Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Food Justice

— by Hannah Lee

“The first incidence of food justice occurred in the Garden of Eden,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, “when Adam and Eve chose to defy divine prohibition and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This moral consciousness formed the basis of Jewish ethical system and it was a matter of food choice.”

Yanklowitz spoke on April 15 at a symposium titled “How Kosher is Kosher?,” as part of the “What Is Your Food Worth” series, hosted at Temple University and coordinated by its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.

Rav Shmuly, as he’s known, burst onto the Jewish communal arena five years ago, after the scandal of Postville, Iowa, where federal agents conducted the largest immigration raid in United States’ history at the Agri-Processors kosher slaughterhouse. The agents rounded up illegal migrant workers who had been abused, threatened, and paid below-minimum wages. At the time, Agri-Processors slaughtered 60 percent of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher chicken. Rabbinical students at the time, Shmuly and Ari Hart, had founded Uri L’Tzedek the year before, which then launched an international boycott, signed up 2,000 rabbis and community leaders, and demanded transparency in worker standards.

More after the jump.
Uri L’Tzedek’s major contribution to Jewish social justice has been Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal certifying fair and just labor condition. Relying solely on volunteers in order to assure compliance, 100 food establishments now display the certification, and thereby declare that they provide their workers with a minimum wage at least, overtime payment and time off. Rav Shmuly said that one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world is Shabbat, incorporating the concepts of worker justice and animal welfare (giving both human workers and animals a day of rest), but a gap remains.
 
While the British philosopher David Hume famously declared that we care more about the stubbing of our toe than someone dying around the world, Rabbi Shmuly claims that today we are more aware than ever of the suffering in the world and it is time to expand our understanding of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, to include social justice and animal welfare.

Kashrut, said Rabbi Shmuly, is a powerful vehicle for social change, because we control the kosher industry with our purchasing power. Unlike the Conservative Hechser Tzedek (renamed Magen Tzedek), Tav HaYosher does not work directly with the kosher supervising agencies, for several reasons: the mashgichim, kosher supervisors, might be biased, they are not trained to look for ethical practices, and they might not be sensitive to the issues.

However, Shmuly cites an incident involving Rav Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement of ethical conduct: when Rav Salanter was invited to inspect a matzah factory, he noticed that the female workers did not get a single break in the entire time of the inspection. He concluded that they were over-worked and he resolved to not sign the kosher certification. Tav HaYosher focuses on highlighting the employers who abide by ethical worker standards, bestowing its seal of approval without demanding payment from their establishments.

Creating a new social movement is an uphill struggle to convince people to think beyond their wallet and how much their food costs. Rav Shmuly spoke about Primo Levi, who wrote about the worst day of Auschwitz being after the Nazis had left and before the Allies rescuers arrived. There were no rules and no one knew what would happen. Then, the inmates found some potatoes and they shared with one another. In this way, they regained their humanity, by not simply following a foreign sense of order.

Rav Shmuly declares, “We can build a community that cares about the environment, the workers, and the animals.” His newer Shamayim V’Aretz Institute promotes animal welfare and Jewish veganism.

In 2008, The Jewish Week recognized Rav Shmuly as one of the 36 most influential Jewish leaders under the age of 36. In 2009, the United Jewish Communities named Rav Shmuly one of five “Jewish Community Heroes.” Having earned two master’s and a doctorate degree (in Moral Development and Epistemology from Columbia), Rav Shmuly is now Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel in Kansas and he is the author of the 2012 book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice.

Readers who wish to become Tav HaYosher compliance officers, contact Uri L’Tzedek.

2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge Continues

— by Benjamin Suarato

Rabbis and cantors in communities across the country representing all four major denominations are committing to living for one week on a food budget of $31.50, the average allotment for individuals on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly SNAP), as part of the 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, running from the lead-up to the High Holy Days starting September 7 and continuing through Thanksgiving. Participating clergy will take the challenge in order to educate congregations and communities about the realities of hunger and raise a loud collective Jewish voice about this crisis.

“Hunger and food insecurity touch every one of our communities, but it is rarely talked about and frequently misunderstood,” said Rabbi Leonard Gordon, co-chair of the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge representing the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and a member of the JCPA board. “The Food Stamp Challenge is a way for rabbis and cantors to make the invisible daily struggles of congregants and neighbors real while demonstrating the Jewish community’s deep commitment to help those in need. This includes education about the programs and assistance available.”

