Brother can you spare a dime?


I give money to homeless people who ask me for it. Always have. I figure if someone has the courage to ask a stranger for help, I will help them. I always keep cash in both my glove compartment and my wallet. A day does not pass where I do not help someone. Sometimes I buy people food, or toiletries. One time I bought a lovely man a pair of shoes. I think kindness matters and when I give someone money and they offer me a blessing, it makes me happy every single time.

Last week I was asked for some help from a man on the street. I gave him a dollar and wished him well. He looked at the dollar and asked me, “Is that all you’ve got?” I was startled for a second and didn’t understand what he was saying. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Is that it?”. I told him to have a good day and left as my chin started to quiver and I burst into tears. It hurt my feelings and made me sad. It was as though the man felt disrespected, which wasn’t my intention.

I have had people ask me why I give money to those who are going to use to get high or drunk, but I never wonder what they’re going to do with the money. I can’t give them money with restrictions on what they can do with it. It is not personal, political, or judgmental. It is simple kindness. Who am I to judge anyone? I help when and how I can, so when this man asked if that was all I could do, it made me wonder if I should maybe stop giving money and instead just look away.

My friend George deals with homelessness every day as he works in law enforcement in an area of the city where there are a lot of homeless people. He has seen it all and helps save a lot of people. Not give them a dollar save, but actually get them off the street save. He thinks it is sweet I give everyone money, but feels it is only a matter of time before someone responded like this man. He never tells me not to do it, just to be aware not all people will appreciate it.

We view homelessness very differently. When I see a kid asking for money I want to invite them over to have a shower, get some clean clothes, and feed them a home cooked meal. George wants to find out why they’re there, investigate if they can go home, then give them tools to get off the street. For me, I want to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound to fix it, while he wants to perform emergency surgery to stop the source of the bleeding. Both ways are valid to me.

How do I not help someone who asks? Even the guy who sits at the freeway off ramp wearing Beats headphones gets a dollar from me on occasion. He sits for hours in temperatures over 100 degrees, so why not give him a dollar? I am angry this one person could make me rethink giving money. He shouldn’t have that power over me. In all the times I have given out money, this is the first time I can remember experiencing something unpleasant in response.

I will continue to give money to people who ask me for it. Whether they spend it on food, a bottle of water, or drugs, if whatever they buy brings them a moment of happiness, or comfort, or quiet, then God bless them. There but for the grace of God go I. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone can appreciate a Band-Aid when it is offered to them. To the man who was unhappy with my gesture, I hope someone else gave you a bigger Band-Aid and you are keeping the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, on Feb. 26. Photo by Siegfried Modola/Reuters

The Passover paradox


In early March, the United Nations announced that the world is facing — and this is not hyperbole — “the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.”

If you’re thinking Syria or European migrants, you’re wrong. Neither of those issues was mentioned once.

Right now, the great humanitarian crisis of our world is food insecurity — a condition afflicting tens of millions of people who have limited or uncertain access to nutritional and safe food. 

According to the U.N., an estimated 20 million people will face the threat of starvation and famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. The New York Times devoted a special section on April 2 to the stories of 130,000 people forced from their homes by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, who have camped next to a highway in the Niger desert in search of food and water.

UNICEF is warning that “1.4 million children could starve to death this year.” And I hesitate to describe the accompanying pictures of children already in peril — their faces sunken, desperate, nearly deformed from malnourishment.

Now comes Pesach, a harvest festival. It arrives every spring when the earth is bursting with blooms, when crops are growing and nature renews itself, offering its bounty.

And yet, it forces us to confront hunger.

The relationship between hunger and the Passover seder is so central to the holiday that reiterating the connection is stating the obvious. Early on, before we do almost anything else, we hold up the matzo, and we sing “Ha Lachma Anya” — behold, the bread of affliction. The central symbol of Pesach literally is the poor man’s bread: It is the bread of the persecuted, degraded and displaced who could not afford to waste a single second letting dough rise when the moment for liberation came.

On Pesach, our task is to relive the experience of slavery and its infinite deprivations so deeply, so viscerally, it should be as if each one of us had personally gone out of Egypt.

And yet, when I think of the modern Jewish seder table, I think of abundance. Most of us probably enjoy multiple courses of food, flowing wine, crystal glasses, fine china, luxurious table linens. Others partake of popular Pesach “vacations” with kosher buffets so ample they could feed a king, a queen and their court. And I wonder if all of this abundance on the holiday when we are meant to recall deprivation is missing the point. Slavery is having to do without; but our seder tables sometimes are paradigms of excess.

The year 2016 was the second year in a row in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development named Los Angeles as the city with the most chronically homeless people in the country. An estimated 44,000 people sleep on the streets of our city each night. On Pesach, we’ll sing, “All who hunger, you are welcome here,” but how many of us will invite a hungry person to eat at our table? How many of us will welcome the stranger, the orphan, the refugee?

Our tradition is clear about our obligation, as Jews, to make the world better. We all understand this. That’s why we give to charities, and pay taxes, and support food kitchens, and engage in the fight for political equality and justice. The Shulchan Aruch demands that every Jewish community establish a kupa, a welfare fund to be distributed to those in need. It also prescribes a tamchui, a communal kitchen that provides food for the poor. 

But it doesn’t end there.

Our tradition also recognizes that something different happens when you invite a hungry person into your home. That it is spiritually elevating to break “bread” with someone who is not like you — who does not share your background, your skin color, your socioeconomic status. The holiday table can become an extraordinary equalizer in allowing us to realize our shared humanity. What makes us human is not what we have; it is what we have to give.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to invite one of my mother’s former students to spend Shabbat with my family and me. He is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lost nine family members in a horrendous slaughter. He and his brother, a former child soldier, and a young woman who also survived the conflict sat in my grandmother’s living room as we lit yahrzeit candles together and remembered all of the people we had lost. That night, we counted more dead among us than living. It was one of the most profound moments of human connection in my life. A Shabbat meal bound me to refugees as we ate, sang, shared and danced to real African drums.

What would it look like if more families modeled this kind of exchange the way my mother did for me? What is the point of digging into our formative pain as a people if it does not awaken us to the pain of others? It’s not enough just to tell the story.

Our communal destiny is to write a new one.

Chag sameach.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Al Pacino reopens debate over pro-Nazi celebs


The decision by actor Al Pacino to withdraw from a Danish play because its author supported the Nazis during World War II has reopened a long-simmering debate over cultural contributions by individuals whose racial or political views are anathema.

Pacino, the Academy Award winning star of such films as The Godfather and Scent of a Woman, pulled out of the Copenhagen production of a play adapted from novel “Hunger,” after learning that its author, the late Knut Hamsun, backed the Nazis.

Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, welcomed the Nazi occupation of Norway, met with both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and in 1943 sent his Nobel Prize to Goebbels as a gift. After the war, Hamsun was arrested for treason but escaped trial only because he was found to suffer from “weakened mental capacities.” He was, however, found guilty, and fined, for having joined the Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, which was led by the infamous Vidkun Quisling. 

Knut Hamsun. Photo from Wikipedia.

Hamsun was not the first cultural icon with a Nazi past to later receive accolades from his colleagues.

Recall, for example, that at the 2004 Oscar Awards ceremony, Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was included in a tribute to recently-deceased movie industry figures. Riefenstahl was personally chosen by Hitler to direct films glorifying the Nazi regime, such as the infamous Triumph of the Will (1935). She even used Gypsy prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp as extras in one of her movies. Although Riefenstahl later claimed she had not been pro-Nazi, the fact is that when Hitler conquered Paris in 1940, she sent him an effusive telegram: “Your deeds exceed the power of human imagination. They are without equal in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?”

The poet Ezra Pound was in 1999 nominated by some of America's most famous writers and poets to be added to the prestigious Poets Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, even though Pound was virulently antisemitic and made pro-Axis radio broadcasts from Fascist Italy during World War II. “I know the horrendous things that Pound did, and I also know that he was a great American poet,” the poet Donald Hall asserted, explaining the nomination.

Germany's most acclaimed novelist, Gunter Grass, admitted in 2006 that he had served in Hitler's Waffen-SS, the most notorious perpetrators of torture and mass murder. Yet some prominent writers stood by him. Novelist John Irving denounced what he called “the “predictably sanctimonious dismantling” of Grass’s reputation “from the cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” Irving assured Grass: “You remain a hero to me, both as a writer and a moral compass.”

