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09/24/2012 11:14 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Taking on the Food Stamp Challenge: Answering Isaiah's Call to Social Justice on Yom Kippur

The 18th century Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said: "If you want to raise a person from mud, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching a helping hand down to the person. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud. Then take hold of the person with strong hands and pull the person and yourself out into the light."

Yom Kippur is an opportune time in which to reflect on why we should be those people who jump into the mud to help those in need and how we can do it.

On Yom Kippur morning, our prophetic selection contains the stirring words of Isaiah. The prophet's message calls to us from the 6th century B.C.E. At precisely the mid-point of the day's fast, a worshiper in synagogue encounter the first seven verses of Isaiah 58 that question the worthiness of the fast:

1.Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram's horn! Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin.

2. To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways.

Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask Me for the right way- they are eager for the nearness of God:

3. "Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?" Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!

4. Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

5. Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable?

6. No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.

7. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.

It's not that fasting and ritual behavior are bad. Rather the prophet insists that our ritual behavior be aligned with our ethical actions. That is the core message of the biblical prophets. If the biblical prophets were in our midst today, what would they observe about our fast and about what is happening around us?

Where I live in Florida, there is a shocking state of affairs. According to statistics reported by Feeding America, some 3.1 million people in our state, or 17 percent of our population, are deemed "food insecure." That means lack of sufficient physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that fulfills the dietary needs and food preferences of that person or household for living an active and healthy life.

Nationally, nearly 49 million people in the U.S. are food insecure, about 1 in 6 Americans. Of those, 16 million children are food insecure, more than 1 in 5 children in our country.

Our country provides a vital safety net for the food insecure called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps). SNAP provides more than 46 million low-income participants, more than 2.6 million in Florida, with monthly benefits via a grocery debit card.

According to Rebecca Brislain, Executive Director, Florida Association of Food Banks, "Florida food banks have been distributing food at disaster levels over the last three years with increases of 80 percent in some areas of the state. The SNAP program has been instrumental in helping to keep our neighbors fed during this economic crisis."

Another leading anti-hunger advocate, Vicki Escarra, former head of Feeding America, says, "Food stamps and other anti-hunger programs give hope to struggling Americans and protect them from deeper crisis as they work to get back on their feet."

Over the last few months, I've served on a steering committee of Jewish Council of Public Affairs to organize a Food Stamp Challenge throughout the county's Jewish community to raise consciousness of food insecurity in our society. On a recent conference call of rabbis and cantors, Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of JCPA, read a letter he received from a rabbinic colleague who explained what food insecurity means to her. I was shocked when I heard it. The letter reads:

I won't be able to call in tomorrow, but I would like our colleagues to know that I am a rather unusual rabbi in this respect because I live with the food stamp "challenge" every week. I am soon going to be 70 years old and, as a retired rabbi in ill health, I live in a HUD -- subsidized apartment. I am not eligible for food stamps because my social security check is $100 per month above the limit, but this makes it even more difficult for me to provide for my needs. The cost of food without food stamps gives me even less to work with each month than those who receive them. It is difficult for people to understand that what is worse than receiving food stamps is not receiving them when one lives so close to the margin. I worked for congregations that didn't believe they needed to contribute to my retirement annuities. I was, after all, a woman with a working husband. My husband and I did our best to save for our retirement, but everything collapsed around us when I had to pay, out-of-pocket, so that he could have experimental heart surgery that his insurance would not cover. We paid out of the equity on our home, our insurance, our retirement funds and every penny we had. I was dunned by physicians' offices and hospitals until the bill was paid in full. He lived for thirteen years after his surgery but was never able to work full-time after that. I became ill at about the same time and was never able to recoup any of what I spent for his surgery. I went on disability when I was 53 years old, ten years after graduating from rabbinical school.

Rabbis should understand that we are not immune. Between the cruelty of the American health-care system, the fragility of our lives and the downturn in our economy, we are as vulnerable as anyone else around us.

Beyond the cold statistics, this story this story resonates with me. Food insecurity can happen to anybody, even rabbis. Unfortunately, this rabbinic colleague did not qualify for food stamps. Still, having to receive food stamps is no picnic, literally and figuratively. A typical recipient of SNAP assistance receives $31.50 per week for groceries, about $1.50 per meal. Many SNAP recipients do work, but their average earnings are $693 per month. Those meager paychecks disappear fast in covering rent, electricity, medicine, transportation and other basic needs.

An additional layer of challenge is that on a SNAP budget, wholesome, nutritious food is often too expensive. Abby Leibman, President and CEO of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, says, "On a budget of only $1.50 per meal, many SNAP recipients must settle for unsatisfying meals that lack the necessary nutrition and energy to meet the demands of work and family."

SNAP is funded by the Farm Bill passed by Congress every four to five years. It's up for renewal now. It passed the Senate over the summer and is now stalled in the House and won't be voted on until after the election. SNAP is being targeted for significant cuts that would reduce the government's ability to bring relief to millions of Americans suffering from hunger. Sadly, there is a deafening silence in our society when it comes to protecting programs that serve the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden. In this most sacred and solemn season of the Jewish calendar, we cannot and must not be silent.

This fall, JCPA is sponsoring a nation-wide effort to raise awareness of poverty and hunger in our country. This effort is called the Food Stamp Challenge. For a week in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, I will be joining hundreds of my Rabbinical and Cantorial colleagues as well as many lay people to live on a food stamp budget for one week. I want to see what it's like, taste what it's like, to feed me and my family for $31.50 a head, or $1.50 per person per meal, for an entire week.

Many of my colleagues just completed the Food Stamp Challenge in September. I will be taking it Sunday, Nov. 11 through Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. On Yom Kippur, we fast because the Torah commands Jews to do so, but we still have free choice whether to fulfill the commandment or not. Of course, I have the luxury of choosing to take the Food Stamp Challenge or not, but in taking the Food Stamp Challenge, I want to experience first-hand over a longer period what hunger is like for people who have no choice. Whether or not you personally plan to take the challenge yourself, you can visit my personal Food Stamp Challenge page. Proceeds raised there support the anti-hunger work of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs as well as the broad spectrum of religious denominations and their anti-hunger efforts in the U.S. and Israel.

Hopefully, these efforts in the Jewish community this fall can make a difference. As Mazon's Abby Leibman says, "By trying to understand, even in a very small way, the challenge these families face, we will be better armed to protect SNAP from the threat of cuts." The essence of the Food Stamp Challenge is to challenge ourselves to experience what those in need actually experience -- the anxiety, the pain and even the humiliation -- so that we always remain motivated to fight for economic justice for all. Our ancestors received this prophetic message, and it rings true today.

In the future when we read the words of Isaiah, "Is this the fast that I want?" let each of us know that we have done our part to make it possible that others can eat. We will then be worthy of the conclusion to Isaiah's powerful speech (58:8): "Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly. And your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall be your reward."

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