Passover must inspire us to address the plague of hunger
This year has been a storm of enormous and unanticipated challenges, devastating loss and limited resources with which to respond.
More than half a million people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 in the past year, and millions more have suffered with illness, job loss and isolation from family and friends. In that sea of pain and need, many people found themselves turning to food pantries for the first time.
The pandemic has changed everyone’s perspective, and as we prepare for another Passover where many of us will again gather for Seder over Zoom, I find myself reflecting in new ways on the story of Passover, and what it teaches about the work of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the organization of which I am president and CEO.
10 years ago this month, I started in my role. From my first day on the job, I prioritized listening to those who are left behind when we set sweeping federal policies that disregard their daily realities. I have made it a priority to elevate the unique needs and challenges of those who do not match our assumptions about who faces hunger — including military families, single mothers, Native Americans, veterans, LGBTQ seniors and Americans in Puerto Rico.
The Haggadah recounts a remarkable act of civil disobedience: how the brave midwives, Shifra and Puah, saved Hebrew children by refusing to carry out Pharaoh’s genocidal edict. To defy the status quo required unprecedented courage and a commitment to others that far outweighed the grave risk they took. I feel a special kinship with Shifra and Puah’s choices to act in pursuit of justice. Their examples of courage in the Passover story are a model of leadership that informs and supports my work. Standing up to injustice — whether intentional or a product of oversight — is not merely important; it is essential.
The courage of Shifra and Puah echoes through the generations and reminds us that, as people of faith and as advocates, we must intervene to help those who are most vulnerable, even if it means putting ourselves at risk.
What does that intervention mean? For MAZON, it has meant pressing for lasting systemic change, because charity alone cannot end hunger in America. It means refusing to turn away from the difficult truth that the pandemic revealed and continues to exacerbate: that hunger in America is perpetuated by generations-long racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities.
America’s hunger crisis predates the pandemic, and we know that millions of people will continue to struggle after our leaders have declared the immediate health and economic emergencies over. While it is encouraging that the new administration has centered policies to address hunger as a part of its COVID relief packages, we must keep pushing for long-term change.
The wise leaders who founded MAZON — Leibel Fein (z”l), Theodore Mann (z”l) and Irv Cramer — knew that the Jewish mandate to work for justice, tzedek, is the root of tzedakah. But even as justice is the root of charity, we cannot achieve justice through charity alone. The Jewish values embodied by tikkun olam are not simply calls to act charitably; they are mandates to work for justice. There is no justice when millions of people face hunger in a land of plenty.
Our Jewish values and tradition, along with the lessons we have learned from acts of courage, show us what we must do. We must continue to fight the stigma that discourages people from getting the help they need from critical programs like SNAP. We must demand that our leaders in government and the media do not demonize the poor or create responses based on who is the “deserving poor.” Together, we can emphasize how public assistance programs offer compassionate, effective support without judgment and provide pathways to opportunity and success, reflecting the best of who we are as a nation.
Each year, MAZON suggests a “Fifth Question” to bring a new reflection about hunger to Seder tables across the country. This year, we are asking: “How will we retell the story of the past year — all it has wrought and all we have learned?”
Will we tell stories of justice, courage, hope and change?
When we seek solutions that are informed by the voices of those who have been overlooked, my experience has taught me that we can bring our country closer to one in which no one has to experience hunger, and that together we can change how things are, to how they should be.
Abby J. Leibman is President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.