Perhaps Al Pacino's principled stand will influence Norwegians to start facing up to Hamsun's past, something many of them have been reluctant to do. In 2009, the government of Norway commemorated Hamsun's 150th birthday with an entire year of public events, exhibits, commemorative coins, a new 27-volume collection of his writings and the opening of a $20-million, six-story Hamsun Center in his home town of Hamaroy, complete with a huge bronze statue of the honoree. Queen Sonja personally kicked off the festivities–evidently forgetting for the moment that the Royal Family was forced to flee Norway when the Nazis, whom Hamsun so admired, invaded and occupied their country.

Perhaps, too, Norwegians will finally honor their only other winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature–Sigrid Undset, who also happened to have been an activist for the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, fled to the United States in 1940 to escape the Nazis. She became a co-chair of  the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group), which sponsored rallies and newspaper ads urging the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Hamsun deserves Norway's scorn; Undset deserves Norway's official praise and recognition.

In the 1940s, Knut Hamsun sided with evil, while Sigrid Undset sided with good. In 2015, Al Pacino has taken a moral stand; when will the Norwegian authorities do likewise?

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.)

Jewish organizations host National Hunger Seder


Jewish organizations hosted a Seder for members of Congress to highlight the importance of fighting hunger in America.

The National Hunger Seder, which was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and MAZON, was held Thursday in Washington to push for protecting and reinforcing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The refunding of SNAP will be considered in the 2012 Farm Bill reauthorization by Congress.

Lawmakers that participated in the Seder included Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). U.S. Under Secretary of Agriculture Kevin Concannon was also in attendance.

In a press statement, the JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, said that “at a time of such startlingly high food insecurity, it is unconscionable to consider limiting access to a program like SNAP that not only keeps millions out of hunger and poverty, but does so with incredible efficiency and success.”

“Over the past four years, Hunger Seders have brought together not only Jews, but hunger advocates, faith and political leaders to build awareness and support for the tools available to end hunger in America,” Gutow stated.

MAZON’s president and CEO, Abby J. Leibman, stated that “while we know we cannot include 50 million Americans in our individual Seders, these words remind us that, as a society, we are responsible for them—a powerful and timely message as Congress considers the Farm Bill and the fate of our nutrition safety net.”

Hungry 24/7


Are you hungry?

Chances are you’re only a short reach away from your next meal or snack. If you’re reading this on Yom Kippur, your wait is probably longer. But either way, when you say you’re hungry, you probably know where your next meal will come from.

On Yom Kippur, we fast to focus our minds. We give up food for 25 hours as a mitzvah, but it is also our choice.

That’s not the situation for more than 50 million Americans — right now, one in six Americans is living with food insecurity — which means they either are constantly at risk of being without their next meal or living with disrupted food patterns. This shocking number comes from a study just released by Feeding America, a food-relief organization. These people do not choose to be hungry.

And here are some even more stark statistics:

• 17 million of America’s children live with food insecurity.

• Only 10 percent of the 50 million are homeless.

• About 36 percent of food-insecure families include one working adult.

This problem is rampant in a country that prides itself on being one of the most affluent in the world.

Just over a week ago, an episode of the TV sitcom “Modern Family” showed Cameron and Mitchell indulging in extreme dieting. Deprived, they become depraved; crazy — really crazy. Champagne problems, really, because of course eventually they go off their diet. (Never mind how.) But the picture is real: Imagine having to live without nourishment.

A letter to the editor in last Saturday’s New York Times responded to a columnist who suggested that the $5 per person per day provided by the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) is not ideal, “but enough to survive.”

The letter writer, a food-pantry director in Harlem, noted: “To survive on food stamps — let alone prepare nourishing meals — is nearly impossible.” In her pantry, people who receive SNAP benefits cook their beans from scratch yet still can’t get through the month without help. This is just as true in Los Angeles, as Julie Gruenbaum Fax reported in a story about SOVA in these pages last week.

I was thinking about all this as I approached my Yom Kippur fast, so I called my friend Abby Leibman, who in March became president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the L.A.-based national nonprofit that works to prevent and alleviate hunger among all peoples. Leibman is a longtime social justice activist in the Jewish community, the one-time founding director of the Women’s Law Center and always an advocate for those who are most vulnerable. Leibman’s charge with MAZON is to increase its visibility, as well as its impact, she said. Founded in 1985, MAZON currently grants a total of about $3 million annually to 300 organizations nationally and worldwide, including food banks, food pantries, kosher programs and home-delivered programs for the food insecure. It also promotes advocacy and education related to hunger issues. Leibman said she hopes to double MAZON’s annual budget of about $5 million “so we can re-grant more money, and also do things on a systemic basis.”

The latest news about hunger in America is not news to people in her work, she said. But her own fresh eye has helped her take a sharper look at the terminology. For example, people often talk about food pantries like SOVA as part of the “emergency food system,” but it’s hardly just for emergencies anymore. For too many people, food pantries have become “the safety net that allows them to survive,” Leibman said. Since the downturn that began in 2008, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of people classified as poor, even as some in Congress are attacking the necessity of the government’s SNAP program. That SNAP needs to continue seems obvious. But, still, that’s not enough.

Many of us have picked up a bag to fill with food to bring to the synagogue sometime during this season, to contribute supplies for the local pantry. And if you’ve filled that bag already, more than likely you did so with food that travels easily and won’t spoil. Pasta, rice, cereal, canned goods. All this is sustenance, but not all that it takes to survive.

MAZON — which Charity Navigator has just raised to four stars, its highest rating for philanthropies — has just begun a promising new initiative to explore ways to distribute more fresh foods. Created in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, the program is called “Healthy Options/Healthy Meals” and is initially funding 12 food banks around the nation, helping them explore ways to make healthy and nutritious food more available to populations with specific needs, such as the elderly.

Leibman said she also wants to create an innovation fund at MAZON. After 25 years in the business, MAZON’s staff knows what works now, but they are looking for new ideas. For that, Leibman said, she needs to raise $1 million “to find and fund organizations doing something really unique. To give real seed money to get something off the ground.”

The challenge in pulling in new money like that is that, unlike some other kinds of charities, there’s nothing sexy about hunger, she said. But it’s not going away anytime soon. So it’s important to remember, “There are people who face life challenges that we can’t imagine and that we haven’t had to experience,” Leibman said. One in six Americans does.

And without knowing where that next meal is coming from, it’s hard to imagine how to move on. “I believe nobody can improve their life if they’re hungry,” Leibman said.

“It’s not brand new, but just think what it must be like to be living with it.”

As strike wears on, top doc says he’ll go hungry


The head of the Israel Medical Association went on a hunger strike to ramp up doctors’ demands for better wages.

Dr. Leonid Eidelman announced Monday that he would fast until the long-deadlocked negotiations between the medical association and the Treasury were resolved.

Now in its fifth month, the Israeli doctors’ strike has seen hospitals reduced to skeleton staff and lengthening patient waiting lists.

Israel’s state-funded health system guarantees universal care but has led many doctors, especially overworked residents, to complain of long hours, crowded facilities and low pay.

Last week the association rejected a Finance Ministry proposal to increase wages by up to 40 percent, saying the government also must address demands for more hospital staff.

Mazon doling out $3 million in grants to fight hunger


Mazon said it has awarded more than $3 million in grants for 2011 to agencies dedicated to fighting hunger.

The grant recipients announced Tuesday by the Jewish nonprofit organization included about two dozen organizations from around the world, including Israel, South Africa, Ethiopia and Haiti, and several hundred from more than 40 states in America.

“Our grants help agencies rise to the challenge of feeding their hungry neighbors, and expanding access to government safety-net programs that shield families from some of the worst effects of the recession,” Mazon grants director Mia Hubbard said in a news release.

Religious and secular organizations, including Christian and Jewish charities, received grants.

The latest awards bring the total amount that Mazon has doled out in grants to more than $53 million, the release said.

End, don’t extend, the scandal of hunger of America


Before we tell the Passover story, before the Four Questions and all the rest of the elaborate rituals that mark the Passover celebration in Jewish homes across the globe, we raise a piece of matzah, the unleavened bread that is meant to remind us of the haste with which we fled Egypt some 3,500 years ago, and we say (or chant): “Let all who are hungry enter and eat.”

When those words were first spoken, odds are that the speaker actually knew the names of the hungry; they were his neighbors down on their luck. Now we speak the very same words, but few of us know the name of even one person who experiences real hunger—or as the experts call it these days, “food insecurity.”

