “It is our problem as fellow human beings.” He paraphrased Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching that human beings are God’s language on earth. “To me, that sentence says it all. If the world is supposed to look a certain way, who else can make that happen?”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said that he doubts that people truly understand the scope of hunger in this country. “People tend to think that anyone like them, whatever that means, cannot be actually hungry.” The hungry ones are “them,” not “us.” And yet, he said, whatever “us” means, none of that is true. “People just like us, well educated, hard-working, are hungry today. I think people have a psychological need to believe that those in need are ‘not like me.’”
The pandemic showed how many people live on the boundary between getting by and not getting by, Rabbi Pitkowsky said. Until recently, most of us “didn’t know how many people live just on the other side of poverty. All it takes is one medical bill, or losing your job, to go over that line. Statistics don’t yet exist” for changes over the last year, “but I understand that the number of people who have slipped into being food insecure doubled or tripled in the last 12 months.” And more than 40 million people, one in eight citizens, already were receiving federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in February 2020.
Rabbi Pitkowsky became involved with Mazon about eight years ago; now, he’s its treasurer. “The idea of hunger in this country upsets me,” he said. It strikes me as unfair and morally wrong. When Mazon was founded in the 1980s, my parents were strong supporters, so I knew about it since its founding. I was attracted to it when I decided to get involved in advocacy. Since this is a Jewish response to hunger — and not a response to Jewish hunger — it speaks to my universalist feelings. Jewish values and ideas are at the bedrock of who we are, and we want to solve hunger for all people, not just Jews.” As a result, much of the organization’s focus today is on those groups that are most in need or have been ignored.
“While acknowledging the reality of poverty and hunger within the Jewish community, Mazon’s advocacy priorities are with other groups at this time,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said, and he’s grateful that “so many in our community feel the need to support their fellow human beings.
“So much of what I do is for Jews, and that’s important and good. But it’s also important to remember the people out there who are not Jewish but equally made in God’s image and deserving of our support and help.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said he is “really proud” of Mazon’s work in bringing to light issues of hunger among active members of the military, veterans and in the tribal areas. “We’re deeply involved in anti-hunger efforts with tribal councils,” he said, describing these groups as “representing what is unfortunately part of America — people who are invisible to others. It reminds me that there are many different kinds of people.”
He is hopeful that Deb Haaland, President Biden’s nominee to head the Department of the Interior, will be confirmed, “because I think she will be a great advocate for strengthening food security in the native lands. That’s one of our priorities. Her confirmation would be excellent.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky described the Food Policy Center at Duke as “a leading voice on food policy around the world,” engaged in research, education, and convening meetings of experts on these issues. Mazon, he said, is interested in public policy and how issues are shaped, how people talk about them, and how we can solve issues long term. “They’re a wonderful resource,” he said, adding that he had “a lot of fun” recording the podcast. “I had never been interviewed like that before.
“They asked about Mazon’s history and the Jewish values behind Mazon’s mission, and we spoke about what we’ve done since the pandemic.” They also discussed their hopes for progress under the current administration.
Rabbi Pitkowsky said he has been “thrilled” to see the Biden-Harris team “demonstrate an understanding of hunger in the U.S. and the vital role of the federal government.” They have, he said, acknowledged that there is a problem, have made a concerted effort to shed light on that issue, and have noted that the federal government has a positive role to play.
The relief bill that passed the Senate and is likely to be on its way to the president’s desk by the time readers see this story “has anti-hunger and anti-poverty provisions and they have acknowledged that they want to boost programs like SNAP,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “There are many details in the bill that will be very helpful.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said that his own synagogue is tackling the issue of hunger on two fronts. To help people who are hungry now, volunteers are working at various local pantries, partnering in food drives, and serving dinner at a food shelter. Other members are working on the strategic, advocacy side, “looking to find avenues in New Jersey for a local connection. I’m happy we’re doing both — helping people hungry today and working to create a long-term solution.”