May 23, 2016

A Gentile at a Jewish Organization

Jewish blog

Mitzvah.
Tzedakah.
Tikkun olam.
Maimonides’ ladder.

Of these six words, the only one I knew prior to my work at MAZON was “ladder.” You see, I didn’t learn about MAZON in my synagogue, or summer camp, or Hillel. As a gentile, my first exposure to MAZON came from my involvement in the anti-hunger field.

I discovered my passion for anti-hunger advocacy work through my graduate internship with a MAZON grant partner. Upon learning that my personal and professional background paralleled MAZON’s strategic initiatives, I began working here as a Program Associate.

I’ll admit that my first few days at MAZON were overwhelming. Not only was I learning a new organization, but I was also learning about the Jewish context of MAZON’s work and trying to figure out its meaning. At first I felt a little disconnected because I didn’t have the Jewish link that other staff did. But when I learned more about the tenets of Judaism behind MAZON’s mission I realized they were some of the same values that brought me to this work.

I grew up in what is referred to as the southern most northern state & the northern most southern state: West Virginia. Growing up in Appalachia taught me a certain set of principles that have remained with me. Many of these principles mirror the tenets of Judaism that influence MAZON’s work.

A mitzvah, in my understanding, is an obligation of good deeds. Some examples of a mitzvah include tzedakah, meaning an “act of charity or support,” and gemilut hasadim, an “act of loving-kindness.” MAZON values tzedakah as a necessary part of combating hunger. A mitzvah in Jewish culture correlates to neighborliness and hospitality in West Virginia culture. We West Virginians demonstrate these qualities in a myriad of ways, from waving at every stranger we pass on a two-lane road, to more significant gestures like bringing food to a sick neighbor or taking in a community member after their home burns down. Though we don’t call it tzedakah, the sense of obligation to support your fellow people is engrained into West Virginian culture.

One of my favorite themes of MAZON’s work is tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Tikkun olam plays a large role in MAZON’s advocacy against hunger. By approaching hunger as a civil rights issue, MAZON advocates justice for victims of policies that deny them their rights. I believe that my passion for advocacy and social justice is a direct result of growing up in a supportive environment, thick with solidarity. West Virginians have stood together against abuse and intimidation from the coal industry since the early twentieth century when miners’ unions were first formed. The importance of fighting for justice is a fire that burns bright within us.

At MAZON, when we talk about the difference between charity and advocacy, we often refer to the different “rungs” of charity on Maimonides’ ladder. According to Maimonides, the highest rung of charity is to help someone become self-sustainable. The old “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life” proverb. At MAZON, we use this idea to promote advocating for yourself by sharing your testimony with legislators to educate them about hunger. In West Virginia, pride, self-reliance, and independence are apparent in the way we survive locally. Due to West Virginia’s landscape and economy, self-reliance is often a necessity. My values are evident in my choice of hobbies, like preserving food and quilting. Although our sense of pride keeps us from asking for help when we need it, our sense of self-reliance helps us notice when others need a hand up, or an opportunity to provide for themselves. At MAZON, we use this idea of self-reliance to promote advocating for yourself by sharing your testimony with legislators to educate them about hunger. Recently, my friend Erika got the opportunity to do just this when she shared her testimony at the House Agriculture Subcommittee Nutrition hearing with our President & CEO, Abby Leibman!

I’m proud to be from WV, and I’m thankful for the lessons and values I learned that have made me passionate about hunger. When I moved to LA three years ago, I never imagined I’d find an organization that espouses those same values and provides me with such a profound connection to our work. I believe that these values are not exclusive to only one region or religion, but to any tight-knit community that thrives in the midst of adversity. Just like the threads of a quilt or the braids of a challah, our lives are woven together in the fight for justice for our neighbor, and ourselves.