Category Archives: Site Visits

Project Elijah: Open The Door & Feed The Hungry

1257361190127_665e8It wasn’t even Passover, yet on Sunday, October 18th at West Hills, California’s Milken Jewish Community Campus, an innovative program called  “Feeding the Hungry Project” opened the doors and Project Elijah, a MAZON-funded hunger response nonprofit, walked through it.

Project Elijah’s Executive Director, Julie Kaufman and its founder, Alan Zuckert flew into town from Des Moines, Iowa, with crates of supplies and packaging equipment. With local organizers, they set up assembly lines and bag-sealing stations in the auditorium and proceeded to set the stage for a transformative experience for the hundreds of volunteers that would soon arrive.

From 10am and 2pm, two shifts of volunteers, mostly from Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, California, donned bright orange t-shirts, aprons, gloves and hairnets and began to scoop, measure, package and seal a nutritious blend of grains into 4-serving bags.  Rabbi Barry Lutz blew a shofar to launch the event and as each 5000-meal milestone was achieved, he blew the shofar again to the cheers and applause of the volunteers.

The “Feeding the Hungry” project came together because Temple Ahavat Shalom member Stephanie Howard believed it was possible. It became reality with guidance from MAZON and grants from the Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance and other funders.  It generated over 35,000 meals for beneficiaries of the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, a long-time MAZON grantee, because more than 1,000,000 men, women and children in Los Angeles are at risk of hunger and SOVA’s three food pantries are among the premiere front line responders to the hunger crisis in Los Angeles.

Here are Ms. Howard’s reflections on the event:

Wow!  Four hundred volunteers + four hours = 35,000 meals for SOVA!  That’s what we can accomplish with some long-range planning, a passion to feed the hungry and a little Chutzpah.

We did it!  And we didn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”  All we had to do was “roll in” a high-protein, vitamin-packed food product and assembly line system developed by Project Elijah in Des Moines, Iowa.  Temple Ahavat Shalom started dreaming about this one-day event years ago.  Thanks to grants from the Los Angeles Federation Valley Alliance and the Ted and Sarah Seldin Family Fund we were able to pay for the food and shipping of the equipment to package the meals.

Of course, the best part of the equation is the volunteers.  There was so much enthusiasm for Feeding the Hungry that we had to close down the sign ups weeks ahead of time when we reached our maximum of 400 volunteers. People brought their patience, passion and willingness to do a great mitzvah so we could meet our goal to help the needy.

Thanks, MAZON, for co-sponsoring Feeding the Hungry and for fighting the battle every day to draw down hunger.

She also has event photos available on Flickr.

Anyone can open the door and end hunger.  Start by opening the door to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger at


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El Salvador Days 6 and 7 (March 15 and 16, 2009)

March 16, 2009 marked a day in history for the El Salvadorian people and we were able to be a part of it as we witnessed the nation’s presidential elections as international observers. At 5 a.m. we entered a polling place, a high school, in the southern part of San Salvador. In El Salvador, citizens not only vote by city/region but also by their last name. We were at the polling place with individuals with last names that begin with “M.” Approximately 45,000 were expected throughout the day. Although the polls didn’t open until 7 a.m. we witnessed the organization of each of the 92 voting areas. Four individuals (four from each party, dressed in non-party colors) began the process of putting up signs and lists to indicate where voters should vote. Additionally, they confirmed that the count of the ballots was correct and that they had enough materials for the day.

At 7 a.m. the polling place opened. The high school became filled with individuals, some in political party shirts, and others plain clothed. There were children with their parents, elderly, those who had experienced the war, those who wanted to be heard…etc. Voters in El Salvador approach the voting table and have their ID’s checked against the registry, and then they received a signed and sealed ballot. The ballot contains images of the flags of the two parties and in the voting booth; the voter is to place a “X” on the flag of the party they are voting for. After voting, they place their ballot in the ballot box, they sign their name on another registry and then dip their finger in ink that stays on the skin for about two days to avoid duplicate voting.

Watching the polls get set-up.

Watching the polls get set-up.

For 10 hours I watched as people voted. At the high school, the current President and his wife came to vote, as well as the current mayor of San Salvador. The polls were civilized throughout the day. At 5 p.m., the polls closed and the counting process began. Each table was responsible for counting the unused ballots and confirming the amount of people who voted at their table by checking both registries. Then the ballot box is opened and each ballot is counted. The ballot is unfolded and presented to the people around the table and the passed to the party representative based for whom the vote was for. Once the count was finalized, the party that won at the table chanted for their party. By 6:30 p.m. most of the tables completed their counting and the FMLN seemed to have had the lead. As we left the polling place and embarked on El Salvador’s roads, those who support FMLN took to the streets in celebration. Although it was not confirmed that the FMLN had officially won, people were optimistic.