Yet scarcely a day goes by when we do not read of the growing number of hungry Americans. People who never imagined that they would have to rely on soup kitchens and food pantries now stand in line and await their turn, joining millions of others long since intimately familiar with hunger. The numbers are daunting.

Hunger in America is not a consequence of drought, natural disaster or a lack of food. There is more than enough food in this country for everyone to “enter and eat.” That’s why, when we think of hunger here at home, we do not think of it as a tragedy; we think of it as a scandal.

That scandal is now on the verge of fearsome growth. Congress will soon begin debate on a new budget for 2012. The opening proposal would restrict access to critical feeding programs through job testing and block granting, shrinking our social safety net at a time of almost historically low job availability. The fate of programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children)—federal assistance programs that help low income families afford groceries—suddenly is uncertain. This is simply unacceptable.

It is a coincidence that this year, Passover falls as the 2012 budget battle begins. But it is not a coincidence at all that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has coordinated more than 40 Hunger Seders in 23 states across the country—including, on April 14, a National Hunger Seder on Capitol Hill for members of Congress, members of the Obama administration, and leaders from the faith and anti-hunger communities.

These events are designed to raise awareness of the scandal of hunger and of the vital programs that preserve both health and dignity. We are proud to co-chair the JCPA’s Hunger Seder mobilization.

We do not know the names of each person suffering from the oppression of hunger, but we are conscience-bound to keep open our doors and ensure that they know they are welcome at America’s table. They have not caused the deficit crisis; neither should it be resolved by asking them to endure the anxiety and pain of hunger in order to repair it. Our chosen task is to end the scandal, not to ignore it, let alone to extend it.

(Leonard Fein and Jackie Levine are the honorary co-chairs of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ 2011 Hunger Seders mobilization.)

Federation to Reorganize Focus on Hunger Program


Just nine months ago, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched Fed Up With Hunger, a $375,000 campaign to rally Jews around combating hunger and, in the process, attract more Jews to Federation.

While Federation says it will continue dedicating resources and partnering with other organizations to fight hunger in Los Angeles, Fed Up With Hunger will no longer be central to Federation’s marketing campaign.

“I think it was not the best decision to position us as being in the hunger business. We’re in the community business, and part of community is hunger,” said Jay Sanderson, president of Federation, which funds hundreds of programs in Los Angeles and around the world. “Our marketing needs to reflect what we do, not direct what we do.”

The Fed Up With Hunger campaign, which was crafted by Federation leaders and Jewish marketing consultant Gary Wexler, used edgy graphics, funky events and a hip online presence, attracting a fair amount of attention and new participants.

“I believed that Federation could rebuild itself around an issue that would shake people and would inspire and involve them, and that then it could bring all the other issues forth,” said Wexler, founder of Passion Marketing, who completed his contract with Federation soon after the launch. “They needed a big, powerful issue in order to really engage the masses, who they hadn’t been engaging.”

Around 18,000 of Los Angeles’ estimated 200,000 Jewish households contribute to Federation. Wexler said younger people rallied around Fed Up With Hunger, and Federation staff and lay leaders were inspired to think in new ways.

Removing the marketing element “has really taken the air out of it,” Wexler said. “I believe in the future they will see that this could have had real potential for them.”

Sanderson said he believes the hunger campaign was too narrow, taking the focus off the comprehensive array of causes Federation supports.

Sanderson has broadened the marketing approach under the banner “Only Federation Has the Strength of Community.”

The new campaign uses real people to tell the story of how Federation brings community together to make a difference in people’s lives. A 52-page brochure and five-minute video rely on a conventional organizational look, not the urban vibe of the hunger campaign.

Sanderson said “Only Federation” will serve as a bridge until he unveils Federation’s centennial celebration, activities and marketing as 2011, the Federation’s 100th anniversary year, approaches. Sanderson promises a big bang, including a 1,000-person mission to Israel and a campaign, already launched, to raise $100 million.

Though Federation is abandoning the marketing end of Fed Up With Hunger, it is not getting out of the hunger business.

“We have for a long time been committed to addressing the hunger issue through our funding and through Jewish Family Service’s SOVA and other food programs that JFS has run. I think the expanded focus we brought to it under Fed Up With Hunger is a good thing, and that will continue as we build broader coalitions,” said Andrew Cushnir, who was vice president in the area of
serving the vulnerable when Fed Up With Hunger was launched. Cushnir was recently promoted to chief programming officer.

As one component of the campaign, Cushnir said, city, county and school district officials are all preparing reports to respond to Federation’s Blueprint to End Hunger. Hundreds of people have attended a hunger summit, a seder and an interfaith banquet, and volunteers, working through many synagogues and organizations, have collected, packed and delivered more than a ton of food.

Federation and Netiyah, a food justice organization, have collaborated on many projects and are now finalists to receive a Jewish Community Foundation Cutting Edge Grant to hire staff
specifically dedicated to the hunger initiative.

On June 13, Federation is sponsoring Community Challenge, a day of volunteerism focused around hunger. Some 300 volunteers are expected at about 20 sites, where they will package foods, collect leftovers at farmers markets and cook meals for the needy.

Click the link to sign up for the

Dig, plant, grow, give — sharing the bounty of food


If there’s one thing Gabe Goldman wishes more Angelenos would do next spring, it’s get their hands dirty.

The American Jewish University (AJU) professor and director of experiential education is signing up students, synagogues and anyone else with a piece of land and a green thumb to plant small, personal gardens next March and donate their produce to local food pantries. The project, Helping Hands Gardens, aims to stock the shelves of overburdened Los Angeles pantries with organic fare as need across the region soars.

“I found out from food agencies that the number of people coming through their doors in the last six months has been overwhelming because of the economic downturn,” Goldman said.

Goldman brought his sophomore service-learning students to SOVA Food Pantry in 2007 to get a feel for what the agency, an arm of Jewish Family Service, does. They found that the pantry’s clients weren’t just unemployed adults anymore — they were often the children of families who can no longer make ends meet.

SOVA’s troubles sprang to mind as Goldman worked in the organic garden at AJU’s Brandeis-Bardin campus in Simi Valley last summer. After a bumper crop of tomatoes, he realized he and his students could help fill a need in the community. “I thought, boy, this would be a good time to take a portion of our food and start donating it,” he recalled.

In fact, he began to envision dozens of volunteer gardeners across Los Angeles doing the same. A small, 10-by-12-foot organic garden might only produce 20 pounds of food in a season, but a network of bite-sized food-growing operations could collectively help alleviate the strain on local food banks.

“One-hundred of these small gardens could produce more than a ton of food,” Goldman said. “These gardens are small, they don’t cost a lot, and they’re easy to take care of. Anyone with a backyard can do it.”

The project is a boon to SOVA Executive Director Joan Mithers, who has seen the number of monthly visits to the agency’s three pantries climb steadily since the economy began to sour last summer. In 2002, SOVA provided food to 2,500 clients per month. That number had risen to 5,000 by 2007. A record 6,200 L.A. residents lined up at SOVA locations this September. The agency has struggled to accommodate a 40 percent spike in client visits over the past year alone, between requests for food and financial service referrals, Mithers said.

“We have no indicator that it’s going to get better soon,” she said, noting that the pantry’s donations of surplus food from the USDA have been dwindling in recent years (the agency also receives food from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the Westside Food Bank and community food drives). “The common belief is that it will get worse before it gets better. With so many people, it would be great to have more food coming in.”

Goldman’s crop this summer at the AJU garden was a start. He and his students set aside a 50-by-50-foot portion of the one- acre plot for the Helping Hands Gardens project and ended up donating 200 pounds of food to pantries around Los Angeles, including SOVA and Simi Valley’s Care & Share food bank. The organic offerings featured zucchini and butternut squash, sweet corn, roma and beefeater tomatoes, onions and carrots.

Mithers said the project would improve not just the quantity, but also the quality of food at SOVA’s pantries.

“This is healthy food,” she said. “When people have limited income, they tend to have to buy the kinds of things that fill them up quickly and inexpensively, and those aren’t always the healthiest products. We want to provide our clients with healthy food, and you don’t get much healthier than fresh, organic produce.”

Studies have shown that the act of gardening also carries health benefits — and a sense of pride — for the gardeners themselves, according to Goldman.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” he said. “The people who are least able to afford organic food will have it provided for them. The students at our institution won’t just be learning about social problems; they’re taking an active role in the planning process — getting their hands dirty in the fields — and that changes them. Then the people in these agencies and schools who have these gardens get this tremendous sense of pride because they put a seed in the ground and helped it grow.”

