By Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Dr. H. Eric Schockman, president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
As the weather grows warmer and the days grow longer, American Jews are preparing to celebrate Passover. Every spring, we remember our people’s escape from bondage and flight to freedom with songs and stories read from the Haggadah, our traditional guide to the Seder meal. Our primary symbol is a very simple one: matzo, the dry, cracker-like food that we also call “the bread of affliction.”
As we gather, our homes filled with friends and our tables with food, our thoughts on slavery, affliction, and remembrances that we were once “strangers in a strange land,” it is easy to forget that affliction is not a thing of the distant past – that even as we sit down to our holiday meal, many Americans are virtual strangers in their own land, afflicted and enslaved by hunger.
The Seder is not merely a meal however, it is tool for education, a call to social action. This year, it comes at a time when many, many American families face times harder than they ever imagined. Today, some 37.5 million Americans live in poverty – a number that includes 13 million children – and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that as many as 10 million more of our fellow citizens will have slipped below the poverty line by year’s end. The people who suffer the most in hard times are not those at the top, but those who were already in need when the hard times hit.
The Haggadah wisely guards against the tendency to see religious ritual as a lifeless thing that refers only to the story of the Israelites from the past. We are told that in every generation, we must see ourselves as if we had personally gone out of Egypt. We must take the lessons of bondage and freedom into our daily lives, and apply them to the world around us. As we break matzo with those we love, this year of all years, we must certainly remember the millions who do not have enough food on their own tables.
That is why, next week, we will bring together, not just Jews, but people of all faiths and backgrounds, lawmakers and activists, students and community leaders, to hold a special Seder in the U.S. Capitol, focused on the issues of hunger and child nutrition. This event will kick off a series of similar Seders to be held across the country, as Jewish groups and interfaith leaders convene not just to celebrate the Jewish people’s historical escape from slavery, but to highlight this country’s obligation to ensure that all of our children escape the affliction of hunger.
As a nation, we are only as strong as our weakest members, and surely, we cannot move forward if we fail to care for our children. As the ancient Israelites had to take action in order to achieve their own exodus, so it is today: Hunger can only be defeated if we all take on the responsibility.
As such, these Seders will call on Americans to educate themselves, to advocate on behalf of the hungry to their legislators, and to organize their loved ones and community to take action. Our hope is that the universal message of the right to freedom from want will echo in the halls of Congress, and that our elected officials will see to it that our next federal budget prioritizes meeting Americans’ most basic human needs.
To effectively grapple with childhood hunger, Congress will have to invest substantially in new funding for child nutrition programs. More communities must have access to school breakfast and summer feeding programs, rules must be shaped that will make it simpler for families to participate, and the nutritional quality of the food provided must be improved. $20 billion, over the next five years, will be a critical investment to making the improvements that these programs urgently need – but not only will such changes make a real difference in the lives of boys and girls currently living in poverty, they will be a vital step toward meeting President Obama’s stated goal of ending child hunger in this country by 2015.
The good news is that these ideas build on an existing foundation, laid by Congressional advocates in recent years. Increases in the Food Stamp benefit were an important part of the Administration’s stimulus package, and last year’s Farm Bill contained a robust nutrition title, with 73 percent of the bill’s total dedicated to the funding of nutrition programs such as Food Stamps and emergency food assistance, as well as programs designed to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables to schools in low-income areas.
It is simply not enough to leave these issues to the good will of individual people or philanthropies. The simple truth is that hunger, like slavery, is a political condition. It is not a lack of food, but a lack of action and will that perpetuates hunger in the lives of our youngest citizens.
When the Israelites were called to leave behind their suffering, they had to do so in a hurry – and so, not having time to allow their bread to rise, they traveled into the desert with matzo, hard bread that served also to remind them of the hard life they had left behind. Today, we too are in a rush, as every day spent in hunger is one too many. The time to act is not next month or next year, but now.
It is important to remember, however, that Passover is not just a holiday of exodus, but also a time of renewal. As the ragtag crowd of Israelites left Egypt and were formed into the Jewish people, so too can the America people rise to their own challenges, and become a better, stronger nation as a result.
As people of faith, we know that we are called to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. To not do so would be an affront to God and all we hold dear. As Americans, we know that generational poverty – the empty belly of a child – weakens and destabilizes our country as a whole.
“Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we read in the Haggadah, “let all who are in need come share our Passover.”
Let us all – Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of any and all faiths – carry this simple, powerful message with us into the world, and take the actions so urgently needed to free American children from hunger.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Dr. H. Eric Schockman is the president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.