March 17, 2016

Poverty to Rabbinical School: One Rabbi's Story

By Adam Moffet
AdamMoffet blog

My story starts and ends with a rabbi. The first rabbi is one I’ll always remember fondly, who took the time to look after a family on the margins. When I was little, the perils of mental illness and the plague of poverty pushed my family to the edges of the Jewish community, beyond most people’s view. The exception was the rabbi of our local synagogue.

I remember looking out the windows of our house, a colonial perched on top of a steep hill, and watching the snow fall on the unpaved driveway. In between the flakes of snow were headlights, and then a man carrying grocery bags in each arm, climbing up toward our door. That man was a rabbi who noticed my family’s poverty and took the time to help. His gifts of food and kindness were hugely important.

But unfortunately they weren’t enough. 

We relied for years, as I imagine many poor Jewish families do, on the charity of the local church, which ran a vegetable farm and food pantry. I also qualified for government assistance programs, such as school lunch.

The lunch program issued special cards to the handful of us beneficiaries in our affluent school district. We stood in a special line to receive special food, which was never the same as the food available for purchase. I felt such embarrassment. I envied the kids in the other line who were able to spend a whole week’s allowance on a Monday in order to get the food they wanted.

So I came up with a plan.

When I realized that the “normal” kids waited in really long lunch lines, I began charging them a dollar to stand in their line on their behalf. Soon, I was taking orders from multiple tables and standing in line for almost the entire lunch hour. By the end of the lunch period, I’d racked up enough single-dollar taxes to buy my own “normal” lunch. 

I’m proud to know that MAZON fought – and won – to ensure that in states like Minnesota kids who are eligible for school meals programs are treated with dignity and respect.

As soon as I could get a job, I earned as much as I could; I worked before school, after school and all weekend. Unlike my friends, however, the money I made didn’t go to cars or gadgets, but toward paying the rent.  

Now, after more than ten years of studying, first at college and then rabbinical school, I am on the cusp of becoming a rabbi. I am the second rabbi in this story. 

I will, God willing, serve a community of Jews and non-Jews, old and young, rich and poor. I will take with me all of my experiences, all of my knowledge about what it feels like to be on the margins, on the outside looking in. I’ll take all of that and be as that first rabbi was: aware of the people around me who are struggling with food insecurity. The Jewish community I knew as a child too often seemed to turn a blind eye to the presence of food insecurity within our own midst. But that won’t be true of the community I serve.

I will take my experiences and knowledge and build upon them. I will get involved with MAZON’s work and advocate for real change in the way our states and our nation address poverty and hunger. Looking out for those in need is a fundamental part of being a rabbi, but perhaps even more important are the changes that need to happen in legislation, so that food insecure families don’t need to rely on the kindness of individuals, but can have faith in a system that prioritizes justice. 

My story starts and ends with a rabbi, but our communal story doesn’t have to. The Jewish community needs to be on the forefront of the fight against hunger and all of us can be involved whether we are rabbis or not. I hope you’ll join me in supporting MAZON in ending hunger for people of all faiths and backgrounds in our country. I can tell you from my own experience what a difference it makes. 

Adam Zagoria-Moffet is currently a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, after having graduated from Hamline University (St. Paul, MN) in 2011. Concurrently, he is pursuing an MA at JTS in Jewish Thought, concentrating on Kabbalah. His interests are in Sefardi halakha and culture, human rights, ethics, and mysticism.