By H. Eric Schockman
There is no word in the Hebrew vocabulary for ‘charity’ in the modern sense. The word used is tzedakah, which literally means ‘righteousness.’ Tzedakah is not an act of condescension by the affluent toward the needy; it is the fulfillment of a moral obligation. Injustice to humanity is desecration of God. Refusal to give charity is considered by Jewish tradition to be idolatry. Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice, UAHC Press, New York, NY, p. 93.
Many of us have had the opportunity to volunteer at a food bank, participate in a canned food drive and donate funds to a local feeding program, but our acts of charity only help so much in the big picture. How can we proactively solve the hunger epidemic plaguing 38 million Americans, including 14 million children?
God commands us in the Torah to perform acts of tzedakah, acts of righteousness and justice, 36 times, more times than that of any other commandment. Justice, in this sense, is our collective pursuit to finding the long-term solutions to ending hunger. We need to help people become self-sufficient and give them the tools necessary to do so.
MAZON, as the organized Jewish community’s response to the hunger crisis, is consumed with exploring the difference between charity and justice. As Vorspan and Saperstein noted, there is no word for charity in Hebrew. Taking inspiration from Judaism and its focus on justice we seek to explore the underlying reasons behind the hunger problem. Not just the how’s, but the whys. MAZON also believes that food banks and other emergency food providers have an obligation to use their status and visibility to educate their supporters about the role and limits of charities in feeding hungry Americans and encouraging them to advocate for federal nutrition and assistance programs.
Federal food programs, especially food stamps, are our nations frontline defense against hunger with the ability and capability to reach far more hungry and at-risk families than charitable programs. Food stamps allow individuals to become self-sufficient. Studies state that 40 percent of food stamp recipients leave the program within four months; half within six months. Each dollar spent in food stamp benefits generates about $1.84 in economic activity. If $5 billion a year was spent on food stamps and other nutrition programs, we could cut hunger in half within two years.
It is our moral and religious mandate to fight for justice and advocate on behalf of hungry families. Together with private charity, the government and our voices as advocates can bring hunger to an end. We have to bring tzedakah to the world.
Questions for thought, discussion, by Rabbi Shai Gluskin:
By Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Roni Handler
A theology which is not a plan of social action is merely a way of preaching and praying. It is a menu without the dinner. Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, Random Thoughts, p. 22.
Belief in God has to do with our attitude toward life itself. Do we find life good? Is life worthwhile? If we believe that life is worthwhile, that it is good, that, in spite of all the sickness and accidents, in spite of all the poverty and war, in spite of all the sad and difficult conditions in the world, the world is a wonderful place to live in and can be made still a better place, then we believe in God. When we believe in God, we cannot be discouraged because we believe that all the misery in the world is due, not to the fact that misery must be there. but to the fact that we have not yet discovered how to do away with that misery. Ira Eisenstein, Kol Haneshamah.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melekh ha'olam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzvianu lirdof tzedek.
Praised are You, Eternal God, Spirit of the Universe, You hallow us with Your mitzvot, and divinely inspire us to pursue tzedek. read more »
Beginning on the eve of the second day of Pesach, we are instructed by our tradition to count the days of the “Omer” until the fiftieth day, which is when the first barley crop would be harvested. It is also the Jewish holiday of Shavuot when, according to our tradition, the Jewish People received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The counting of the Omer is a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot – between a moment of liberation and a moment of self-definition and direction at the beginning of our evolution as a religious civilization.
More than 350 participants and commentators participated in the JRF On-Line Omer Study Initiative last year during the Omer period.
This year for the Omer study, our focus will be on Tikkun Olam (repair of our world), specifically on the issues of hunger and poverty. Based on a recent survey, JRF congregations respond to hunger and poverty more than any other issue.
Rabbis, Hazzanim (cantors), Educators and members of JRF congregations will comment on classic Jewish texts in the light of the social justice work being done in their congregations.
Visit our partner organization Mazon for ways your congregation can get involved in stopping and preventing hunger.
By Syd Nestel and Val Hyman
Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada
Holiness is not the exclusive possession of those who engage in detailed ritual observance, nor is it the preserve of those who devote their energies to the pursuit of spirituality. True holiness is found in small actions that make a profound difference to the lives of the people around us and the world in which they live.
Wherever I travel in the Jewish world, I'm struck by the way that ordinary Jews are determined to perform kiddush Hashem—sanctification of God's name—and to avoid a hillul Hashem, the desecration of God's name.
The concept of kiddush Hashem offers a powerful challenge that has particular resonance in our times. Each one of us has to ensure that the word "Jewish" is always associated with the highest levels of ethics and kindness, so that our behavior always brings credit to our heritage and to our God. Rabbi Michael Melchior - at the time - deputy minister in the Israeli government with responsibility for Israeli society and the world Jewish community.
For the past 12 years, the congregants at Darchei Noam have been one of about 30 congregations and churches in Toronto that run a rotating weekly 24-hour shelter for people who are homeless and hungry. Originally, we ran the program in collaboration with a Roman Catholic congregation, who had space for the program that we do not have. While we now have volunteers who are from both denominations, the volunteers are an ecumenical group that is called the First Interfaith Out of the Cold program in Toronto. Darchei Noam contributes about 60 volunteers, about 50% of the total.
