What can you eat for $1.50?
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What can you eat for $1.50?

Not much, says rabbi in spotlighting plight of those on food stamps

It’s not easy to provide a filling meal, let alone a nutritious one, when all you’ve got to spend is $1.50 – the amount provided under the government’s food stamp program.

In fact, said Neal Borovitz, rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, “It’s darn hard.”

Twice during the past two years, he said, Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, has adopted that budget voluntarily, spending only $31.50 for a week’s meals. This year, Borovitz – together with other rabbis and cantors across the country – will do the same as part of an educational and advocacy initiative aimed at preventing Congress from reducing the food stamp benefit even further.

Dubbed “The 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge,” the JCPA initiative is designed “to give people the opportunity to truly experience what so many millions of Americans don’t have a choice about experiencing,” Borovitz said.

While the rabbi has not yet focused on the specifics of his one-week commitment, which begins Nov. 11, “I know I can go back to eating a more expensive, better-balanced diet the next week,” he said. “Those on food stamps can’t.”

“I spoke extensively to Gutow,” he added, pointing to the JPCA leader’s self-imposed challenge. “It’s darn hard. It’s hard to find filling food – almost impossible for it to be nutritional, too.”

“This will be my third Food Stamp Challenge, and each time, I am reawakened to the true struggle faced each day by those who depend on SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] to put food on the table,” Gutow said. “It is a lesson that is now being brought to communities across the country through this committed involvement of religious leaders.”

According to program organizers, rabbis and cantors in communities across the country are being mobilized to join the effort, living for one week on the average allotment for people on SNAP. The challenge will run through Thanksgiving.

A JCPA statement noted that “participating clergy will take the challenge in order to educate congregations and communities about the realities of hunger and raise a loud collective Jewish voice about this crisis…. It’s a way for rabbis and cantors to make the invisible daily struggles of congregants and neighbors real while demonstrating the Jewish community’s deep commitment to help those in need.”

“It’s an effort to sensitize people and mobilize them to lobby Congress not to cut food stamps even further,” Borovitz said. “The farm bill is stalled in Congress. There could be no money for food stamps next year.

“We have a responsibility to the hungry in our community,” he added, noting that his web page, http://bit.ly/js-snap, invites visitors join the challenge or sponsor his participation; take up advocacy efforts; or make financial donations, which will be directed to organizations such as Mazon.

“People can also make up their own web page,” he said. “The more sensitized we become, the greater the possibility of having a positive impact on Congress.”

Gutow invited Borovitz to become part of the Food Stamp Challenge’s national cabinet, and Borovitz now is seeking to involve other local rabbis and cantors in the effort. As chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and a longtime participant in interfaith initiatives, he also will reach out to Christian clergy.

“I’m going to be talking about it – speaking from the bimah, writing in the newsletter,” he said. The rabbi also will approach local congressional candidates and said he hopes the issue will be raised in candidate forums, with potential officeholders being asked to state their position on the issue of food assistance.

The JCRC’s director, Joy Kurland, said she will support the JCPA venture by sending local rabbis and cantors information about the project and encouraging them to participate, whether by joining the challenge or by using the issue of hunger in their High Holy Day sermons.

In addition, she said, this year’s Mitzvah Day, scheduled for Nov. 4, will include a number of anti-hunger initiatives.

Some volunteers will be directed to the Hoboken emergency food pantry to sort and distribute food, while others will help out at CUMAC, an Paterson-based organization based that works to alleviate hunger. Still others will stock shelves at the Saddle Brook Food Action Center.

In addition, JFNNJ will serve as a food collection site. So will Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, the Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, the Wayne Y, and Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

Kurland said the federation also will collect soda can tops and donate them to CUMAC, which will recycle them for cash, “to be used to feed people.”

The 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge is being led by organizations across the religious spectrum, including JCPA, Mazon, the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Uri L’Tzedek, the American Conference of Cantors, and the Cantors Assembly.

Resources – including sample sermons, advocacy opportunities, programming ideas, and other tools for engaging congregations and communities – are available at www.foodstampchallenge.com.

Participation is not limited to clergy, and information on registration can be found on the website as well. For more information, e-mail the JCPA’s poverty campaign coordinator, Robin Rosenbaum, at rrosenbaum@thejcpa.org or call at (202) 212-6037.

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