When it comes to helping needy senior citizens, a national Jewish anti-hunger organization wants to help local synagogues think beyond canned-food drives and meals on wheels.
For the second year in a row, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has given a $10,000 grant to the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
This year, the CRC and MAZON will help local synagogues advocate for legislation and public policies affecting “very specific local issues” surrounding food insecurity among seniors, said Samuel Chu, MAZON’s national synagogue organizer.
“People don’t always think of synagogues as being a critical policy player,” Chu said, but “they have been able to come up with legislation, and that is what we really need, because most of the needs of hunger will be filled by large government safety net programs, not by donations.”
Chu spoke with NJ Jewish News after meeting with CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick and Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold on Dec. 17 at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
“This is a new thing for MAZON, so what you are seeing is something fairly new in New Jersey,” he said.
Declining to identify specific congregations while the effort is in its earliest phase, Roth Gorelick said MAZON and the CRC are aiming to mobilize synagogue leaders to “work on the policy level, at the local and state level, in addition to helping support food pantries and canned-food drives.”
Founded to encourage Jewish families to donate a percentage of their spending on weddings and b’nei mitzva parties to anti-hunger efforts, MAZON has in recent years expanded its nonpartisan advocacy efforts at the local and state level.
Chu, a Presbyterian minister originally from Hong Kong, began organizing synagogues in Minnesota on MAZON’s behalf two years ago, after serving as head of a statewide LGBT activist group, the California Faith for Equality Action Fund.
MAZON has also led anti-hunger advocacy projects in California, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
“New Jersey has struggled with its policy in terms of how it impacted the poor and seniors in the last five years,” Chu said. “If there is a very organized sophisticated group on the ground, regardless of what administration or what partisanship there is, we can make progress and move the statewide agenda forward.”
Last year the CRC launched the Food Stamp Challenge, urging 18 state legislators and 30 Jewish community leaders to live for one week on the average food stamp benefit of $29.40.
“There is a real interest by the CRC here on the hunger issue, and we want to invest in this CRC so it can expand its capacity,” Chu said.
In Minnesota, he said, synagogues advocated on behalf of 62,000 low-income schoolchildren who couldn’t afford a mandatory school lunch copayment. “The synagogues decided the Jewish response to hunger is not donating canned food,” said Chu. “So they went out and wrote the legislation, had it passed in the legislature and got the governor to sign it,” leading to $8 million in appropriations.
Sebold, who is also a member of the federation’s board, told NJJN she will steer Chu to Essex County officials who can assist in the campaign.
“Pat told us how to understand the county welfare agencies so we can discover if we can…make access to benefits easier for seniors on a county level,” Chu said. “She was very…supportive of what we will be pushing for in the county.”
Roth Gorelick said the CRC is engaged in a study to total the number of needy people in the Greater MetroWest area.
“We already do kosher meals-on-wheels and supplemental nutrition for seniors at the JCCs in West Orange and Scotch Plains,” she said. “We also get dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for emergency food and housing, and many synagogues either have soup kitchens or are involved in interfaith food pantries.”
However, “as a faith-based group, we cannot replace government support to help the hungry,” said Roth Gorelick. “We want to see systemic change to help those in need.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, the CRC will go to the Community FoodBank of NJ in Hillside for a Challah Bake and sandwich-making day. Last year, a similar event drew 370 volunteers.