Hunger Shabbat puts food for thought on the table

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For most people, the word “Shabbat” conjures scenes of abundance: of food, warmth, family and friends.

But American Jewish World Service hopes to reorient people’s thinking so Jews across the country look beyond their own dinner tables — toward the households around the world where there isn’t enough to eat.

The “Reverse Hunger” campaign, a new initiative by the New York–based international human rights organization, seeks to educate Americans about the realities of the global hunger crisis and organize support for a revamping of the Farm Bill that Congress will debate in 2012 — a piece of legislation that shapes how the U.S. provides food aid to other countries.

On Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5, the campaign will kick into high gear as congregations, Jewish community and campus groups and families around the country take part in the second annual AJWS-organized “Global Hunger Shabbat” (more info at In the Bay Area, at least nine congregations will be holding special events.

A grantee in Nueva Estrella, Colombia, holds native squash seeds. photo/evan abramson/courtesy of ajws

The focus will be on food justice, and what the average person can do to help combat hunger around the world.

“Shabbat is an idealized time, and any time you talk about what’s ideal it forces you to realize what’s missing. When we are full, we must think about where there’s hunger,” said Rabbi Micah Hyman of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. The Conservative congregation will have a speaker on Nov. 5 and a Kiddush meal with opportunities for learning.

“We’re viewing this as a kickoff to a much more comprehensive, ongoing program. We want to educate people about food security, about what it really means to feed the world,” he added.

At Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, organizers are taking care to tailor hunger-related educational activities to different age groups. On Nov. 4, everything from the preschool Shabbat to a special evening sermon by new Emanu-El Rabbi Carla Fenves will focus on hunger, social justice and the Jewish responsibility to help those in need.

“It was important to us to talk about these issues at a local level as well as national and international,” said Sandy Rechtschaffen, the congregation’s community engagement coordinator, who planned the Hunger Shabbat program there with Ariana Estoque, director of adolescent education. The weekend is just one part of Emanu-El’s year-round work to raise awareness about hunger.

“Global Hunger Shabbat” coincides with a class Emanu-El Rabbi Sydney Mintz is teaching called “Food for Thought,” which includes discussions about food justice, Torah lessons about hunger and the growing eco-kashrut movement. (The first of eight weekly sessions was Oct. 27; visit for details.)

Raising awareness about the limitations of the current version of the Farm Bill — which is passed with revisions roughly every four years — is a crucial aspect of the AJWS campaign.

Under the current legislation, policy dictates that food donations made by the U.S. to other countries be purchased, processed and transported by American companies. It’s a guideline that means it often takes months for food to reach those in need in places like the Horn of Africa, according to critics. And once food arrives it can undercut local farmers, hurting rather than helping the local agricultural infrastructure.

The AJWS campaign calls for a more flexible, localized approach to food aid that prioritizes regionally purchased food wherever possible, so food-insecure regions can become more self-sustaining over time.

“I think when people read or hear about a part of the world where there’s a drought or a hunger crisis, they want to respond, and they think, ‘Here’s something I can do, urge the government to send emergency food aid,’ ” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS. “And that’s a totally understandable and legitimate response, and there are times where it’s necessary. But at the same time, there’s a set of policies in place that’s counterproductive, that increases dependency, that’s actually hurting small farmers around the world.”

AJWS hopes to collect 5,000 signatures on its Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill at And to keep the discussion going after the Hunger Shabbat weekend, AJWS has dubbed the days leading up to Thanksgiving as the “18 Days of Action” and will be offering tips and discussion points on its website.

Hyman said it was hardly a question whether or not Beth Sholom would participate. “This is one of the best, most important discussions we can be having,” he said. “People say, ‘Well, what can I do?’ And the answer is ‘Quite a bit.’ ”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.