As I write, FMLN has claimed victory, but the final vote won’t be finalized until sometime on Tuesday. It is time for great change in El Salvador.

This is my last day in El Salvador, I would like to thank the SHARE Foundation for organizing this experience for us. It is truly one trip that I will remember for a lifetime.

The MAZON delegation.

The MAZON delegation.

Thank you for reading. Adios!

Heather Wolfson

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El Salvador Days 4 and 5 (March 13 and 14, 2009)

The past day and half has been incredible. On Friday morning we made the two-hour drive to Chalatenago in the northern part of the country.  We met with the leaders form the community of Guarjila to discuss their partnership with SHARE as the CCR, a grassrooots board of leaders in the neighboring communities.  Many of the people living in the north were originally refugees who were in Mesa Grande refugee camp about 12 miles inside Honduras.  The first group left the camp 22 years ago and entered back into El Salvador with nothing.  They had plastic to lie on the ground and a few blankets.  Today, the region has homes, restaurants and roads.

The CCR addresses health, education and building organization within the region.  The CCR represents 110 communities in 22 municipalities.  The CCR works side-by-side with the municipalities to develop a united front.  The CCR leaders shared with us two of their latest concerns:  1.  The question of mining for gold in the region; and 2.  The mega-highway project that would ultimately connect all of Central America.  The Pacific Rim Company recently came to El Salvador looking for areas to mine.  The CCR and many residents don’t believe mining is possible.   According to the CCR, the company would only leave 1% of their profit in the country.  Many of the jobs mining would produce would also come from other countries, therefore it will not help to stimulate the economy.  Additionally, the region sits along the Lempa River that goes from the north to the south of the country.  The CCR is concerned that first, there is not enough water to successfully do the mining and secondly, they are concerned about contamination. As they said, before gold, they would rather have water.

Although mining is their first concern, the mega-freeway may also impact the region.  First, many people will be displaced by the building of the freeway and as such will have to re-create their lives elsewhere.  Furthermore, many hotels and restaurants have taken interest in developing the areas off of the freeway.  As with the mining, there is a concern that the money would not come back into the community.

Evely Laser Shlensky, a long-time MAZON board member is traveling with us.  She visited Honduras 22 years ago on an interfaith mission to the Mesa Grande camp.  She accompanied the first group to the border.  Jose Angel Serrano, a CCR member, remembered Evely joining refugees on the buses.  Over lunch, Evely and Jose recounted the “Exodus” over two decades ago.

Evely & Jose

Evely & Jose

Friday evening, we joined the Jewish community for Shabbat services.  The community warmly embraced us.  Additionally, Knesset member Ron Cohen was at services to address the community.  He too is in El Salvador as an international observer.  The service was traditional but you could feel the ruach (spirit) throughout the sanctuary.  Members of the community welcomed us into their homes for a traditional Shabbat meal.  El Salvador had a larger Jewish community prior to the war, today there are only about 50 families, but they are loyal to Judaism and sustaining their community.

Saturday morning I had the opportunity to visit the Divina Providencia, the home of Monsenor Romero and the site of his assassination.  Romero was for the people.  He became Archbishop in 1977 and decided to live at the Divina with the sisters in a very small room.  He didn’t want anything elaborate as he wanted to live like the people of El Salvador.  He was outspoken and cared about the poor.  He knew the risk of uniting with the poor and pursuing social justice, but he knew that this was what he was meant to do.  On March 24, 1980, Monsenor Romero was assassinated.  Today, individuals are still trying to pursue justice on behalf of Romero.

Saturday afternoon will be filled with formal election training.  Sunday we will be at our polling place at 5 a.m. to begin election observations.  The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. we will then witness the counting of the ballots at the polling place.  Due to our long day, I will most likely write Monday to debrief about the election.

Until next time…

Heather Wolfson

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El Salvador Day 3 (March 12, 2009)

We spent the day in the southeast region of El Salvador visiting two cooperative programs.  After our hour and a half bus ride, we visited Los Frailes cooperative with CONFRAS, a grassroots organization that cultivates organic and agro-ecological basic grains and vegetables.  CONFRAS, with the support of SHARE, organizes the Peasant to Peasant program, where CONFRAS teaches it agricultural skills to farmers who then passes it on to other farmers.  There are 28 cooperatives throughout El Salvador that participate in the program.  Their main focus is to utilize organic methods to grow crops in the region.