Educators at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles have already seen this phenomenon in the two years since they planted a community garden at their religious school. Students there are no strangers to tikkun olam (healing the world) — they currently grow flowers to bring to patients at local hospitals alongside Passover herbs and Israeli plants.

“There is a glow in their eyes when they show me the dirt under their fingernails,” said Avram Mandell, education director at Leo Baeck. “There’s something about nurturing something from start to finish that you can’t teach out of a book.”

Next spring, the school will dedicate a portion of its garden to Helping Hands. Children in grades K-6 will care for the vegetables, harvest them, and donate them to help feed the hungry.

“We want students to connect to their community through the earth,” Mandell said. “This is an amazing opportunity to teach them about contributing to society.”

That’s how Rabbi Dara Frimmer feels about her young congregants at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. The synagogue, whose unique Green Team encourages recycling and energy conservation, got on board with the Helping Hands project as a way to educate their 400 preschool students about sustainability.

“We want to teach our kids where food comes from,” Frimmer said. “We want them not only to have the pretty green plants in their courtyard, but also to teach them about having something they can use and work with and donate.”

Because of space restrictions on synagogue grounds, members will install several large planters around the property — namely in the playground area and in the preschool courtyard — so kids will interact with the gardens each day.

Until planting season begins in March, Goldman is reaching out to churches, synagogues, Hillels, senior centers and other potential participants to join the effort. Helping Hands Gardens will train AJU students to work with each facility as they set up their garden, which volunteer hosts will tend themselves. Goldman wants to see the project grow to a size where they can donate to food pantries throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“Every community in the country could have Helping Hands Gardens,” he said. “I am a firm believer that any social problem we create, we can solve. We have a lot of people and a lot of kids who need help now, through no fault of their own. We’re here and we can help them, so we should.”

Holiday Heartburn


I had this crazy dream the other night where all across my neighborhood, in all the Jewish homes and on all the dining tables, the only thing being served to celebrate the High Holy Days was brown rice and seaweed.

I’m not sure where this Spartan nightmare came from, but if I had to guess, it would be that I’ve been talking too much lately with a couple of religious Jewish women who want to start a mini-revolution on how Jews eat.

These culinary rebels believe that it’s difficult to connect with God and the spiritual demands of the Holy Days while we’re injecting 3,000 calories of eggplant salad, hummus, brisket, potatoes, sweet and sour chicken, honey cake and cookies — and then desperately reaching for the Zantac.

In other words, they believe that kosher and holy eating should reflect not just what we eat, but how — and how much — we eat.

This is a painful time for me to consider such notions, with my blessed mother cooking enough food for a Third World country as we prepare for the annual rite of nonstop holiday meals for 20 people. It’s fair to assume that my mother, and probably most of the mothers of her generation, wouldn’t know what to make of a movement that called for light eating and portion control.

It’s not just the old generation. Food, particularly large quantities of delicious food, is a traditional and accepted way of honoring guests and holidays. In my hometown of Montreal, you know how much someone is honoring you by the variety of protein they serve you. If they serve you, for example, brisket, chicken, meatballs and lamb, they probably want you to hire their daughter for a summer internship. If you only get chicken, you probably owe them money.

Here in Pico-Robertson, most of us have, I’m not kidding you, about 125 Thanksgiving-level meals a year. Do the math: Just the two Shabbat meals a week account for 104, and when you throw in all the annual holiday meals — which include, by the way, not one or two but eight elaborate meals for a holiday like Sukkot (four meals in the first two days and four more in the last two days) — well, that’s a lot of Zantac.

This injection of many millions of guest-honoring calories is one reason why people walk very slowly around here during the holidays.

But one observant Jew who never walks slowly is the trim and perky Deborah Rude (pronounced Ruday), one of the culinary rebels of the neighborhood. Rude, a mother of two, bills herself not as a dietician, but as a “livitician” (“Don’t diet, live it!” said the slogan on her business card).

I checked out her office the other day, and, as I pondered the display of flax seed oils, pumpkin seeds and other organic goodies, I couldn’t resist asking her if she remembered a specific moment when she snapped — when she knew that her future would be devoid of starch and protein overload.

It turns out that moment was six years ago, at a Shabbat lunch she was invited to in the Hancock Park area. As she recalls it now, all the food platters on the table had a variation of one color: brown. The overcooked potatoes, the kugel, the cholent, the chicken, even the green beans, she said, were “brownish.”

She promised herself that day that in the future, all her Shabbat meals would have lots of color, freshness and variety — and, most of all, be served in small portions. In fact, when she hosts her Shabbat guests today, she actually serves the portions herself and never leaves any tempting platters on the table.

“The less we eat,” she said, “the more energy we’ll devote to singing and speaking words of Torah.”

That noble sentiment is shared by another health rebel of our neighborhood: Susan Fink, a mother of four and a member of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

Fink is hip to the dangers of caloric overload under the cover of religious celebration, but her big thing is the spiritual and physical value of exercise. She’s a personal trainer whose goal is “to promote a healthy lifestyle for mind, body and spirit.”

Many of her clients, she said, are fellow observant Jews who see exercise as a way to enable their continued indulgence of those neverending festive meals.

Fink tries to set them straight — “two bites of kreplach can be the equivalent of 30 minutes on the treadmill,” she warns them — but it’s not easy.

“We the Jews are very attached to our food,” she said, in a sharp burst of understatement.

It is this deep attachment to food that my friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller reflected on when I asked him for his thoughts on the subject.

First, he quoted a rabbinic scholar and ethicist of the 19th century who connected the Hebrew root for eating with the Hebrew root for destruction, suggesting a dark side of culinary indulgence.

Then he got more spiritual.

“Not eating is not suffering,” he said, “it’s elevating ourselves to a state of transcendence. The fast, on Yom Kippur, reminds us how little material we really need; that we can do with less meat, with less bread, with less of everything. It makes us soar away from our animal side toward our holy and spiritual side.”

Of course, this is the same guy who once served me about five courses when he had me over for dinner, and who made a special announcement at a recent Hillel retreat that “all of you must try these amazing desserts!”

I guess you can call it the disconnect between our intellectual instinct and our primitive urges; between knowing the value of moderation and succumbing to that extra helping of noodle kugel; between understanding the benefits of high-fiber nutrition and surrendering to our grandmothers’ mouthwatering tradition.

If Judaism is about negotiating the tension between opposite impulses, this is surely a very Jewish subject.

Have an easy fast.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Food prices squeeze Israel’s needy


TEL AVIV (JTA) – It’s mid-afternoon and Michael Dahan is buying food for his first meal of the day. With rising food prices compounding his already dire economic situation, it has become his habit to skip meals, he admits.

“What can I do?” the unemployed 49-year-old says with a shrug, holding the small carton of milk he has just bought at a grocery store in the rundown Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. “I hardly have anything to get by on once I’ve paid rent and utilities.”

A block away, on a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts and plastic bags, Maria Arnov, 28, an immigrant from Latvia and mother of two, says food prices have changed the way she shops. Arnov goes to the store less often and cuts corners wherever she can, like buying cheaper frozen meat and not buying the type of rice her family favors because its price has doubled in the past three months.

Israel, like many parts of the world, has seen food staples such as meat, rice and vegetables rise significantly. Its poor, already struggling to make ends meet, have been hardest hit—along with the nonprofit groups that serve them.

Although it is rare for Israelis to go hungry, food insecurity is a growing problem in their nation as traditional social safety nets fall short and nearly a quarter of Israeli families find themselves subsisting on less nutritious diets than before.

Many of the nonprofit groups that deliver food to the needy say they have been reeling from the one-two punch of rising prices and a sinking dollar.

In Israel, groups that rely in large part on funds raised in the United States have been forced by the dollar’s plunge to cut back on services, sometimes reducing the number of families they serve by as much as 40 percent.

In Beersheva, the social assistance group Beit Moriah has had to reduce the number of food packages it delivers to families every month to 200, down from 500 last year.

At From the Heart, an organization in Rishon LeZion that runs a food distribution project called Lev Chesed, volunteers are overwhelmed by requests they cannot meet.

“We have several hundred people on our waiting lists, but it’s not financially possible to help them,” said Ronen Ziv, the director of the group, which provides food packages to 700 families per week. “We have no government assistance.”

With budgets becoming leaner, government officials for the first time are pushing to develop a policy to combat food insecurity. The first-ever interministerial report on the subject was completed recently, and legislation is pending in the Knesset for a new council on food security to be created to develop coordinated policies to tackle the problem.

