As I flip through the pages of the Haggadah -- the traditional Passover Seder guide -- and reflect upon the miracles that enabled my ancestors to break free from slavery, I am often drawn to the line uttered in the beginning pages: "Let all who are hungry come and eat."
This is a potent message and an apt beginning for a holiday celebration where food plays such a central role, symbolizing both the bitterness of slavery and the exuberance of freedom.
The Passover Seder is the remembrance and celebration of the Israelite people's liberation from bondage and the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and his children. Every year, Jews sit with their family and friends to recall the story of moving from slavery to freedom.
In the Torah itself, even before the Israelites are freed, God commands Moses to tell this story to the Israelites' children and their children's children. It was clear from the onset that one of the intentions of the Book of Exodus was to be a yearly reminder of slavery, redemption, and freedom from the time of Moses to today.
In a scene repeated in Jewish households throughout the world, a Seder participant, traditionally a young child, asks four questions, each of which draws special attention to and helps all in attendance reflect on the special bond our people share with those once enslaved in Egypt.
Regardless of one's family traditions, it is the innocence of the child asking these questions that makes this moment a special part of the night's observance. To me, the child's role takes on a larger meaning. It is where the Seder's special reverence for food and the Jewish community's universal call for social justice come together. As Jews, we must speak on behalf of those children who do not know when their next meal will be.
So this year, as American Jews ate what for many was a plentiful meal, we listened to the traditional four questions and pondered a new one: why, in a country as wealthy and as bountiful as the United States, are there still children who are hungry?
I am not alone in my queries. Jews across America, in over 30 communities and over 20 states, both young and old, have led mock Seders to underscore this question, retooling the Seder and the Haggadah to highlight the prevalence of childhood hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. and to rally our civic and interfaith partners to increase their involvement in anti-hunger advocacy and activism.
We are specifically asking Congress to reauthorize and allocate at least $1 billion in funding for each of the next five years to the Child Nutrition Act, the legislation that funds all child nutrition and federal school meal programs, including the school breakfast and lunch programs; the summer feeding and after-school meal programs; and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. WIC provides food, education, and access to health care to low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children under age five.
Why this year? Because the key Child Nutrition Act that funds the federal government's child nutrition programs could expire. Because if we do not act, Congress' inaction could jeopardize access to quality meals for millions of children. Because if we do not act, those who depend on these programs will go hungry. Because if not us, then who?
I have been motivated by the response of Jewish communities all across the country and am confident that we will not let these critical programs expire. But this resolve does not lessen our fight. Rather, it emboldens us to mobilize further and strive to meet the Obama Administration's goal to end childhood hunger by 2015.
Although Passover recalls past suffering, at its core the holiday looks forward. Each year we envision the year ahead and the challenges that still lie before us. And we conclude our Seder with the hopeful proclamation, "Next year in Jerusalem."
I look forward to the day when we can proudly proclaim at our Seder table, "Next year there will be no child hunger." May that day be soon.