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Jewish Journal

Federation Campaign Seeks to Feed L.A. County’s Hungry

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 16, 2009 | 2:49 am

Volunteers bag groceries at a SOVA food pantry. The Jewish Family Service program served 7,000 clients in January — up from fewer than 5,000 a year before. <br />
<small>Photo by Dan Kacvinski</small>

Volunteers bag groceries at a SOVA food pantry. The Jewish Family Service program served 7,000 clients in January — up from fewer than 5,000 a year before.
Photo by Dan Kacvinski

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has never organized a campaign quite like this. Size, scale, vision, ambition — it’s all uncharted territory, and not just for Los Angeles’ umbrella organization for local Jewish social service agencies, but for federations like it across the country.

Hunger is a perennial issue in Los Angeles. Exact numbers of those who go hungry on a daily basis are unknown, but the California Food Policy Advocates report that more than 1 million Angelenos live in food-insecure households, meaning that putting food on the table is a constant worry.

The Federation wants to put an end to that. Not just to stamp out hunger for poor Jews, but for every person in Los Angeles County who struggles to provide food for themselves and their family.

Specifics are still being worked out, but a soft launch for The Federation’s hunger campaign began this month with a new slogan — “Give Life Meaning” — carried on a new Web site and red-and-yellow posters and banners hung from synagogues and at shopping centers that promote “The Movement to Repair the World,” “A Bad Economy Demands a Good Community” and “GiveLifeMeaning.org.”

“Our goal, our dream, is to be able as a Jewish community to work here in Los Angeles County to make sure that no Jew or anyone else goes hungry,” said Gary Wexler, a marketing consultant hired by The Federation to spearhead this campaign. “It’s time that the community looks at a big goal and looks at the impossible. Are we going to be able to accomplish all that? I don’t know. But it’s time we look at the big dream and stop being so practical about everything.”

Wexler said the hunger campaign, which will have its official launch around Yom Kippur, represents a shift for The Federation. “It’s idea-based marketing instead of media based,” Wexler said. And it’s designed to engage people who are already passionate about social justice to become involved in The Federation.

Currently only about 18,000 of 175,000 Los Angeles Jewish households support The Federation. But Wexler believes that getting the community involved in The Federation’s effort to serve the vulnerable — one of its five primary missions — will help them see the value of the organization as a whole.

“I wanted to change the perception of The Federation from an organization that people felt distant from and suspicious of to one that people would love and embrace and see as a community collaborator and community convener,” Wexler said. “How do I activate a greater percentage of these people? Well, I’m not going to do it by throwing Jewish stuff at them, because they are not going to listen to it. But many of them will listen to the issue of hunger. And the other people who will listen to the issue of hunger but not necessarily Jewish stuff are the Jews of Hollywood — very essential to Los Angeles.”

At the heart of the campaign is a Web site, givelifemeaning.org, which posts Federation testimonials and where people can sign up to get involved and donate.

Latino artist Alfonso Covarrubias, who grew up in Boyle Heights, designed the posters, which cost The Federation about $20,000 to produce and print. Very little money has been spent on exhibiting the banners, Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said. Instead, The Federation is working with community partners, including synagogues.

Givelifemeaning.org has a look and feel different from The Federation’s main Web site, jewishla.org, with the same design and color scheme of the posters spread across town. The Web site also includes a video featuring Rabbis David Wolpe and Sharon Brous and entertainers Elliott Gould, Larry Miller and Elon Gold talking about what gives their lives meaning.

“We want people to understand that their gifts to us, their tzedakah, make a difference,” Federation President John Fishel said. “We’d like to feel that being actively involved in the organized Jewish community can bring meaning to their lives, and part of that will come from being part of our pool of committed donors.”

“It is a very challenging time for the community. There is a lot of need. We hear it every day,” Fishel continued. “This community has risen to the occasion in other crises, both natural disasters and when we’ve had conflicts in the Middle East, and we hope there will be a similar response this time.”

It’s an ambitious goal, no doubt. Matthew Sharp, an L.A.-based senior advocate for California Food Policy Advocates, said eradicating hunger would require a two-pronged approach that both treats the condition and stops it from occurring.

The need is pressing: Social service agencies are currently laboring under the weight of the heaviest demand they’ve felt in years. At the same time, their funding sources — public and private — have pulled back. The circumstances are particularly acute at the three SOVA food pantries. The program of Jewish Family Service (JFS) served 7,000 clients in January — up from fewer than 5,000 a year before.

“It’s a 43 percent increase month over month. And the types of clients we are seeing at all three pantries have changed. They are more formally middle class. Those who were donors are now seeking services,” said Susie Forer-Dehrey, JFS chief operating officer. “Unfortunately without additional resources, we are unable to expand our capacity even though we are seeing increased need. We have expanded our capacity as far as it can go.”

Individuals and congregations have stepped forward to help SOVA shoulder the load. The Federation is working closely with the food pantry and the L.A.-based national relief organization MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger to ensure that come Yom Kippur even more Jews participate. Details are still being finalized, but last month the two organizations jointly held a hunger summit with the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Jewish Vocational Service and Progressive Jewish Alliance — all organizations with intimate knowledge of the surging need in the community.

“There is a resounding need to understand that we have Jewish hunger and we are not immune to the reality of a recession and people falling from a middle class to a lower class,” said MAZON President H. Eric Schockman. “Beyond just the Jewish community, we have a responsibility to find solutions to end hunger and to model that for other communities.”

That is a sentiment being recognized and repeated at synagogues across Los Angeles, with many starting their own programs and looking both out in the community and inside their own walls for people in need of a little healing. At the hunger summit, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills talked about this being “the moment for which synagogues were created for.”

The Federation, which is working with synagogues on this campaign, is hoping more members of the Jewish community will see these difficult times as the moment The Federation was created for, too.

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