At Los Frailes cooperative, there is a group of 38 families participating as a group and some of the families have their own crops in front of their homes.   The important element in their crop development is the creation of its own fertilizer.  Before the CAFTA trade agreement was signed, fertilizer was about $2 a bag, today it is nearly $115.  Additionally, farmers only receive about $4 a day making it very difficult for them to purchase the needed fertilizer.  Therefore, the cooperative shared with us how they prepare their own with a mixture of elements that is turned over daily for 20 days with molasses water before it is packaged.   Last year, the cooperative was able to exchange product and have some revenue to buy goats.  The hope this year is that they will make a significant revenue from their newest crop of pineapples to purchase cattle.

Tilling fertilizer.

Tilling fertilizer.

Our second stop was a visit with ACAMG, a cooperative of women who predominately work with cattle, but have also been growing basic grains during this most recent food crisis.  In 1993, 68 women started the cooperative through a Jesuit fund.  They had no experience with loans but they were introduced to raising cattle and chickens.  They spent several years getting trained in loan making but received a grant through Oxfam to establish microcredit loans to women of the cooperative to purchase baby cattle and then sell them after a year for a profit.  In  2001, they became a legalized cooperative with a board.  Fifteen villages participate with approximately 300 women involved, fifty percent of whom are single mothers.  The loans are for about $500 at 6% interest, with a 100% repayment rate within the cooperative.  Women typically have a maximum of 10 cows at a time.

As part of the program UC Davis veterinary school partnered with the cooperative to teach 12 women how to care for the cattle.  Another program that the women are proud of is their literacy program.  Many of these women have not had any education and therefore, the women have an opportunity to learn to read and become empowered.   With the support of SHARE the women have an office, kitchen, training center, archives room and store.  Since the women are located in a flood region, they built a second story on one of their buildings to which they move their product and information to prevent any damages when the rains come.

At the conclusion of our day we joined the community to remember Rutilio Grande who was assassinated 32 years ago.  Although we weren’t aware of this ceremony before we got to the village, we joined.  The memorial began with a procession on the main road.  We lined up in two perfect lines and walked with palm fronds tied with red ribbon.  The residents sang songs as we were led to a local community center.  There a ceremony took place with about 150 people.  The youth danced and sang.  This was an experience we will remember for a lifetime.dscn0301

Tomorrow we go to the north and then visit with the local Jeiwhs community.  I will most likely post on Saturday.

Until next time…

Heather Wolfson

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El Salvador Day 2 (March 11, 2009)

Today began by interacting with all of the participants (MAZON’s delegation of eight people is part of the larger SHARE delegation of 150 individuals) while also going through an in-depth orientation on health, safety, and the elections as well as on the SHARE Foundation. Important health, safety and election takeaways:

1. Brush your teeth with bottled water only.

2. The cars have the right of way, so even though they might see you, they may not stop. Therefore, avoid crossing the street.

3. Don’t go out on your own. Partner system.

4. All official campaigning for the election ends tonight (Wednesday, March 11).

5. El Salvador becomes a dry country at midnight tomorrow (Thursday, March 12).

The SHARE Foundation has been mobilizing residents of El Salvador since the late 80s. SHARE supports poor and historically marginalized communities in their struggle for empowerment, to meet basic needs and to build long-term, sustainable solutions to poverty, underdevelopment and social injustice. Their objectives are to empower women (social, political, economic), to develop successful models for local development, to create alternative rural policies and to build solidarity between the United States and El Salvador through community groups. To achieve these objectives SHARE engages in local development in El Salvador, participates in advocacy both in El Salvador and in the United States and through works on the grassroots level. With offices in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and San Salvador, SHARE has become a critical organization for the people of El Salvador. SHARE’s staff believes that we will be making and writing history on this trip.

This afternoon, I had the honor and privilege to hear Mirna Perla a Supreme Court Magistrate. She is also known for her human rights activism in El Salvador. During our discussion she gave us some context about the situation in El Salvador. On January 16, 1991, the peace accords were signed which was followed by a period of democratization. During this time, there was the abolishment of security forces since the army was key in violating human rights during the civil war. They were responsible for the systematic practice of torture as well as the forced disappearance of persons, including 700 children. Mirna has played a critical role in locating these children and currently approximately 350 of these children have been located, and of those, 200 have been reconnected with their families. Unfortunately, because of an amnesty law, the former army cannot be brought to justice.