Because we operate in a multi-faith environment, and because most of the guests who are poor or homeless are expecting a Christian grace before meals, at our Out of the Cold program we make sure that guests and other volunteers know that most of the Jewish volunteers are present out of sense of fulfilling our Jewish religious obligations. Initially it was uncomfortable for us to put forward our own traditions. Our Catholic co-volunteers had no such compunctions. We, however, did not want to be seen as competing with Christianity, or to make our guests feel that they had to be subjected to a sermon before they were allowed to eat.
But preventing our Christian partners from saying grace, did not seem right, nor did hiding our own Jewish identities and motivations for working with the homeless.
For the volunteers from Darchei Noam, it was important make it known that we are not helping the poor for personal aggrandizement nor are we trying to proselytize. Nor is our presence the result of our individual quirks of personality or own off beat sense of morality. We want to represent our Jewish belief in the necessity and power of doing good. And we want to represent the Jewish community to the general community when we perform these tasks, so that Jewish values and the values of Jews are understood and acknowledged.
To this end, in addition to the Christian grace before meals, we always say the Hamotzi blessing over the bread. Sometimes it is said by a few volunteers, members of the B’nai Mitzvah class, or sometimes it is sung by a family, which to our delight is often followed by a round of applause, as if we had just completed the pre-dinner entertainment.
We also follow a tradition of making a package for each guest at Purim time (thus fulfilling the mitzvah of giving gifts to the poor—matanot l’evyonim). We usually make a package of chocolate, fruit, new socks and a streetcar token. Often we add a little note about the meaning of Purim.
At the end of our winter program, which runs from November to April, we invite our fellow volunteers to an "Out of the Cold Shabbat" where the contributions of all volunteers, Jewish and non-Jewish, are celebrated. Our Rabbi usually speaks directly from the bimah to our non-Jewish guests and one year invited them to come closer and view the Torah scrolls.
We are often asked by our fellow volunteers or guests about why we do what we do, and this provides opportunities for us to talk about a Jewish way of being that tries to maximize Godliness in this world. This is not without its dilemmas. Sometimes we wonder, who are we, to be speaking of our Jewish faith and traditions when we may not be the most ritually observant or knowledgeable of Jews? Sometimes, we get strange responses when we tell guests we are Jewish, like the time a clearly down and out and lonely fellow spoke longingly about “best girl friend he ever had” who was Jewish. Apparently she was a good cook and had “other talents” as well. Or another fellow who boasted that he had acquired guns for the Jewish Defense League. It not always clear how to respond.
Nevertheless we hope that by making our Jewishness visible as part of our volunteer work with the poor, we help build, in both our guest and our co-volunteers, understanding and tolerance, and the faith that Godliness is dwelling in all people and all groups, and that a commitment to making that Godliness real can in fact make the world a better place.
Questions for Thought and Discussion:
JRF had been a partner with Mazon in the area of hunger and poverty relief for over two decades. As part of our affiliation with Mazon, we were invited to participate in a major international convocation and lobbying effort in Washington in June 2005. Out of that event a Religious coalition was formed that has continued to communicate through the auspices of Bread for the World and Mazon about national and international hunger and poverty concerns.
On December 1st, 2005, we were invited with a select group of national religious leaders to meet with Secretary Condoleezza. Rice Rabbi Fred Dobb of JRF congregation Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland, represented the JRF. Secretary Rice learned that Bread for the World, Mazon and other groups will be pushing for a $5 billion increase in poverty-focused development assistance next year.
On June 6, 2005, at 7:00 p.m., the first ever Interfaith Convocation on Hunger will assemble one of the largest gatherings of anti-hunger and anti-poverty activists in the nation' s capital in decades. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation is pleased to be represented at and endorse this event and invites all people of faith to call for an end to hunger.
For those able to attend the convocation you will hear Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, South Africa, faith leaders offering guidance from the sacred texts of many traditions and the music of Beth Nielson Chapman, Salvation Army National Capital Area Band, Siyaya Youth Choir (South Africa) and Saint Camillus Multicultural Choir. Members of the Knesset are also scheduled to fly in and participant in various events.
In the spirit of prayer, more than 30 leaders from major faith traditions will unite with representatives of millions of volunteers who feed the hungry in the US and overseas. National leaders of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faith groups will call on the president and Congress to join them in galvanizing a new national commitment to end hunger.
At the JRF Convention in Montreal, Canada, the first Kehillat Tzedek (Community of Justice) Award was presented to Congregation Darchei Noam of Ottawa, Canada.
In the past ten years, Reconstructionist Congregation Darchei Noam has:
Affirming the fundamental traditional Jewish commitment to sustaining the hungry, while recognizing hunger as one of the most tragic and scandalous of ongoing crises in this country and abroad, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation resolves:
The Hebrew Bible states, “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). For us as Jews, the imperative to respond to the devastating impact of hunger in the United States and around the world is not only intensified by the physical deprivation that so many are experiencing, but also a profound moral and spiritual crisis that cannot continue. That one child or adult should lack sustenance would be dayenu (enough) to raise our voices. That millions go hungry and die of starvation is a situation that demands our pursuit of a just and large-scale united response across religious, social and political lines. We join our hearts and hands with all of you to pursue the Divine call to do what is just—to work to end hunger everywhere.
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit
JRf Director of External Affiliations, 2005