It is not uncommon for synagogues to host food pantries and work to help the poor meet basic needs. But for a group of congregations along the Old York Road Corridor, providing services is no longer enough. Instead, they are examining the problem of hunger on a broader level and collectively advocating for political solutions at the federal, state and local level.
“We need to really come up with some real changes in the way that our country views poverty and hunger,” said Elissa Waldstein, a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, who is active in a group formed by six synagogues and the Kehillah of Old York Road working on hunger advocacy. “That is sort of the message that I want to get out.”
On Jan. 19, the day before Martin Luther King Day, the kehillah is cosponsoring a program on hunger advocacy at Gratz College along with four local synagogues and several local and national Jewish organizations. Among the local groups are the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the Jewish Relief Agency.
The 12 p.m. program will feature a screening of A Place at the Table, a documentary that explores food insecurity in America. According to various sources, some 50 million Americans live with food insecurity. Julie Zaebst, of the Coalition Against Hunger, Philadelphia, will also speak about concrete steps people can take to alleviate hunger.
The film screening comes as Congress is set to once again begin debate on the stalled farm bill and the prospect of cutting the food stamp program — known by the acronym SNAP — by as much as $40 billion. Organizers hope the program will inspire a number of people to contact their local House member and implore them to vote against making the cuts.
The social action committees of most of the synagogues along the corridor have been working together since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina spurred the congregations to pool their resources toward relief efforts, according to Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
Since then, the coalition has worked together sporadically on initiatives like organizing a communal job fair during the height of the recession. But it is has been in the last year or so, said Merow, that the group has joined forces with Mazon, a national Jewish organization devoted to combating hunger, and focused on this one issue in a sustained way.
Since then, a Mazon staff member has led a number of training sessions, focusing on how to lobby state and national lawmakers. In addition to SNAP cuts, members of the coalition have lobbied against proposed cuts to the State Food Purchase Program, which supplies food pantries with resources.
Abby Liebman, president and CEO of Mazon — which is based in Los Angeles — said that relying on a network of congregations to develop relationships with members of Congress is a way to effect change on a national level. “This is not rocket science, it is democracy 101,” said Liebman.
She said events like the one on Sunday serve as “a vehicle for the coalition to expand its base and ground it in a fuller understanding of what it means to struggle with food insecurity in the United States.”