Before we tell the Passover story, before the Four Questions and all the rest of the elaborate rituals that mark the Passover celebration in Jewish homes across the globe, we raise a piece of matzah, the unleavened bread that is meant to remind us of the haste with which we fled Egypt some 3,500 years ago, and we say (or chant): “Let all who are hungry enter and eat.”
When those words were first spoken, odds are that the speaker actually knew the names of the hungry; they were his neighbors down on their luck. Now we speak the very same words, but few of us know the name of even one person who experiences real hunger—or as the experts call it these days, “food insecurity.”
Yet scarcely a day goes by when we do not read of the growing number of hungry Americans. People who never imagined that they would have to rely on soup kitchens and food pantries now stand in line and await their turn, joining millions of others long since intimately familiar with hunger. The numbers are daunting.
Hunger in America is not a consequence of drought, natural disaster or a lack of food. There is more than enough food in this country for everyone to “enter and eat.” That’s why, when we think of hunger here at home, we do not think of it as a tragedy; we think of it as a scandal.
That scandal is now on the verge of fearsome growth. Congress will soon begin debate on a new budget for 2012. The opening proposal would restrict access to critical feeding programs through job testing and block granting, shrinking our social safety net at a time of almost historically low job availability. The fate of programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children)—federal assistance programs that help low income families afford groceries—suddenly is uncertain. This is simply unacceptable.
It is a coincidence that this year, Passover falls as the 2012 budget battle begins. But it is not a coincidence at all that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has coordinated more than 40 Hunger Seders in 23 states across the country—including, on April 14, a National Hunger Seder on Capitol Hill for members of Congress, members of the Obama administration, and leaders from the faith and anti-hunger communities.
These events are designed to raise awareness of the scandal of hunger and of the vital programs that preserve both health and dignity. We are proud to co-chair the JCPA’s Hunger Seder mobilization.
We do not know the names of each person suffering from the oppression of hunger, but we are conscience-bound to keep open our doors and ensure that they know they are welcome at America’s table. They have not caused the deficit crisis; neither should it be resolved by asking them to endure the anxiety and pain of hunger in order to repair it. Our chosen task is to end the scandal, not to ignore it, let alone to extend it.
(Leonard Fein and Jackie Levine are the honorary co-chairs of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ 2011 Hunger Seders mobilization.)