The state’s Jewish federations and other Jewish organizations are spearheading an interfaith effort to cope with the rising problem of hunger in New Jersey.
In a Dec. 15 meeting in the State House Annex in Trenton, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant clergy and community leaders teamed up with several NJ legislators to urge more state and federal action, especially on behalf of the 20 percent of families with children who lack adequate income for food.
Although not represented at the meeting, a Hindu community organization is also supporting the effort.
The New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, a program of the Center for Food Action, is seeking state Senate passage of three separate bills that would expand and expedite applications for the Special Nutrition Assistance Program.
All three measures passed the State Assembly within hours after the meetings adjourned. No votes in the state Senate have been scheduled as yet.
The SNAP program, formerly known as Food Stamps, was cut drastically in the most recent Farm Bill to pass Congress last fall.
“We were very concerned when the Congress cut the budget making New Jersey one of the 15 hardest-hit states on hunger,” said Melanie Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “In the Jewish community itself, our kosher food pantries cannot service the increased needs of people. We felt we could not sit by; we are looking for a bipartisan solution, and we believe legislators on both sides of the aisle are committed to ending hunger.”
Last fall, the CRC joined in launching a bipartisan campaign to draw attention to the cuts in SNAP. Republican State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Dist. 20) and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Dist. 21) were among those who lived for a week on the $29.40 that SNAP recipients are allotted for food.
Among the Jewish organizations involved in the anti-hunger effort are the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations; the CRC; the Greater MetroWest federation’s affiliated family service agencies, JFS of Central NJ and JFS of MetroWest; and various family service organizations and community relations councils of other NJ federations.
“As we enjoy the holidays with our family and friends,” said Rabbi Mary Zamore of the Jewish Center of Northwest NJ in Washington Township, it is an obligation “to also look beyond our own homes to our neighbors who are really suffering.”
Referring to the lighting of the menora at Hanukka, Zamore said, “There is one candle, the shamash, which is the leader. It is used to light the others. So I hope every person in this room, especially the legislators, will be that shamash, that leader, and bring light where there is darkness and poverty and hunger in our state.”
“It is unacceptable to have one million people in New Jersey who are food insecure,” said Kenneth Rotter, the cochair of the CRC’s government affairs committee. “The majority of them are children and seniors.”
At the event in Trenton, one by one, religious leaders insisted that faith-based initiatives alone cannot meet the enormous needs of the hungry. They cited statistics that more than one million people in New Jersey suffer from food insecurity and hunger, and some 45 percent of them are children.
Responding to religious leaders, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) said, “We are in your corner. We are your champions. We need to help you bring our message to our fellow Democrats and Republicans. We all know that hunger is not a Democratic or a Republican issue.”
Among the other state legislators at the meeting were State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Dist. 15), and Assembly members Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Dist. 37), Mila Jasey (D-Dist. 27), John McKeon (D-Dist. 27), and Annette Quijano (D-Dist. 20).
There were no Republican lawmakers present.
“We invited Sen. Kean and Assemblywoman Munoz and several other Republicans to the meetings, but all of them said they had other committee meetings they had to attend,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
“We are going to have to drag them there,” Lesniak said of his GOP colleagues. “All the faiths — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim combined — can impress both Democrats and Republicans to understand that hunger strikes everybody whatever their faith is. We cannot fail on this.”
“It is clear that hunger affects everyone,” said Toporek. “It crosses ethnic lines and religious lines and affects all of our Jewish family service agencies. It plays on a nonpartisan basis.”
Other speakers included Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Center of Basking Ridge; Father Tim Graff, director of human concerns at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark; Archdeacon Peter Jackson of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark; the Rev. Sara Lilja, director of the Lutheran Office of Government Ministries; and the Rev. Guy Campbell, president of the General Baptist Convention of NJ.