This piece originally appeared in JLiving Profile on March 15, 2023.
Abby J. Leibman has been President & CEO at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger since 2011. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national organization fighting to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel.
“For me, food is the most essential aspect of being human,” Leibman says. “It is vital to our well-being. It’s vital to survival. Nothing happens unless you have enough to eat. Nothing. You can’t be creative. You can’t be intelligent. You can’t be hard-working. You cannot survive, let alone thrive. The ideas of being engaged in food justice work are really all about that everybody deserves that opportunity, that all human beings should have it.”
With a background in helping social justice organizations, businesses, and public institutions meet the challenges of growth and change, Leibman worked with some of California’s most innovative organizations, such as Jewish World Watch, Food Forward, L.A.’s BEST, UCLA Hillel, Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and others.
For more than 20 years, she has worked with and led some of California’s most prominent nonprofit organizations, including the California Women’s Law Center (which she co-founded and directed for 12 years). She has served on the Board of Directors for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the Board of California Women Lawyers, the Court and Community Outreach Task Force of the California Judicial Council, Women Lawyers’ Association of Los Angeles, and as President of the California Children’s Council., as well as on the Board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, on the Executive Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Commission, and so much more.
“What’s near and dear to my heart is the idea of food justice as a component of social justice,” Leibman says. “It is unconscionable to me that there are people – literally tens of millions of people – who are struggling in America with food insecurity.
“I spent my professional career in justice work.” she continues. “And I believe, deeply, in writing the wrongs of the past and in creating a present and a future that really are marked by the values that are not just Jewish values, but our American values about justice for everybody. … I could never rest or be content until we really begin to change how it is to how it should be.”
What led you to work with MAZON?
I wasn’t looking for a job 12 years ago; I was doing consulting work that I found engaging and meaningful. When several people, who I respect tremendously, asked me to apply for the President & CEO position at MAZON, I explored more about MAZON’s mission and people. The more I learned, the more I felt energized and inspired about what MAZON was doing and the role it could play in the anti-hunger movement. The idea that I could help to truly make a difference in the lives of those who struggle with hunger offered a very powerful inducement.
Can you share more about your philanthropic activities? What charities do you work with and how do you support them?
I co-founded and led the California Women’s Law Center for 12 years and my commitment to justice for women and girls has never wavered. Most of my charitable engagement is with organizations working to realize justice for women and girls, particularly reproductive justice. These include NCJW, Jane’s Due Process in Texas, Planned Parenthood, and the Ms. Foundation. I am powerfully engaged in the democratic process, supporting get-out-the-vote efforts and visionary political candidates. I am a proud long-time member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, and I’m very active in that community. I’m also very supportive of public radio and television and most of my work with them is being an avid consumer of mysteries and old-time radio dramas!
When was the first time you participated in Tzedakah? Can you share your first significant donation, whether it was by donating your time or financially?
Well, my first memory is in Sunday school giving to Karen Ami; but our family was always very charitable, so I saw making donations to improve our world as simply something we were obligated to do as good human beings.
My first significant contribution was to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. A member of the young leadership there took me out to breakfast and asked me to support the Federation by making a $500 donation. I burst out laughing because as a legal services lawyer this was actually my gross pay each paycheck! He immediately pivoted and said, “OK, that’s not going to work. How about a dollar a week? Could you manage that? You probably lose that much money in a parking meter.” I readily agreed.
The following year, I said to myself: I could manage $2 a week, and just like that I doubled my gift on my own! A development officer’s dream. This was a turning point for me and I learned so much from him: How to persevere so you don’t get a flat “no.” How to think about my ability to make donations. And consequently, I became far more conscious of where I donated my money.
How has philanthropy enriched your life?
This harder for me to answer. It would be like asking how being a woman, or being Jewish, or living in Los Angeles has enriched my life. These are so much a part of who I am. From the time I was a little girl, it was important to me that my life mattered, that the world was a better place because I was in it. Being philanthropic, in the charitable sector, making a commitment to changing our world so that it is better for everyone, gives me a sense that I am honoring that little girl’s dreams.
What message do you have for others who say they don’t have the time or money to donate?
Could you start by giving $1 a week?! Surely you spend more than that on a cup of coffee each day. Get a regular coffee instead of a latte and donate the difference to a cause that has meaning to you.
What are simple ways that anyone can give back/ participate in tikkun olam?
There’s a lot written about the little things we can do to engage with others, to treat people with dignity, to truly embrace b’tzelem elohim in how we move through the world. But while that is vital, I don’t think it’s sufficient. Making a commitment to others should be central to our way of being in the world, in big ways as well as small.
Who inspires you?
This may be a bit corny, but I work with a team of remarkable people – board members and colleagues – who bring extraordinary skills, intellect, vitality, and passion to our mission. They give their all, every day, day after day to MAZON – to end hunger in the U.S. and Israel. To see that commitment, the passion, the emotion that drives them, inspires me every day.
What is your favorite Jewish meal?
Sufganiyot. Who says donuts are not a meal!