The Passover story is about the Jewish people gaining their freedom from slavery in Egypt. This year, two Jewish groups are connecting the holiday to a campaign to free American children from the bondage of hunger.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger are helping communities around the country hold a “Child Nutrition Seder” to both raise awareness of the issue of proper childhood nutrition and build support for the reauthorization of congressional legislation providing billions of dollars for federal nutrition programs.
“It perfectly reflects the message of Passover,” said JCPA executive director Rabbi Steve Gutow of the child nutrition seder, noting that the Haggadah begins with the words “Let any who are hungry come in and eat.”
“It’s a powerful idea to enhance the Passover experience” and “amplify the message of the story,” added Rosalie Licht, project coordinator for Mazon. “We were slaves and now we are free – what are we doing with that freedom?”
It is the second year the groups have encouraged communities to organize such events, and the two groups have put together a special 27-page Haggadah for the service which includes the traditional blessings from a Passover seder along with English readings that reflect the child nutrition theme of the service.
For instance, along with the blessing for karpas, or the green vegetable, the Haggadah notes that low-income families often eschew buying fresh fruits and vegetables in favor of less expensive packaged foods. The Four Questions have been converted into four queries about hunger in America, while the four sons are the “four faces of childhood hunger” and how they benefit from federal government nutrition assistance.
In addition to a March 18 seder on Capitol Hill which will include the participation of members of Congress, JCPA says at least 40 seders are planned in more than 30 communities across the United States — taking place anywhere from the weeks before the holiday to the week after, and in some communities being used as a theme for a second-night seder. The events are being organized primarily by local Jewish community relations councils but also by synagogues and other Jewish institutions, and the participation of children and those outside of the Jewish community is emphasized.
For instance, in Tucson, Ariz., members of the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition – who will attend the D.C. seder – will hold a seder in their hometown to talk about their experience. Multiple Jewish communities in Connecticut are joining together at the state Capitol for a seder including elected officials, clergy and hunger advocates, Jewish and Catholic schools are getting together with the Silicon Valley JCRC for a seder there and in Philadelphia, the Moishe House — which plans social events for young Jewish adults – is sponsoring a seder .
In addition to raising awareness of the issue, the seder is specifically designed to build support for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. The legislation funds all federal school meal and child nutrition programs, including the school breakfast and lunch programs and the WIC program – which provides food, education and access to health care to low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children under age five.
JCPA and Mazon are urging Congress to allocate at least $1 billion in additional funding for each of the next five years in addition to the $21.9 billion that went toward the federal programs in the last fiscal year. The legislation, they point out, is also a step on the way toward President Obama’s stated goal to end childhood hunger by 2015. The authorization was originally set to expire last fall, but received a short-term extension into 2010. Each special Haggadah includes information on the legislation, as well as a sample letter to send to members of Congress.
Gutow said that it is necessary to teach that while direct service to help the hungry – canned food drives, helping at soup kitchens – is important, learning and using advocacy skills that can help feed millions of Americans is essential.
And by making sure children are involved and learning that advocacy message, said Licht, a “long-term sustainability” on the issues of poverty and hunger is being built.
Gutow said the dozens of seders in the works demonstrate that fighting hunger and poverty message is a key priority of many in the Jewish community – and that these tough economic times make it even more resonant.
“The idea of children being hungry – the Jewish community doesn’t find it acceptable,” said Gutow. “Add to that so many people are out of work, concerned about hunger – it literally raises the level of interest.”
“I think it’s a good statement about American Judaism and where its values lie,” he said.
Eric Fingerhut is a free-lance journalist from Washington, D.C.