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 raise awareness of proper childhood nutrition and build support for the reauthorization of congressional legislation providing billions of dollars for federal nutrition programs.
The seder “perfectly reflects the message of Passover,” said JCPA executive director Rabbi Steve Gutow, noting that the Haggada 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,” said Mazon project coordinator Rosalie Licht. “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 27-page Haggada (www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/Hagaddah) that includes the traditional seder blessings along with English readings that reflect the nutrition theme.
For instance, along with the blessing for the karpas, or green vegetable, the Haggada 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 passage about the four sons is about the “four faces of childhood hunger” and includes how needy youngsters may benefit from federal nutrition assistance programs.
In addition to a March 18 seder on Capitol Hill, in which members of Congress participated, JCPA says at least 40 seders are planned in more than 30 communities across the United States — taking place anywhere from weeks before the holiday to the week after.
For instance, in Tucson, Ariz., members of the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition — who attended the DC seder — will hold a seder in their hometown to talk about their experience. Jewish communities in Connecticut are joining together at the state capitol for a seder that will include elected officials, clergy, and hunger advocates. And in Philadelphia, the Moishe House — which plans social events for young Jewish adults — is sponsoring a nutrition seder.
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. The special Haggada includes information on the legislation and 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, 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, “long-term sustainability” on the issues of poverty and hunger is being built.
Gutow said the planned seders demonstrate that fighting hunger and poverty 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.