More after the jump.
“The involvement of rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism, in every region of the country is a testament to the centrality of ending hunger to the work we do as Jewish leaders and the unity of our community in elevating the conversation on poverty,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “This will be my third Food Stamp Challenge and each time, I am reawakened to the true struggle faced each day by those who depend on SNAP to put food on the table. It is a lesson that is now being brought to communities across the country through this committed involvement of religious leaders.”

SNAP participation has been functioning as intended, steadily increasing with the needs of those still struggling during the slow economic recovery, yet the program, one of the key instruments to addressing hunger in America, has been facing proposals of severe cuts to funding.

“On a budget of only $1.50 per meal, many SNAP recipients must settle for unsatisfying meals that lack the necessary nutrition and energy to meet the demands of work and family,” said Abby J. Leibman, President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “By trying to understand, even in a very small way, the challenge these families face, we will be better armed to protect SNAP from the threat of cuts.”

The 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge is being led by a unique partnership of organizations spanning the religious spectrum, including:

    the Jewish Council for Public Affairs,

  • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger,
  • the Rabbinical Assembly,
  • the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,
  • the Union for Reform Judaism,
  • the Central Conference of American Rabbis,
  • the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association,
  • Uri L’Tzedek,
  • American Conference of Cantors, and
  • the Cantors Assembly.  

Resources created for this mobilization, include sample sermons, advocacy opportunities, programming ideas, and other tools for engaging congregations and communities. The Food Stamp Challenge is open for others besides clergy who are interested in participating in this experience.  More information and registration can be found online.  

The Steering Committee that is providing leadership for the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge includes:

  • Chaired by Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, MA (representing the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Lenny is also on the JCPA Board of Directors)
  • Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Temple Beth El in East Windsor, NJ and Rabbi Ed Bernstein of Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach in Boynton Beach, FL  (both represent the Rabbinical Assembly)
  • Rabbi Harold Kravitz, Senior Rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN (representing the committee as Chair of the Board of Directors of MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger)
  • Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, MO; Rabbi Neil Borovitz of Congregation Avodat Shalom in River Edge, NJ; Rabbi Nancy Kasten, an active teacher and volunteer in the Dallas Jewish community, board member of Hebrew Union College; and Rabbi Judith Siegal of Tempe Judea in Coral Gables, FL (representing the Union for Reform Judaism/Central Conference of American Rabbis)
  • Rabbi Shawn Zevit, who worked for the Reconstructionist Movement for fourteen years and now serves as the visiting rabbi at T’Chiyah Reconstructionist Congregation in Detroit, MI (representing the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association)
  • Rabbi Ari Weiss, Executive Director of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek
  • Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, CA
  • Cantor Jack Chomsky of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio (representing the Cantors Assembly)
  • Cantor Shannon McGrady-Bane, co-chair of the ACC Social Action and Justice Committee (representing the American Conference of Cantors); and
  • Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs

For more information about the 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, please contact Robin Rosenbaum, JCPA Poverty Campaign Coordinator, at: [email protected] or (202) 212-6037.

Jewish clergy in all communities have been weighing in about how the goals of the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge have resonated with their varied experiences:

“I am taking the Food Stamp Challenge along with my family because it is important to not only talk about the fact that so many people in America are in need of food assistance, but also that we take action. When I take the Food Stamp Challenge I will have a better understanding as to what people who receive food stamps are feeling each and every day. By encouraging the members of my congregation to join me in this endeavor we will be making a statement that we must continue this important work of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and advocate on behalf of those who are in need. This is what Judaism asks of us and what we must do.”

— Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Temple Beth El in East Windsor, NJ

“With so much at stake in terms of how we are providing healthy, accessible and affordable sustenance in our country, inaction was not an option for me, challenged by my preparation for High Holy Days as visiting rabbi of Reconstructionist Congregation T’Chiyah in Detroit, to do more than only utter words and offer prayers for those in need. I have been spurred on by the wonderful response from friends, family, and clergy and members of faith communities everywhere. Let’s collect food for those in need this Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving and invite those who live with food insecurity to our sukkot, AND let’s work for systemic change for the millions who live on Food Stamps every day in our own communities, congregations and nation.”