The ministerial report, which is pending Cabinet approval, recommends increasing annual state funding for nutrition and food insecurity to $10 million to $15 million from the current $1 million.

“There needs to be an appropriate range of government responses, from funding food assistance programs, to reducing state Value Added Tax on staple foods, to ensuring that having basic foods is seen as a right for all Israelis,” said Batya Kallus, the director of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.

The forum, which conducts research, engineered the establishment of Leket, Israel’s first national food bank.

Established last year, Leket is based on the model of U.S. community food banks. It attempts to coordinate and streamline the efforts of many nonprofit food agencies. In the past decade the number of such groups has grown to about 400, which collectively distribute some 20,000 tons of food per year.

“What we have been seeing in purchasing food to be donated is that people are paying a huge range of prices, from rock bottom to retail,” Kallus said. “We have tried to make sense of that by creating a central purchasing division where organizations can come to Leket and we offer them a wide basket of foods they can purchase that we offer at the lowest possible prices.”

In a 2003 study on food insecurity in Israel commissioned by Leket from the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, researchers found that some 22 percent of Israelis are unable to provide for their basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.

A father of eight in Jerusalem whose family has slipped into poverty after emigrating from the United States many years ago says he lives with food insecurity every day.

“When there is food we are happy, when there isn’t we are not,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “It’s not a matter of decision-making. When there’s just no money, there is no food.”

He says there are days when the family goes without food.

Ido Nachum, a spokesman for Israel’s welfare ministry, says he hopes the interministerial report’s recommendations will be adopted, including increased state investment and oversight of nonprofits, the establishment of the national council on food insecurity, expanding a hot lunch program for schoolchildren and ensuring government subsidies for those who cannot afford to feed their families adequately.

Far from the corridors of national decision-making, Dahan, the unemployed man in south Tel Aviv, shuffles away with his small bag of provisions, hoping for better days.

Food Stamp diet underscores need to aid the poor


I’ll be the first to admit that cooking isn’t my strong suit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal — as long as I’m not the person preparing it.

In fact, it’s come to be somewhat of a joke among my family and friends: If you’re hosting a holiday or other food-focused gathering and are looking for contributions, you can call Eric, and he’ll connect you to a deli, supermarket or restaurant conveniently located in your neighborhood.

And so it was with some trepidation that I signed up this summer for the Food Stamp Diet Challenge, a weeklong experiment in limiting my food budget to the amount provided by the federal food stamp allotment. With $21 per week, buying lunches and dinners out was clearly not going to work. I would have to conquer my low cooking self-esteem and make a trip to the grocery store.

What I found there will be little surprise to anyone. Eating on $3 per day — and doing it nutritiously in a way that would leave a person feeling satiated — was not just going to be a challenge. It was a near impossibility.

Most of my career has been spent in the halls of higher learning, and I decided to approach the project like any academic, relying on sound research before drawing my conclusions. I started with produce and quickly realized how foolish a choice that had been.

At $1.89 each, avocados were not only out of my budget, but they were more than 50 percent of what I was allowed to spend in an entire day. Red bell peppers, a particular favorite of mine, weighed in at $5.99 per pound, fine if that was all I wanted to eat for 48 hours. I thought it might be a good time to head to another section of the store.

Protein seemed like an important thing to have. I am careful about the meats I consume, high cholesterol being one of my more unfortunate genetic legacies. White meat chicken is about the only thing I’ll allow myself — but at $6.49 per pound for boneless, skinless breasts, the thigh fillets for almost half as much looked awfully tempting.

So, what could I buy? Beans. A lot of canned beans: garbanzos for 79 cents, black beans for 89 cents. And boxes of macaroni and cheese, though even there I was in for a bit of sticker shock. Kraft, a cornerstone of my childhood, went as high as 33 cents per ounce. Instead, I opted for the no-name box at the more sensible four cents per ounce.

The Food Stamp Diet Challenge impacted more than just my bottom line. It was physically debilitating and emotionally exhausting. I was lethargic and found that I lacked my usual enthusiasm for getting through the day. I had difficulty reading, writing, communicating — doing anything other than anticipating (and, in some ways, dreading) my next meal.

Every year at the High Holy Days, I try to find words that connect each of us to our liturgy and tradition, words that educate us about the ways we are commanded by our texts and our faith to lead a prophetic call for change. This year, on the heels of my Food Stamp Diet Challenge experience, I have no words. Because, for the first time, I realize in an immediate and personal way that words alone will not provide sustenance or bring justice to millions of families whose only crime is getting stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Words without action are just words — lovely but as empty as the stomachs of 35 million Americans facing hunger.

These Holy Days are a time for reflection. But for reflection to mean something, it must be followed by change. This year, there is something we can all do to make an immediate difference: Ask our senators and House members to support full extension of the nutrition title in the Farm Bill now before Congress.

It is the Farm Bill that authorizes food stamps and other key federal nutrition programs, without which millions of hungry families would simply not be able to get by. A diverse group of California politicians has already taken the challenge.

We have reached the threshold of another new year. Let us pledge, you and I, to cross it together, committed to a future in which food stamps, the majority of which go to feed children, require neither a diet nor a challenge. Hungry people deserve better. We all do.

G’mar hatima tova.

H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D. is president of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and is chair of the National Anti-Hunger Organizations.

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home


 

When the doorbell rings at the Cohens’ Pico-Robertson home — or more accurately when the door edges open, since it’s almost never locked — the littlest of Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen’s six kids grab their shoes. If it’s someone dropping off donated food or clothing, they start shlepping things in while the older ones begin sorting and organizing. If it’s someone coming to collect those items, the kids take them through the living room and yard to help them pack up the day’s offerings — unserved food salvaged from caterers; groceries donated by local markets; or furniture, clothing, toys and electronics that the area’s wealthy families don’t want, and that one of the 52 families that depend on the Cohens sorely needs.

The Cohens’ cramped three-bedroom home is the headquarters, warehouse and distribution center for Global Kindness/L.A. Chesed, the network the Cohens founded less than three years ago.

With caring brown eyes peeking out of her broad face, Yaelle, in her late 30s, is a pint-sized Moroccan tornado in bright yellow-and-orange sneakers. In a perpetually hoarse voice, she answers about 35 phone calls a day from donors and people desperate for help.

The Cohens understand desperation. Eight years ago, Nouriel’s beauty supply business went under, and the family had to give up their Beverly Hills home. He hasn’t had steady employment since then and has had to rely on his parents and family to get by.

“But now when you look ahead, you can see that was all for the purpose of good, because we had to really feel what was going on in people’s hearts and minds when they are really down,” says Nouriel, whose distinguished gray beard and smiling blue eyes do little to attest to his Persian ancestry.

The Cohens raise money to help families with rent, bills, day-school tuition or transportation. They help with bar mitzvahs, and have sent families housekeepers and gardeners to restore dignity to rundown homes.

Late every Friday afternoon the family gets a load of challah the kosher bakeries didn’t sell, and the kids, ages 1 through 12, wheel strollers and carts through the neighborhood doling out the loaves.

They host huge Shabbos lunches and singles events and help a handful of families in Canada, New York and Israel.

Often, they become de facto social workers, referring families to resources for abuse, addiction or mental health issues.

The Cohen operation shuts down from 5-8:30 p.m., so the family can have dinner, do homework and get through bedtime. But other than that, they’re on.

And on Chanukah, the Cohens sent their clients’ wish lists to Chabad of Malibu, where families purchased and wrapped the gifts. Those packages were set up in a dream-like display on the ornate furniture left over from wealthier times in the Cohen’s living room/dining room.

Recently, Nouriel started a new business and it seems to be taking off. While he looks forward to giving his family more comfortable quarters, he thanks God for the new sensitivity they have.

“We see what people throw away — thousands and thousands of dollars worth of beautiful clothing,” Nouriel says. “Why would someone throw it away? Because it means nothing. Money comes and goes. The main thing is what you are doing in this life.”

For more information call (310) 286-0800.

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen and family

MORE MENSCHES

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Community Briefs


Wolpe Out of the Running for JTS Head

Rabbi David Wolpe has removed himself from consideration for the job of leading the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Westwood, had been widely considered a front-runner for chancellor at JTS, the central institution in Conservative Judaism.

But last week, Wolpe told Sinai’s board of directors that he would remain with the temple, effectively shortening the rumored short list of JTS finalists.

Although there have been no “official” interviews of candidates for chancellor, Wolpe’s speech last month at the seminary and meetings with officials there had insiders and media reports speculating that he had to viewed among the front-runners.