Although El Salvador is experiencing some level of peace, there are still many human rights issues. Mirna explained that over the years, instead of the government offering its residents opportunities to get out of poverty, the leadership has led with a strong hand. This has a direct affect on families, where many parents are leaving the country for work in the United States and leaving their children with grandparents, other family members or friends. This leads to the decomposition of family life. Children sometimes end up participating in gangs as there are no community resources to keep them off the streets. From other conversations I’ve had in the past 24 hours, I’ve also learned that children typically only make it through elementary school (which is paid for, except for books, supplies and the uniform). Beyond that, families must pay for further education.

Additionally, El Salvador was built as an agricultural country, but the government has ignored this sector for many years and has imported grains, beans, rice, corn and other staples. This has directly affected food security with 70% of the population in poverty. The average wage is $196 per month, but the typical family needs $350 per month to live moderately.

The question at hand today is, is there enough democracy in the country for a transfer of power? Regardless of the results after Sunday’s election, Mirna will continue pursuing human rights for the people of El Salvador.

Tomorrow, the MAZON delegation will be going into the field to see some of the projects we help to fund.

Until then…

Heather Wolfson

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Reflections From Israel

I have just returned from leading another MAZON mission to Israel.  For the past decade, MAZON has been a leading entity in targeting strategic grants to struggling Israeli-based anti-hunger organizations from Beer Sheva up to Haifa.  For the past three years, MAZON has played a central catalytic leadership role in the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.  Our goal for this mission was to advance a business plan and organizational alignment for the establishment of a National Israel Food Bank.

Why a national food bank, and why now?  Let me take the second part of the question first.

From our field observations, talking with a myriad of experts, food providers, humanitarian and social workers, politicians, journalists and food recipients themselves, it is apparent that conditions have worsened vis-à-vis the provision of basic nourishment and nutritional needs to an estimated one-quarter of Israeli society (and that was even before the ramifications of the Lebanese war and its estimated $5.8 billion in damages).

In Jerusalem, we saw seniors (some in wheelchairs and with walkers) lining up for lunch at one of our grantee”s soup kitchens – at 9 a.m.  That is how desperate they are for what in many cases will be their only real meal for the day.  We also visited a food co-op in another area of Jerusalem, where the community has organized itself to do bulk food purchasing (thereby providing cheaper prices) and is sustained by all-volunteer labor, yet the shelves were partially barren and need outstripped supply.

In Jaffa, our delegation witnessed a few model programs that validated the simple premise that a well-fed child is more apt to academic success on a full stomach.  Yet, countless underprivileged school-aged children throughout Israel are not gaining access to school-based lunch programs or the handful of after school food/education enrichment programs.

In Haifa, we heard more fatalism from those who did not flee south during the war.  Teachers spoke to us about diverting funds previously earmarked for nutrition programs in order to hire more therapists to treat children for post-traumatic syndrome.  We stood in front of a bombed-out house in central Haifa that was hit directly by a rocket fired from Lebanon.  The irony here was that the home belonged to an Arab Israeli family.  Rockets are an equal opportunity killer of both Jews and Arabs.

Throughout Israel, over 400 struggling independent charitable bodies distributing food have been the “”thin-green-line”” assuring daily survival and the basic right to eat.  Tragically, many have been forced to transform themselves from simple feeding centers into multi-service entities to treat the myriad conditions that result from living in a state of poverty.  Most recently, these feeding organizations have been establishing dental clinics (manned by volunteer dentists and hygienists); Israel does provide health insurance, but only from the neck down.  This increased need for services highlights the challenges facing charities in providing basic welfare entitlements.  Their capacity makes them no more than small band-aids to a much deeper problem that only government, with its scale and resources, will ever adequately address.

Speaking of the Israeli government”s role in shaping public policy on food insecurity, our delegation had a series of productive dialogues at the Knesset.  We met directly with Gilad Erdan (Likud Party); Israel Katz (Likud Party, Former Minister of Agriculture); Nissim Slomiansky (National Religious Party); Michael Malchior (Labor-Meimad Party, Chairperson, Knesset Education Committee); and Yuli Tamir (Labor-Meimad Party, Minister of Education).

So why establish a National Israel Foodbank?

The question has a straightforward answer:  food insecurity affects 22% (2003 data) of the Israeli population, almost double the food insecurity rate of Americans as measured by the USDA.  Our estimate is that meeting Israeli food insecurity needs would require access to 140,000 tons of food per year.  We estimate that currently, approximately 25,000 tons of food are distributed through donations from manufacturers, the Israel Defense Forces, farmers, gleaning projects, and through food purchasing.  This gap – between what there is and what we need, the “”haves”” and “”have nots”” of the food equation – is large and is only growing bigger.

