Serving Our Veterans

The Jewish tradition declares emphatically in the Haggadah, which we read during the Passover Seder, that before we sit down to enjoy the Feast of Freedom, we must open our homes, saying, “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and share this Passover meal.” All the more so we must not turn away those whose sacrifice has allowed us to live in this land of the free. Those who serve our country and make significant sacrifices—our soldiers, sailors, Air Force, Marines, and veterans—deserve our country’s open arms to welcome them home and a helping hand to lift them up so they can live with dignity and honor.

Recently, the Trump administration proposed a rule change to the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which would effectively restrict tens of thousands of veterans from receiving SNAP benefits. This change would limit states’ flexibility in waiving the strict 20 hour-per-week “work requirement” for certain SNAP recipients.

As a rabbi, veteran, and proud American, I know that our service members deserve better. Denying people access to food will not make their lives easier or help them find work faster. It will further add to their burdens and their family struggles. Moreover, it breaks the fundamental American social contract that says that as they faithfully protected us, so will we faithfully honor their service by caring for them when they return.

Chaplains play a special role in the Armed Forces, as we hold confidentiality and therefore can be trusted with the most private and deep conversations of our service men and women. In my training, I learned that transitioning from deployments (let alone from the military to civilian life) is complicated and, even in the best of times, often difficult. Family dynamics change, priorities shift, and decisions about the future can be rife with anxiety. Sometimes our veterans come home physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred even when a wound is not visible; a look at suicide and addiction rates speaks volumes. This takes its toll not only on the veterans, but also on their loved ones.

All too often, the civilian world acknowledges military service without really understanding what veterans and their families have sacrificed, or what resources they need to be supported; therefore, negotiating civilian life — planting roots in a community, developing new skills for the workforce, finding and holding a job, wrestling with physical and mental injuries — can be extremely daunting. The sad truth is that for many veterans and their families, food insecurity is a daily challenge. We know that veterans participate in SNAP at lower rates than non-veterans, yet an estimated 1.4 million veterans live in households that utilize SNAP benefits to put food on the table. Post-9/11 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from food insecurity at nearly double the average rate. There is limited data about this population, but we know that some people are facing hunger without help— only one in three veterans who are eligible for SNAP participate in the program. The enormity of this problem is often hidden from public awareness and political discourse. Sometimes this is due to veterans’ pride, self-reliance, independence, and wish to serve rather than be served.

That is why for the last two years I have joined with fellow rabbis and cantors from around the country to participate in MAZON’s Jewish Clergy Justice Mission. Our cohort convened to lobby our Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill about this harmful SNAP rule change; I am proud that as a result of our advocacy, 60 Members of Congress signed a letter to USDA opposing the SNAP rule change proposal, highlighting the devastating impact it would have on America’s veterans.

Raising awareness and bringing Judaism’s moral voice to bear on the national dialogue is not only confined to sermons or classes but actualizes itself in advocacy. It is one thing to read the newspaper and shake our heads, it is another to sit across the table from our elected officials and talk with them about food insecurity and hunger. The Torah’s command of “tzedek tzedek tirdof (Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” Deut. 16:20) means taking tangible steps to ensure that our society is acting in the highest ethical and moral ways. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “This implies more than merely respecting or following justice; we must actively pursue it.” Jewish tradition teaches that we have a collective responsibility to care for those who are most vulnerable in our society—I hope you will add your voice and effort to this pursuit.

B’kavod,

Rabbi Michael P. Singer

Rabbi Singer is the spiritual leader at Congregation Brith Sholom of Bethlehem, PA, and Chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly Food Justice Committee. He is a cohort member of MAZON’s 2018 and 2019 Jewish Clergy Justice Missions.