— Rabbi Shawn Zevit who worked for the Reconstructionist Movement for fourteen years and now serves as the visiting rabbi at T’Chiyah Reconstructionist Congregation in Detroit, MI

“In my congregation, publicizing the Food Stamp Challenge has galvanized the community’s youth and social action leadership to make this a year to focus on hunger and food insecurity locally and in Israel.  Our students have adopted the slogan “Hunger is no Game” as the theme for the year (basing themselves on the recent movie, The Hunger Games”).  At a time when the social safety net is shredding and the alienation of rich and poor from their common humanity is increasing, taking the Food Stamp Challenge reminds us, in a small way, of our interconnectedness.”

— Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, MA (representing the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism,  Lenny is also on the JCPA Board of Directors)

“We move about our communities like ships on non-intersecting courses across a vast ocean, not realizing how many among us are really struggling to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis.  The maze of public assistance in food and other resources is unknown to many of us — but is becoming known to more and more of us, even as powerful forces in our society seek to decrease the resources available to the growing number in greater need.  

“I hope that our involvement with this project will enable people to see and feel more clearly — and to remove the stigma attached to those who receive help.  I have long suspected that there are more needy among us than we know — that people internalize the idea that if they are Jewish they can’t be needy, so if they are needy, they mustn’t be Jewish — or full members of our Jewish community.  A project like this may shed some light and some heat.”

— Cantor Jack Chomsky of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio

“Our society is short on empathy for those in need. The Food Stamp Challenge is a tool to channel us away from indifference towards empathy for the food insecure. I’m taking the Food Stamp Challenge as a personal reminder to avoid indifference and to work with others to fight food insecurity.”

— Rabbi Ed Bernstein of Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach in Boynton Beach, FL

“The 18th century Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said, ‘If you want to raise a person from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching a helping hand down to the person. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud and filth. Then take hold of the person with strong hands and pull the person and yourself out into the light.’

“As Jews we know that it is not enough to make sure that others have enough to eat. We need to challenge ourselves to experience what those in need actually experience- the anxiety, the pain, and even the humiliation- so that we always remain motivated to fight for economic justice for all. At this time, when more children in this nation are food insecure than ever before, I feel compelled to motivate myself to find solutions in every way I possibly can. The Food Stamp Challenge is one path I am taking to motivate and inspire me to do my part to bring more light and wholeness into this New Year.”

— Rabbi Nancy Kasten, an active teacher and volunteer in the Dallas Jewish community, board member of Hebrew Union College

JCPA, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, serves as the national coordinating and advisory body for the 14 national and 125 local agencies comprising the field of Jewish community relations.

Food Stamp Challenge: The Week The Rabbis Went Hungry


— by Eric Harris

This week Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and other members of the RAC staff, is taking the Food Stamp Challenge. Part of “Fighting Poverty with Faith’s” initiative to focus people of faith on issues of economic justice and the need to sustain vital social safety net programs, Food Stamp Challenge participants live for seven days on the standard weekly food stamp allotment of $31.50. Rabbi Saperstein will participate in the Challenge from October 27th through November 2nd, joining a half dozen prominent Jewish leaders and ten Members of Congress in this effort to call attention to anti-hunger programs and educate the faith community on the plight of hunger.

We are honored to be able to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, and experience even for a brief time the ongoing struggle of the millions of Americans nationwide who are confronting hunger on a daily basis. We have long advocated for anti-hunger programs, like SNAP and WIC that meet the needs of the 49 million food-insecure Americans but the Challenge places in stark relief how difficult it is to obtain enough food and nutritious food on a food stamp budget – and why we must do better as a nation.

Jewish tradition teaches that feeding the hungry is a vital responsibility. The Midrash says:

When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of God, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.’

Participating in the Food Stamp Challenge will not, by itself, end hunger in America; that will take a sustained commitment by our nation and its leaders. To that end, we are hopeful that our participation in the Food Stamp Challenge this week will inspire others to advocate for policies addressing families and individuals who confront hunger nationwide. During these difficult economic times, easing the burden on those who are most vulnerable must be our number one priority.

All members of our congregations are being called to register online, and join us in the Food Stamp Challenge and use it as an opportunity to educate your synagogue and community.

Other food stamp challenge participants are listed after the jump.

Who else is taking the challenge?

Ask your Member of Congress to take the challenge too.