The purpose of the National Israel Foodbank is to create an efficient and effective infrastructure that will enable the country”s food assistance organizations to work together (along with the public sector, business section and philanthropic community) to provide higher quantities of more nutritious food to the growing ranks of the food insecure.  The National Israel Foodbank”s core activity will be the operation of a logistics and distribution center for food distribution, making use of global and local know-how.  The food bank will:

  • Ensure a sustainable stream of food services and cash donations;
  • Optimize utilization of all resources;
  • Build capacity of food assistance organizations and adherence to good governance and food safety issues;
  • Create a strong voice for advocacy and public awareness in Israel.

I know the MAZON mission is not mission-impossible.  There is a clear path to address more systemically the problem of food insecurity in Israel.  If you are interested in getting personally involved or organizing your synagogue or community, please contact me directly at

“”If you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature, then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday.”” –Isaiah 58:10

— H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D.

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Weapons of the Spirit


During the years of my involvement with MAZON’s Grants Advisory Committee, I’ve been struck, time and again, with the work of one of our grantees, the International Medical Corps (IMC), in responding to disasters around the world. The current situation in Darfur and the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunami are among those disasters. MAZON’s grants to IMC have focused on reversing the effects of starvation, particularly among children, in some of the most traumatized regions of the world.

Against this backdrop of deep admiration for IMC, when I received an invitation from Rabbi Lee Bycel, IMC’s Senior Advisor of Global Strategy as well as a member of the MAZON board, to join a small group bound for Kenya in October, 2006, I was anxious to participate and to learn. The purpose of the visit was to understand more deeply the health problems facing many of Kenya’s most impoverished citizens and IMC’s responses to the problems that have so devastated the population.

HIV/AIDS, along with “opportunistic diseases”, such as tuberculosis, that prey on sick people, both conditions exacerbated by malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions, have invaded Kenya and other African countries like a plague, leaving in their wake 650,000 children who have lost parents to AIDS. At the other end of the spectrum of life, a generation of elderly people can no longer rely on their now deceased or diseased children for support in their old age, and are, instead, frequently called upon to raise their grandchildren. The disease has further impoverished large numbers of families whose former wage earners (and wages in Kenya are pitifully low) haven’t the strength to work, but must allocate meager resources to health care, frequently having to make the choice between life-sustaining medicines and food.

Yet despair is not all there is. Kenyans, with the assistance of non-governmental organizations of which IMC is a stellar example, as well as of their government’s programs and USAID (Aid to International Development), have rallied to reverse the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

Here are a few impressions from my experience in Kenya:

• The “community empowerment” model, by which IMC works, training local people to educate their peers, urging them to take preventive measures to control the spread of HIV, to be tested for the disease, to have families of infected people tested, and to conscientiously take medications, is beginning to make inroads. People increasingly are acknowledging the existence of a disease that was formerly a taboo subject, then seeking testing and treatment that can allow them to live for many years in relatively good health. Still, many thousands of infected Kenyans aren’t aware of their status and/or do not seek or receive treatment.

• Tremendous power inheres in the women’s groups that have formed to sustain HIV positive women. Women are counseling one another, commiserating, celebrating, and embarking on little commercial ventures to help support themselves. In places, groups of people are taking it upon themselves to care for AIDS orphans.

• The determination of Kenyan health care workers employed by IMC astonished me. To awaken each day to return to Kibera to do God’s work among the sick truly requires angels of mercy. We met such people. Kibera, one of the largest, most degraded slums in the world, located in Nairobi, within sight of the home of the president of Nairobi, is an astoundingly awful, stench-filled, disease-ridden place, with open sewage running down the paths between rows of squalid dirt-floor hovels. The Kenyan government provides no services for Kibera: no sanitation, no running water, no electricity, nothing. With 800,000 residents, it is considered an “illegal” settlement, and has been for years

• Sensitized as I have been by MAZON’s hunger focus, I noticed the difference adequate nutrition could make in meeting the needs of poor Kenyans who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Two examples: 1) People who are on ARV’s (the anti-AIDS drugs), must be adequately nourished in order for the drugs to be effective. Nutritional supplements need to be provided for them. The needs for such supplements are great. 2) A school for girls has been established in Suba, a highly impacted HIV area near Lake Victoria. Many of the girls are AIDS orphans. The hot lunch they receive at school is the mainstay of their nutrition. Such meals require resources.

• Finally, I remarked to myself on the extraordinary humanity of the Kenyans I was meeting—the health care workers, the women in the women’s groups who called themselves “peer mothers”, the children. I reflected on the “weapons of the spirit” the people have found to deal with desperate circumstances. In Kenya, I saw new reflections of God”s face.

Evely Laser Shlensky, MAZON board member

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