I recently asked my Facebook friends what words come to mind when you think of Thanksgiving. I planned to create a word cloud. I got some interesting answers. Some people said “stuffed” in all its permutations. Traffic, Airports, Soccer, Tension, Native Americans, Colonialism, Family Dysfunction and Exhaustion. Gratitude, pumpkin, turkey, togetherness, and many favorite foods also made an appearance. The responses were a mixture of nostalgia, social justice issues and family tensions. Thank god not one person said “hunger”. Given that 40 million Americans in the United States are struggling with hunger, my sample was small and skewed.
Two Jewish organizations – Nazun and Mazon – are focused on ending hunger. Nazun, formerly Challah for Hunger, has mobilized college students and the wider community to be a voice for those fighting hunger. Nazun means “to nourish” in Hebrew. Founded in 2004 at Scripps College in California, the organization put the spotlight on the problem of hunger with workshops where participants learned to bake and braid challahs, which were then sold for fundraisers. The workshops grew with the organization. Today there are 65 Nazun chapters on campus in 24 states. Her work has also expanded into the general community, reaching out to people of all ages.
Rabbi Lily Solochek, Nazun’s director of programs and education, told JewishBoston that the nonprofit’s work rests on three pillars: advocacy, community, and philanthropy. Most student groups have an advocacy chair responsible for assessing the needs of their respective campuses and mapping out what hunger looks like in their colleges. There are Nazun chapters throughout Boston, including Tufts, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern, and Harvard. Solochek also pointed out that community programs like the signature challah-baking also take place at Jewish community centers and Moishe homes, encouraging families, young adults, day school students and others to participate. Half of the organization’s philanthropy is donated to its lead partner, Swipe Out Hunger. Swipe Out Hunger helps students donate swipes of their meal plans to fellow students in need. In addition, Nazun also contributes to the tills of local and campus pantries, food banks, and other anti-hunger organizations through Swipe Out Hunger.
“Our community can develop in different ways,” Solochek said. “For example, our students can meet once a month, once a semester or once a year. Some of our students reach us through Hillel, while others are non-Jews. For these students, it’s often their first time attending a Jewish space—they see that space as a place where we share food and serve people. It shows them that we build those values around making the world a better place.”
Last year, Nazun initiated a campaign called #FUELHigherEd for “fundamental, universal, just, long-term state and federal solutions to campus hunger” (FUEL). Solochek describes the project as the culmination of Nazun’s three pillars and an integral part of the organization’s advocacy work. “FUEL is about creating long-term change. We are now interested in feeding people and we want to ensure that students are not food insecure. We have a group of organizations working with us through the #FUELHigherEd campaign to promote our work, host their own pies and join us in advocating for these longer term solutions.”
In addition, Solochek created Nazun’s B’nei Mitzvah curriculum. The goal is to inspire young teens to take on service projects as part of their experience and ask themselves, “What does my community need? What are the stories of other young activists? Who are my colleagues and how can I inspire my friends to do more?”
The late activist and writer Leonard “Leibel” Fein founded Mazon—“nutrition” in Hebrew—in 1986 as one of the first faith-based organizations to address hunger in the United States. What began as a grassroots effort – initially with just over $160,000 – is now an organization operating on a budget of over $8 million. In Fein’s brief history of the organization, he noted, “Mazon begins the work of community building. It unites Jews through language and works; it connects those who have with those who want through acts of kindness.”
Mazon President and CEO Abby Leibman recently told JewishBoston that the core of Mazon’s mission is to “mobilize the Jewish community to be a voice for those struggling with hunger to lift it up.” For this reason we represent our interests; that is what advocacy is all about. Advocacy lends your voice to those who either don’t have access, fear retribution, or can’t find the work they need.”
For Leibman, the goals of Mazon’s commitment are reflected in the organization’s slogan, “A Jewish Response to Hunger.” Leibman pointed out that the phrase “is not an answer to Jewish hunger. Mazon’s work is about ending hunger for everyone in the United States and Israel. But this work means we reach out to and help people of all faiths and backgrounds. And we do this through a unique lens based on Jewish values, ideals and teachings. When the Torah is about caring for others, it usually leads to eating.”
Shortly after Leibman arrived in Mazon in 2011, she attended a major national anti-hunger gathering and took part in a panel on hunger among military families. Presence in the room was sparse, but Leibman immediately understood the importance of the issue and the need for Mazon to put it on his agenda. “We decided that there are populations in this country, including military families, who have unique needs when it comes to their fight against hunger and how those fights are being addressed.”
Serving LGBTQ seniors is also high on Mazon’s priority list. Leibman noted that large organizations like AARP and Meals on Wheels target the general older population. “However, for those aging to chronic disease and disability because of HIV or AIDS, they have limited options for support. They grew up in a time when they faced not only blatant but also legal discrimination. And we all know what happened in the military.”
To highlight the ongoing problem of hunger in America, Mazon will open a virtual hunger museum in December, tracing the history of hunger in America from the Golden Age to the present. It will also show the government’s response to hunger in different eras.
“We almost ended hunger in this country in the 1960s and 1970s. Then there was a change in who our policymakers were and what their priorities were. So we have to learn from our history,” Leibman said. “We Jews are a people who experience and live their history over and over again. We are the People of the Book, always teaching and learning. The virtual museum is a tool to do these things.”
I gave up my half-baked idea (pun intended) of making a Thanksgiving word cloud. Instead, I asked Solochek and Leibman what people can do during the holiday season to end hunger. Here are their suggestions:
- Spread the word about the problem of hunger.
- Don’t judge people who are going through hard times.
- Engage in direct service in our democracy.
- Encourage policymakers to support anti-hunger programs.
And I will suggest one too. Look at the Hebrew word inside-“Here I am.” Say it out loud to feel the potential power of your unique presence; listen to your still, small voice. And then consider this: If small voices still speak in unison, they will reinforce concerns about social justice. This Thanksgiving, let’s get the message across that hunger is unacceptable in our country and in the world.
Here we are. Our presence is vital.