Rabbi Ismar Shorsh, the chancellor for 20 years, will retire in June. A search committee is quietly and secretly feeling out potential replacements. The JTS chancellor is generally regarded as the leader of the Conservative movement and the next one must confront the challenge of dwindling membership and divisive issues, such as the movement’s policy on not ordaining openly gay or lesbian rabbis.

Wolpe, 47, told The Journal that he made his announcement because he didn’t want to create unease among his congregants.

“This is our centennial year and we have tremendous plans for the future to see through what we’ve started together,” Wolpe said.

Wolpe has been leader of the synagogue for the last eight and a half years. With another one and a half years on his contract, he has already begun negotiating his next term.

“To be the chancellor of the seminary is a tremendous opportunity, but it’s not the right opportunity for me and my family at this time of my life,” he said. As for the next chancellor of JTS, Wolpe said, “I hope they will find someone who represents the movement as well as the institutions.” —Amy Klein, Religion Editor

L.A. Airlifts Food, Clothes to Israel

Israelis in need of clothing will receive a major shipment of donated Los Angeles clothes this month, while hungry Israelis will get aid from a new local charity intent on providing kosher Shabbat meals.

This fall’s “Israeli airlift” campaign for donations of clothing will see 25,000 pounds of apparel and blankets shipped to Israel for Gaza settlers displaced by the August withdrawal.

On Dec. 2, two El Al cargo planes arrived in Israel with 5,000 pounds of winter items.

“Anything warm we sent right away,” said Jewish community activist Daryl Temkin.

On Dec. 6 in Los Angeles, 28 students from Shalhevet High School prepared the remaining 20,000 pounds of donated items for packaging and transport by ship from the Port of Los Angeles to Israel’s Ashdod Harbor. Temkin said the air cargo cost $8,500, while the shipping fees were another $3,500, all paid for through donations generated from Temkin’s September e-mail plea for clothes.

Separately, Israeli-American businessman Dan Manheim last month created the Israel Kosher Relief Fund and a local Adopt a Family in Israel campaign.

“The whole idea is that they will have one warm Shabbat dinner four times a month,” said Manheim. “For $49 a month, you can adopt a family in Israel. Our promise is that the entire $49 will go to the family.”

The charity was launched with a Nov. 17 kickoff event at Westwood’s Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, where Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch threw his support behind the effort.

Since this new fund began, Manheim has secured enough credit card-based donations to help 100 families with kosher dinners, part of his goal of helping 3,000 poor families through 2006.

“We leave [Israeli families] a bag on Thursday evening; we don’t knock on the door, we don’t embarrass them and they prepare for the Shabbat dinner,” said Manheim, who grew up on a kibbutz where food never was an issue. He added that Shabbat dinners always were times when “the family is together whether we’re religious or not.”

Most Adopt-A-Family donations come from local business executives, because the fund does not have a formal synagogue partner yet. Support also has come in from Israeli ice cream mogul and philanthropist Ra’aya Strauss, Manheim said.

The food and winter clothing needs of Israel’s poor have been caused not just by increased military spending, but also longtime Israeli infrastructure problems.

To see Israel’s hunger needs up close, the West Los Angeles-based Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON sent an Oct. 31-Nov. 6 mission of five MAZON board members and Eric Bost, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services to Israel. Leading the mission was MAZON Executive Director H. Eric Schockman, who was surprised to see that Israel’s agri-business kibbutzim do not recycle unsold food.

“The Israelis don’t recycle their surplus commodities that they grow on the kibbutzes, they grind it up,” Schockman told The Jewish Journal. “They do produce surplus commodities that could feed a lot of people.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Yom Kippur in Chad: Fasting a Way of Life


I am sitting in Adam’s living room — a carpet on a dirt patio. On one side is a small tent for his five children, as well as two nephews and a niece who have been orphaned. On the other side is a small tent for Adam, his wife and all they could carry out of Darfur.

Around us, the Kounoungo refugee camp is filled with a shattering sound — silence. It is the sound of despair. It is the sound of genocide coming closer and the world turning away.

This year, I observed Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, in a Sudanese refugee camp in Chad. It is the day when Jews throughout the world abstain from food and drink to assess their lives and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings. In this tragic moment, I could think of nowhere more fitting to keep the Yom Kippur fast than among people who have fasted for days on end — only not as a ritual but as an agonizing condition of life.

Adam is the only refugee I met who spoke English. He belongs to the Fur tribe and provides me with his analysis of the Sudanese genocide. He speaks calmly and rationally. He tells of how his village was set on fire by the Janjaweed and of other villages that met the same fate.

In his view, the problem is quite simple: The fundamentalist Arab Muslim government in Khartoum intends to eviscerate the African Muslim and tribal people. Listening to him, I think of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and other atrocities of the 20th century, where the conflict also boiled down to the ambition of one ethnic group to eradicate another.

Adam appreciates the noble humanitarian effort in the refugee camps but wonders why the international community is not doing more to stop this unfolding catastrophe.

I was in Kounoungo because of Adam — a human being I did not know existed, suffering a fate to which I cannot be indifferent. His condition as a human being is real, not reality television.

The enormity of the suffering — between 50,000 and 100,000 killed, nearly a million left homeless, over 200,000 refugees in Chad, hundreds of thousand more remaining in Darfur — tends to make us more numb than horrified. I find it hard to comprehend the numbers, but I do relate to Adam.

His desperate situation reminds me of the human capacity for cruelty. But his gentle humanity reminds me that kindness and decency are also possible.

Confronted by the misery of Kounoungo, I worry that I do not feel the shame, the embarrassment and even the disgust that I should. Many of us rationalize our indifference and inaction with the false notion that we cannot possibly make a difference. Overwhelmed by the complexity of human affairs, we forget about the human beings involved.

Yet I cannot forget the faces of the people I saw. As haggard and desperate as they are, they are no different than we — just immeasurably less fortunate. To turn away from them is to forget that we are one of them, all of us descended from the very first Adam.

In the Book of Genesis, God searches for Adam in the garden of Eden, asking, “Where are you?” In the Jewish tradition, this has always been understood as a moral question: Where is your conscience? Why are you hiding? Where do you stand?

The question hasn’t changed. What will be our answer?

Rabbi Lee Bycel is a board member of MAZON: A Jewish response to hunger and traveled to Chad under the auspices of the International Medical Corps. For more information, visit mazon.org or imcworldwide.org.

It’s Time to Change


The oldest and most primitive human dates back about 7 million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa.

"That’s so depressing," I say to my husband, Larry. "I can’t believe that in 7 million years we haven’t evolved any further than this."

"This" being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.

"You’re looking at this all wrong," Larry assures me. "Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos."

And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.

After all, it’s not the birth of the prehominid that scientists have named "Toumai" that marks the beginning of our moral evolution, but rather the birth of Adam and Eve.

We Jews recognize this milestone as Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, which occurred 5765 years ago and which begins this year at sundown on Sept. 15.

Also known as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity — well, actually, it obligates us — to commit to improving ourselves and our world.

This concept of effecting personal and collective transformation is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Cahill points out in his book, "The Gifts of the Jews" (Anchor, 1999), we were the first ancient people to realize that we could actually make a difference. According to Cahill, ancient Jews recognized, "We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free."

Not free in the sense that my four sons envision — free from parental criticism, curfews and curbs on Internet use — but free in the sense of having the opportunity to partner with God to help eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, slavery and other ills.

But we haven’t always used this freedom wisely. Fewer than 2,000 years after Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden, mankind’s egregious misbehavior led God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. When we built and worshiped the golden calf while Moses was fetching the badly needed Ten Commandments, we came close to annihilation for a second time; only Moses’ intervention saved us. And there have been other close calls as well.

Yes, our moral progress is slow. We are stiff-necked. We whine and we moan. We look for the easy way out.

And yet, once a year at Rosh Hashanah, we must fearlessly and aggressively assess our mistakes, misdeeds and misbehavior. We must make apologies and amends both to other people and to God, and vow to make positive changes.

"I’m a teenager. You can’t make me change," Jeremy, my 15-year-old son, says, proving that stubbornness is not just an ancient characteristic.

"No, but you can make yourself change," I answer. And the consequences, I remind him, as the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer tells us, are nothing short of determining "who shall live and who shall die."

And so we strive to make "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," as the David Bowie song goes. Changes that are probing, painful and substantive. Changes that are powerful enough to avert a decree of death.

