Two-part program unites three Teaneck shuls in fight against hunger (JewishStandard)

Lois Goldrich
May 20, 2022

This article originally appeared in the JewishStandard on May 18, 2022. You can register for the event discussed in this article here.

Not surprising, the pandemic, which created some very new problems while exacerbating old ones, has made it harder for food insecure families and individuals to better their situation.

According to Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, religious leader of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom and board chair of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, 80 million Americans struggle with food insecurity today. Before covid-19, the number was 40 million.

According to the group’s website, the pandemic “has caused food insecurity to skyrocket to unfathomable levels, and the federal government simply has not done enough to help the families whose lives have been devastated by the pandemic and resulting economic downturn.”

While New Jersey is one of the country’s richest states, it has not escaped this problem. Some 800,000 people in the state face hunger every day; 200,000 of them are children. Even closer to home, more than 6% of Bergen County residents — and an even higher percentage of seniors — are food insecure.

“I feel like we tend not to think outside our own community,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “But even when we’re thinking ‘within,’ it seems we believe the whole community is upper middle class to wealthy.” And yet, he pointed out, “more than 20% of the Jewish community in New York City lives below the poverty line. So even just speaking on Jewish terms, it’s still a problem.”

Clearly, he continued, “If we see ourselves as part of a larger fabric, we should be morally outraged.” And in response to those who suggest that Jews have more pressing issues to contend with, such as antisemitism, he would respond that “to me, this is as Jewish as caring about antisemitism and Israel. It’s at the heart of how I understand Jewish issues and values.”

While inspired to participate in MAZON by the Jewish values and ideals that underpin its work, Rabbi Pitkowsky also is a realist. That’s why he approached two fellow congregations, Netivot Shalom and Temple Emeth, both in Teaneck, to join his shul in an upcoming program on how to effectively deal with hunger. Beth Sholom is Conservative, Netivot Shalom is Orthodox, and Temple Emeth is Reform.

Rabbi Pitkowsky is well aware that charitable efforts alone will not solve the problem of hunger. His own synagogue is among the many that try in their own way to alleviate this problem, through food drives, by sending volunteers to help at a local food pantry, and in whatever other ways present themselves. Still, he is among the first to admit that these efforts, while helpful, will not end hunger. But, he said, while such programs do not have the strategic goal of ending hunger, they do feed hungry people on a daily basis.

Ending hunger can only be done by the government, and to influence the government, you need political advocacy.

To that end, in conjunction with MAZON, the three congregations are co-sponsoring two events next month — one on June 15 on Zoom, the other on June 22 at Beth Sholom.

The June 15 session is called Faith and Advocacy — Harnessing Jewish Voices to End Hunger in New Jersey. MAZON’s president and CEO, Abby Leibman, will offer a national perspective on hunger, speaking about the extent of the problem, while former state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck will talk about advocacy efforts in New Jersey in general and Bergen County in particular, as well as her own anti-poverty work. (Ms. Weinberg was a member of the New Jersey Senate from 2005 until she retired in 2022; she represented the 37th legislative district.) Rabbi Pitkowsky will moderate the session, “where we will discuss Jewish values, policies to address hunger, and how we can build the political will to end hunger in New Jersey,” he said.

The June 22 event, to be held at Beth Sholom, will feature MAZON organizer Lauren Banister, who, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, “will help us understand the role we can play as individuals in organizing and advocating.” Ms. Banister, who leads meetings throughout the country, noted that “coming together shows that people are concerned about food insecurity and want to know what can be done to address it.” The meeting will be a way of “turning the educational component of the program into a sustained effort the community can engage in.”

While it’s rare for congregations from different denominations to come together and exchange ideas, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, “we’ll be convening around an issue that should not be controversial. If we see ourselves as an advocacy group, we may not agree on other issues, but we can agree on the particulars of fighting hunger in New Jersey.”

This effort is not meant to be simply a two-part program, he said. “Rather, the idea is that it be the beginning of a longer, larger advocacy effort.”

Ms. Banister said that the goal of advocacy is to change the situation so that people don’t have to go to a food pantry. “Our hope is by advocating on the local level, we can engage people in local issues, affecting people right here — our neighbors.” Such an effort will also help address the issue of “othering,” — in this case, believing that hunger affects only people we don’t know, people with whom we think we have nothing in common.

The goal of her organizing work “is to help congregations find their voice and their power,” whether working alone or together with other synagogues, Ms. Banister said. She noted her involvement in a similar program in West Virginia, where Reform and Conservative shuls came together for the same kind of event.

Rabbi Pitkowsky said that while hunger is only one part of the larger question of poverty, “we don’t want to lose sight of our area of expertise. While there is a lot of important work to be done in the anti-poverty sector, people can’t reach their potential… unless they’re well-fed.” And, he added, “Hunger as an issue seems to resonate.”

Those people who give up, who believe they can’t make a difference, should look to the Book of Exodus, the paradigmatic story of the weak triumphing over the mighty, he said. What is holy is not the world as you see it, but rather the vision of what it could be. “Imagine a world with no Exodus story,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said.