There’s an oft-repeated joke that we say defines every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” And we do. We pile our plates high with bagels, lox and schmear, with blintzes and kugels, and we eat. We eat because the food, for many of us, represents satiation of the highest order and it feeds us, body and soul.
As rabbis, we often think about what feeds the soul. How can we help our communities to dive deep into our texts and traditions to find ways to nourish their minds and their spirits? How can we help them to see past the mundane and access the holy? How can we engage our members in the work of tikkun olam to make the world a better place for all people? What can we do, as their spiritual leaders, to feed their souls?
And yet, dire circumstances compel us to ask about the body. One out of every eight Americans struggles with food insecurity. We have both seen this firsthand in our congregations, as have many of our colleagues. Hunger does not discriminate: it’s in our homes, our synagogues, our interfaith relationships, our community partnerships.
Just the other week, Brian saw hunger firsthand, ironically while celebrating at a lavish Bar Mitzvah kiddush. That morning, he had mentioned his work with MAZON on the issue of food insecurity during a dvar Torah. Following the services, an uncle of the Bar Mitzvah approached Brian during the kiddush luncheon. He shared that he has suffered with both physical and mental illness. “No matter what I seem to do, it is hard for me to keep my head above water,” he said. “The benefits I receive from the government keep me from going hungry. Without them, I wouldn’t make it. Please work hard to help me. I just want to eat.”
The words of our Sages in Pirkei Avot ring true: “im ein kemach, ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein kemach.” “Without bread there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no bread.” If we do not ensure that all people have enough to eat, we cannot do the work of Torah.
These ideals brought rabbis from all around the country together in Washington D.C. for MAZON’s first Rabbinic Justice Mission. Together we shared stories, learned about food insecurity in America, and took to Capitol Hill to meet with Members of Congress.
We visited the Hill with a specific legislative ask: to protect the vulnerable among us by protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill. With over forty million Americans relying on SNAP benefits to help them get on their feet and feed their families with dignity, a strong Farm Bill that supports this lifeline is vital.
Congress members from both parties welcomed us during our meetings, and listened to our concerns about the two million Americans who will lose their SNAP benefits if ideological attacks on this vital safety net program become law. We were both struck by the very real impact it had on Representatives to hear from us in person, and we hand-delivered a letter signed by nearly one thousand clergy representing 47 states and the District of Columbia, which calls on Congress to protect SNAP. (If you are a member of the clergy and would like to add your name to this letter please do so here.)
While the highly partisan House Farm Bill failed its first vote – in the very same week as our delegation’s Hill visits – this dangerous bill did eventually pass by a razor-thin margin. Thankfully, a bipartisan process facilitated by Senate Agriculture Committee leadership produced and passed a much more palatable bill, which passed easily (86-11) and without drama. We are keenly awaiting news of the conference process – for news, and for how we can continue to help raise the voices of the vulnerable.
“Im ein kemach, ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein kemach.” “Without bread there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no bread.” We cannot engage in the work of Torah, of Avodah, of Gemilut Chasadimwithout sustenance. But without Torah, our work would be meaningless. Our tradition teaches us that we have to have both; we cannot attend to one without the other. Our sacred work is to feed one another, body and soul.
Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin currently serves Temple Israel of Omaha, Nebraska, a founding member institution of the Tri-Faith Initiative.
Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei currently serves Congregation Ner Tamid of Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
Temple Israel and Congregation Ner Tamid hosted MAZON’s This Is Hunger experience in October 2017 and January 2018 respectively.