These changes come about in three ways:

First, through teshuvah. Often translated as "repentance," this Hebrew term actually means "returning," referring to a return to God. It involves the difficult work of introspection, apology and amends that begins in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah, one Midrash tells us, was so important that God created it before creating the world, knowing that our free will would invariably lead us astray, and understanding that we would need a way back.

Second, change can occur through tefilah, or prayer. But, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his book, "Tough Questions Jews Ask" (Jewish Lights, 2003): "Real prayer, prayer that works, doesn’t change the world; it changes us. We can’t ask God to change the world for us. We have to do that ourselves."

Third, we can change through tzedakah. Though commonly translated as "charity," the Hebrew root of tzedakah means "justice," which is yet another route toward meaningful change. As God commands in Deuteronomy 16:20, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Larry and I ask our sons what they will be doing in the coming year to help repair the world.

Zack, 20, will continue to write and edit for the Williams College newspaper, spending long hours every week helping to keep the students and staff informed and involved.

Gabe, 17, will be co-organizing a program for Milken Community High School juniors and seniors to live and work for two days at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Jeremy will do at least 120 hours of volunteer work at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, assisting in the emergency room and in pediatrics.

And Danny, 13, is kicking off his campaign for president of the United States, with the goal of helping to eliminate poverty.

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work, yet neither are we free to walk away from it.

Which is maybe what happened 7 million years ago.

This article reprinted courtesy of JTA.

Food Poverty Grows in Israel


When, not so long ago, the director of an Israeli nonprofit organization noticed that an employee would appear at work every Sunday morning so fatigued that he could barely function, he issued him a stern warning to "stop partying so hard on Saturday nights."

The gaunt-looking employee burst into tears, explaining that he had not eaten since Thursday afternoon, when he received his last hot meal of the week at work.

That sad tale is one of the stories that got Laurie Heller, the Israeli representative of the Baron De Hirsch Fund, to establish a new group to investigate and address the rising hunger and poverty in the Jewish State as the economy has fallen.

The Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel brings together a number of groups to help match philanthropists with soup kitchens and other organizations that feed those in need.

The sponsoring groups include federations and foundations investing money in Israeli nongovernment organizations; the Brookdale Institute, which is the research arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and Israeli government organizations. The forum is funded primarily by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the San Francisco Jewish Federation and the Rochlin Family Foundation.

The forum’s mission is to "make funding opportunities for many philanthropists to find their place in the range of solutions for food insecurity," said Heller, the group’s co-chair.

Using available research, the forum will determine "which problems are not being addressed by existing programs, where we need to put our emphasis collectively, where people can channel funding," she said.

To that end, the Brookdale Institute began a national survey in March to ascertain nutrition habits among Israelis. The study focused on three factors: food consumption in the general population — quantity, variety and types of food consumed; the nutritional components consumed, including both calories and various nutrients; and household difficulty in accessing adequate and appropriate food due to economic constraints.

The Brookdale survey interviewed Israelis age 22 and up in a national telephone survey of 1,490 households between March and May of this year.

The study examined the impact of hunger on focused groups of veteran Israeli families, immigrant families and Arab families, and within those groups, on children, the elderly, single-parent families and families with large numbers of children.

Although the results of the survey have not yet been released, some conclusions were leaked from the Ministry of Health and the report has been discussed around the country.

Consequently, the director of the Brookdale Institute, Jack Habib, issued a three-page summary of the findings.

"With the worsening of the economic crisis during the past two years," the summary states, "food poverty has again become an issue." Food poverty is defined as severe food shortages that lead to malnutrition, requiring emergency medical treatment.

"There is enough food, but 22 percent of the population doesn’t have enough money to purchase it on a regular basis," Heller said.

The Brookdale study found that while there are more than 125 organizations addressing the problem of food poverty through food distribution, such as canned food drives and recycling food, such as leftovers from restaurants, there is virtually no coordination or shared information between the organizations dealing with the problem.

Heller’s new organization seeks to coordinate the efforts of each organization and also sponsor new laws that will encourage organizations to help.

For example, the forum wants to introduce the equivalent of the United States’ Good Samaritan Law, which protects institutions from lawsuits in the event that people get sick from donated food.

Cheri Fox, who is co-chair of the forum, executive director of the Fox Family Foundation and co-chair of the Jewish Funders Network, emphasizes that she, Habib and Heller are not trying to provide an alternative to the government’s response to hunger, but working to enhance it.

"The study was done with a team of researchers from the Ministry of Health and in partnership with National Insurance and Social Welfare," Habib said. "We now have fairly intensive discussions with government ministries with the hope that they will move to develop more effective responses to the situation."

The effectiveness of these responses, said Heller and Fox, is an urgent matter.

"In school-age children," Heller explained, "malnutrition lowers IQ by 10 points."

"When malnourishment is found in the 0-5 age group," Fox added, it "can create severe, irreversible problems in physical and intellectual development."

As such, she notes, Israel is beginning to see "enormous gaps between rich and poor."

Whereas the gap used to be 10 points out of 100 on standardized tests, it is now 20 points.

"The impact of the economic crisis in this country is long-term," Heller argues. "We are losing another generation to poverty."

The Hunger Question


"We will never go hungry," Ahmad Zughayer boasted as a truck from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) unloaded sacks of flour, sugar, oil, rice and milk powder in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.

"We will never go hungry, but not for the reason you think," he added. "We simply stick together. Whenever anyone misses anything, someone will help out, be it family or neighbors."

As a U.S.-funded survey reports growing levels of malnutrition among the Palestinian population, Israelis and Palestinians, have differed over just how severe the socioeconomic crisis is in the Palestinian areas, and who bears the blame.

Palestinians say Israeli security closures are intended to strangle the Palestinian economy and impose collective punishment. Israel says many innocent Palestinians are paying the price for their compatriots’ belligerence and the Palestinian Authority’s ineptitude and corruption.

Before the intifada, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel and maintained a decent standard of living.

For 20 years, Iyyad Maher, 45, also from the Balata camp, worked as a truck driver distributing dairy products in Israel. Since the intifada began in September 2000, he has been sitting at home, unemployed.

According to the World Bank, 35 percent of the Palestinian labor force is unemployed, but the situation in the refugee camps is worse, with unemployment figures at 50 percent or higher.

The obvious result is that family income has fallen sharply, and there is less money to buy basic commodities. In the past month, Israel has imposed a curfew in the West Bank and a closure that prohibits movement between Palestinian cities and towns.

Israel says it would like to ease the predicament of the general Palestinian population, while trying to maintain its own security. When Israel does relax its closures, Palestinian groups often exploit the freedom to send terrorists to attack Israel.

Israel and the Palestinians held high-level talks last week to discuss security cooperation and ways to ease Palestinian hardships. So far, no dramatic improvement has been felt. Zughayer, however, sounded confident.

"Don’t worry about us," he said. "We can always settle for bread and olive oil."

His comments conflicted with a recent survey conducted by Care International, which was designed by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The preliminary results of the study, carried out among 1,000 Palestinian households, showed that 9.3 percent of Palestinian children up to 5 years of age suffer from acute malnutrition, meaning they weigh less than they should for their age or height. The study surveyed nutrition levels, availability of food and household consumption. The result was an accusing finger pointed at Israel, as the study’s authors sought to tie the rise in malnutrition to Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement and the dismal economic situation in Palestinian areas, rather than to Palestinian violence or Palestinian Authority mismanagement.

Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, Israel’s coordinator of government affairs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rejected the accusations. He admitted that the standard of living in the territories has dropped considerably, but denied categorically that the population was suffering from hunger.

The truth may be somewhere in the middle. There is no hunger because of a high level of mutual aid among the Palestinian population and the continued supply of food rations by UNRWA, and also because the Israeli army — despite closures and curfews — allows for the regular supply of food to the Palestinian territories.

On the main street of the Balata camp, in fact, fresh fruit and vegetables were piling up on the produce stands. Lumps of meat were hanging in the butcher shop, and the falafel stands were as busy as ever. To all appearances, the population here is not suffering from hunger.

Still, they could be suffering from malnutrition. With unemployment in the territories at an all-time high, few families can afford to buy a pound of grapes for 35 cents, not to mention meat and dairy products.

Indeed, the USAID study found that 36 percent of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not have enough money to consistently feed their families.

The figures put the Gaza Strip on par with the poverty-stricken African countries of Nigeria and Chad for acute malnutrition. But Gilad told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that the issue of hunger is partly a matter of definitions.

