Jacob is being groomed for empathy. So said Rabbi David Ingber of Congregation Romemu in New York City during a Friday night D’var Torah last November. It was the week of Parsha Vayetzei, the Parsha in which Jacob, with only a rock as a pillow, dreams of angels ascending the ladder. So begins Jacob’s solo journey, one marked by a series of perfidies, betrayals, and disappointments. By the end of Genesis, having experienced both ends of these dynamics multiple times, he has sown the seeds of humility and compassion. Empathy for the patriarch Israel, is a painstaking development. Empathy was also the theme of that particular Shabbas, not only with the focus of the Rabbi’s D’var, but also with the community potluck dinner after evening services, acknowledging the participants of the SNAP Challenge.
SNAP, the acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known in this country as the Food Stamp Program, suffered in November a nearly five percent cut to entitlements for the millions of Americans who depend on the program for daily sustenance. In solidarity, and with the intent to raise public awareness of the issue, members of Romemu, a Jewish Renewal community on the upper west side of Manhattan, joined others across the country in a five day commitment to curtail their food expenditures to no more than $5.00 a day. The November potluck provided an opportunity for the community to listen to the trials and travails of the twenty to thirty congregants who participated in this endeavor.
Peanut butter sandwiches, bean casseroles, stews and soups frozen for a week’s worth of meals were common themes, as was a new appreciation for supermarket coupons found in junk mail and newspapers. Yet the stark common denominator of every person’s story was the challenge of time management. With no more than $5.00 per day to spend on food, one has to carefully plan where, when and how to buy and prepare food. Grabbing a bite on the run, even at a fast food establishment, is no longer a convenient default. An invitation to have coffee with a friend at Starbucks is suddenly an inconceivable luxury. Rabbi Ingber spoke of having taken on the challenge for three days, realizing on the third day that, after buying two large bottles of juice, he had exhausted the daily allotment.
In 2009, under the American Recovery and Resistance Act, SNAP benefits were increased by 13.6 percent in order to help families and individuals cope with the brunt of the recession. This past November, the federal government rescinded these cuts by almost 5%. An eligible individual will now receive $189.00 worth of food stamps rather than $200 per month; for a family of four, the drop will amount to a monthly $632 of supplementation from $668. These cuts translate into a budget of $5.00 to $6.00 a day for food expenditures per individual. Though word has it that the economy is in a state of recovery, for many U.S. citizens, these cuts translate into daily decisions that are difficult to apprehend without personal experience, such as choosing between taking transportation to work or having a midday meal, a new pair of shoes or dinner for one’s family the entire week.
Living in Manhattan, particularly in the milieu of the upper west side, it becomes easy enough to believe that food insecurity is the problem of other people. As it so happens, several of the SNAP challenge participants at Romemu that evening shared their personal experiences of needing to rely on food stamps themselves at one point or another in their lives, when they were between jobs, when they were furloughed, or when it was simply impossible to make ends meet. One young woman shared that she, like other Teach For America participants, are actually encouraged to apply for food stamps during their training. All who have lived the food stamp experience for any reason, for real, know that the hardships extend beyond financial and time constraints. Many spoke of having felt self conscious at the grocery store swiping their electronic food stamp card at the checkout line. Others relayed feelings of embarrassment having to decline lunch invitations from friends or colleagues.
Congregation Romemu’s efforts to bring attention to the hunger crisis do not end with the SNAP Challenge. Myriad strategies are being explored, particularly in the spirit of preparing for the Shmitta or sabbatical year in 5766, traditionally a period of agricultural hiatus when indentured servants are freed, and when those in need are invited to take felled, remaining crops from the fields. Romemu’s Social Action Committee has partnered with a neighboring Muslim community to serve meals at a local food pantry, and the community has scheduled various films and discussions targeting the issue of food insecurity in the U.S. Several congregants have also become involved with the West Side Coalition Against Hunger. This spring, an informal delegation from Romemu will attend the Just Food Conference in New York City.
Just as Jacob cultivates empathy, having born the deceit and injustices perpetrated against him throughout the years, so do we in the urban Jewish community recognize that hunger and injustice are not the problems of the other, but rather a reality to which we are all potentially vulnerable, a reality we all must address.