The New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations is spearheading a multi-faith drive to fight poverty and hunger.
Joining forces with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu clergy, the association launched a campaign on Nov. 30 to derail looming state and federal budget cuts to food programs.
Organizers said a main goal was to protect and strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Advocates are worried that Congress will cut the federal budget for “food stamps,” demand for which had doubled in New Jersey in the past four years.
The campaign will intensify interfaith lobbying efforts against budget cuts to food stamps and other programs that feed the needy.
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association, welcomed some 100 clergy and anti-poverty workers to the two-hour forum at the State House Annex in Trenton.
“Fighting poverty is an effort of the national Jewish community, so it is a natural for us,” Toporek told NJ Jewish News after the meeting. “We want people in our Jewish communities to be advocates, as they are for Israel, for some of the anti-poverty programs and the food and hunger programs. They are always in danger.”
Among the speakers was Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.
“The growing divide between the rich and the poor in America — those who have so much and those who go to bed hungry — is a moral crisis,” she said. “It is a moral failing of our society…. We share a responsibility to help the needy and help them rise above poverty.”
Following the meeting, Small urged for better implementation of school breakfast programs. The Washington-based Food Research and Action Center recently reported that despite federal funding already in place, New Jersey schools provide free breakfasts for only 37.6 percent of eligible low-income children.
“It’s time for the 99 percent to have their say,” said Small, invoking the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Melanie Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ, said the CRC is working to prevent further federal cuts to two local Jewish agencies. She fears grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided $15,000 apiece to JCC MetroWest and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest for food and shelter programs, might be trimmed in 2012.
The CRC is “working closely with a variety of interfaith groups through the State Association, our rabbis, and our own contacts with many organizations such as Goodwill, Catholic Charities, and United Way” to prevent such cuts, said Gorelick.
Other religious leaders said “amen” to such efforts.
“We cannot ignore the homeless, the sick, and, most of all, the children who go to bed each night hungry,” said Deacon Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference.
M. Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, said Muslims “have the same concept as tzedaka in Judaism. In Islam we are told to establish a just and fair society…. Everyone should have the opportunity to make a contribution to society and to raise their own family….
“What gets in the way of that is the unequal distribution of wealth and, more importantly, unequal access to means of production.”
Representing the Christie administration was Community Affairs commissioner Lori Grifa. The administration, she said, “is committed to caring for the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.”
She said the governor is trying to protect a $6.8 million food purchase program and another that will provide $1.3 million for the state’s food banks, working when possible to provide the needy with fresh foods.
A fiery Adele LaTourette, director of the NJ Anti-Hunger Coalition, was highly critical of government efforts.
“We are doing terribly in school breakfast programs,” she said, adding, “What is appalling to me, and I would love it if it was appalling to you, is that right now in Washington there are people actually discussing taking away some of these benefits.
“We should be beyond outraged.”