"Hunger is when there is a lack of basic commodities. Hunger is when people have swollen bellies and fall over dead," Gilad said. "There is no hunger now."

If foreign humanitarian aid to the Palestinians declines, the Israeli army is preparing for the contingency that it will have to establish a military government and resurrect the civil administration that governed Palestinians from the 1967 Six-Day War until the formation of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords, Gilad told the committee.

Jacob Adler, a medical adviser to the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, admitted that "there is a certain problem of availability of food," but argued that malnutrition already had increased in the mid-1990s under Palestinian Authority management.

Not all Palestinians blame only Israel for the crisis. A few weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Gaza demanding that the Palestinian Authority supply "bread and work."

Even inside the Balata camp, residents openly blame the Palestinian Authority.

"Don’t tell me that the Palestinian Authority has no money," said Maher, who used to earn more than $1,000 a month from his dairy delivery job in Israel. "I remember the days when the Israeli military governor came to his office with a beat-up Sussita [a type of Israeli car produced in the 1960s]. Our leaders all drive Mercedes."

Gilad, too, told the Knesset committee that the Palestinian Authority under President Yasser Arafat is "extremely corrupt," with its leadership "driving fancy cars, hiring maids from Sri Lanka and not bringing up its children to become suicide bombers."

"Sometimes," he added, "I think we care about the Palestinians more than Yasser Arafat and his gang."

Maher would not elaborate how, after two years unemployed, he still managed to make ends meet.

"I have burned out all our savings," he said. "Now I’m considering selling the refrigerator."

Poverty and Unemployment Plague Israel


The peace process isn’t the news in Israel anymore; it’s poverty, unemployment and hunger. The domestic agenda, the one that Prime Minister Ehud Barak focused his election campaign on, has jumped up and bitten him.

Recent polls show that Israelis, by a margin of over 2-1, think Barak is mishandling these all-important socioeconomic issues. He took a public relations beating on his recent visit to the U.S. As Israelis watched him on TV visiting Wall Street and attending festive dinners with multimillionaires, the faces they saw on their local news were of hungry, hopeless people.

“They ask me if I’m hungry. Am I hungry? Am I hungry? I’m hungry for bread!” an Israeli welfare mother screamed, in a scene repeated over and over on the TV news. The organization of municipal governments came out with a statistic that 135,000 Israelis were hungry or malnourished — a statistic that in the following days was shown to be grossly inflated. But with the condition of Israel’s have-nots undeniably getting worse, the impression of people going hungry stuck.

Unemployment has now reached 9.2 percent nationally — roughly double the American rate. In the dozens of backwater towns of the Negev Desert and Galilee, far from the industrialized center of the country, the jobless rate appears to be in the vicinity of 20 percent.

Approximately one out of every four Israeli children lives below the poverty line, and many, many more live just barely above it.

These are the issues Barak illustrated time and time again in his campaign — “the child who cries himself to sleep because his father can’t find a job,” and “the elderly, sick woman lying on a gurney in the corridor of the hospital because there is no bed for her.” A “change in the order of priorities” is what Barak promised — government intervention on behalf of the poor who, after three years of recession and Reaganite economics under the Netanyahu government, needed help in a big way, and fast.

But since Barak has taken over, he has changed his thinking on economic and social policy. He has become quite a Reaganite himself, leaving it to the business sector to bring economic growth that is supposed to trickle-down to the poor, and provide the government with increased tax revenues to improve infrastructure, education and other vital elements of the public sector.

Recently he has made a number of statements that betray an insensitivity to suffering — or at least an unfortunate ability to appear insensitive.

To the problem of hungry Israelis, he offered charity on the part of those with full stomachs as an answer. “The way is for people to open their refrigerators and find how to prevent others from being undernourished. I don’t know of a citizen in the country who would not take from his refrigerator or table a little food that is there, in order to transfer it to another family which is truly hungry.”

He told industrialists in New York that he wanted to cut taxes for Israelis, and promised that if they came to invest in Israel, his government would let them make their profits unmolested.

His proposed budget for 2000 includes a series of cuts to social welfare, and despite calls by cabinet ministers to spend more money to help the poor, Barak vowed that he would not increase the budget “by even a millimeter.”

Most tellingly, perhaps, Barak has said that when the current monetary czar, Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkel, steps down at the beginning of next year, he will be replaced by someone who will carry on Frenkel’s conservative, low-spending, low-inflation policies.

The prime minister is banking on the renewal of the peace process, along with a natural upturn in the business cycle, to fuel the economic growth that should shower blessings on all Israelis, rich, middling and poor.

Israel experienced tremendous economic growth in the first half of this decade, but the boom created jobs almost solely in the center of the country, and mainly in high-wage professions — not for the poor, and not for the people living in the Negev and Galilee, said Dr. Shlomo Swirski of Tel Aviv’s Adva Center, a social policy think tank.

“To break into the high-wage economy you need advanced education and access to the jobs, which few people living in the periphery of the country enjoy. The growth of the Rabin-Peres years didn’t help them. Business investment went to the center, not to the outlying areas,” said Swirsky, a leading expert on development towns.

In Ofakim, which has become a symbol of hopelessness in the Negev, Motti Zohar, director of the state Employment Service said, “We didn’t really feel that much difference between the boom [of 1990-1995] and the recession that’s been going on since. The growth period passed over us.”

Yet Barak pins his hopes on a return to good times. In the meantime, the poor and liberal middle-class who elected him is growing impatient. Wrote Gideon Samet, a columnist for the Ha’aretz daily: “The political story is first and foremost economic and social. What some of Barak’s disappointed supporters are saying is that if he does not stick to his promises to improve their lives, they too will withdraw their support from him.”

Answering the Call


Anne Roberts is passionate about the idea of tzedakah, a concept she has diligently instilled in her son Spencer Nieman.

A second-grader who is not quite 8 years old, Spencer has managed to save up $120 this year and will donate it in a small ceremony that has become an annual tradition on Super Sunday, the biggest single day of fund raising for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ United Jewish Fund each year.

Spencer is following the example set by his older brother, Mitchell, who died 3 1/2 years ago at age 6.

“Mitchell understood our job was to take care of people in need,” his mother said. “On Super Sunday, he would go on stage to share his gift. This is something that Spencer has continued to do year after year.”

As have many of the 5,000 volunteers who will spend this Sunday making phone calls, licking envelopes and doing person-to-person solicitations in an attempt to raise as much money as possible for the UJF.

Super Sunday, which will take place at four locations scattered across Los Angeles, reaches more than 50,000 people and raises about one-tenth of the annual total contributions to the UJF. Last year, $4.45 million was added to UJF coffers. This year’s goal is to increase that figure to $5 million.

Most of the funds go to benefit the Federation’s 17 beneficiary agencies, which combat hunger, disease, disabilities, family violence, alcohol and drug addiction in Los Angeles, as well as provide educational services, legal and psychological assistance, recreation programs and avenues to strengthen Jewish commitment. A third of the money is spent overseas to support Israel and Jews in 58 countries.

Part of the pitch that volunteers will make when they dial for dollars will be: About 10 percent of the 519,000 Jews in the Federation’s service area are living in poverty, according to the Federation’s recent demographic report, and many elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union are near starvation.

“The need is always urgent. There’s never enough money,” said David Aaronson, 1999 Super Sunday chair, who added that possibly as many as 200,000 Jews in the former Soviet Union are living in poverty.

“We often don’t have a clue how many ways we give to people through the United Jewish Fund,” said Roberts, who is chairing volunteer training this year. “What Super Sunday does is allow us, by making one gift, to help Jews in Los Angeles and also hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the world who would starve without our help.”

In honor of Roberts’ late son, Mitchell, a number of Westside religious schools have raised tzedakah money and will come to the Westside Super Sunday site to deliver the proceeds to the Mitchell Nieman Fund. The goal is to teach kids to incorporate tzedakah into their lives, Roberts said.

This year, the Orthodox presence on the phone banks may be larger than usual. Volunteers from Young Israel of Century City, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Sha’arei Tefila and Yavneh Hebrew Academy, among others, will make calls on Super Sunday.

“We’ve made a commitment for more participation of our synagogue in the Federation,” said Young Israel’s Gary Naren.

Orthodox involvement in Federation has often been limited in the past, since many members of the Orthodox community believe that the umbrella agency doesn’t pay enough attention to their needs, Naren conceded. But, in the long run, this may be self-defeating, he said.

“The only way the Federation is going to reach out for the involvement of the Orthodox community is to have more people involved in the Federation who are Orthodox.” — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer