At holiday time, making a leapto feed the needy

As we prepare for our Thanksgiving feasts, a 90-year-old Jewish man named Arnold Abbott is stirring the pot in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about hunger and homelessness in America.

Or is he asking us to pay more than lip service to our Jewish ideals?

Abbott has been cited several times for defying a controversial new city ordinance that prohibits feeding homeless people outdoors. It limits where sites can be located and requires permits. Groups must provide toilets and washing stations. And they must keep food at prescribed temperatures.

“I believe I am my brother’s keeper,” Abbott told the Sun Sentinel recently, following yet another citation. “I’m Jewish, and in Judaism they say that if you save one person, you save the world.”

His organization’s name, Love Thy Neighbor, is found in Leviticus.

Mulling Abbott’s words, as I shop for Thanksgiving, I wonder: As we have acclimated ourselves to a night of secular feasting, have we also integrated into our celebration Jewish ideas about hospitality and to “not stand idly by”?

Looking for an answer, I spoke with Susan Baigelman, who runs the We Care Food Pantry.

The pantry, whose home is the Soref JCC in Plantation, Fla., serves about 10,000 people a year, giving out 3,500 bags of groceries plus fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as bread donated by a bakery. Each bag is valued between $40 and $50, Baigelman told me.

Among the people the program serves are “seniors, Holocaust survivors, people living on fixed income and single parents with children,” she said. Also, the disabled, people with mental health issues, the unemployed and the working poor.

But the pantry’s clients may not be whom you expect. “They could be your next door neighbor or sit at the desk across from you. We get people who say, ‘I never thought I would be doing this. I used to donate,’ ” Baigelman said.

“We need to help people move forward,” she added. “I wish I was out of a job, because nobody would be hungry anymore.”

Throughout the year, and especially during the holiday season — at Thanksgiving the pantry tries to have turkeys to donate — these efforts are supported by the local Jewish community, which organizes food drives and contributes funding.

“Hunger never takes a vacation,” said Baigelman.

As to Abbott’s efforts, Baigelman said he is bringing “awareness” to the situation.

That’s true. On the other side of the country, in San Diego, just days after Abbott became national news, Rabbi Yael Ridberg in an online “Torah Talk” saw a parallel between Abbott’s actions and those of a biblical forefather.

“I felt for a moment that I was reading a modern-day story of Abraham,” wrote Ridberg of Reconstructionist Congre-gation Dor Hadash.

When I spoke with her, Ridberg explained that in the Torah portion Vayera, Abraham is sitting in his tent in the heat of the day, and as three strangers approach he “leaps up” and “runs to greet his guests.”

“It didn’t matter what was going on his life, he had guests to attend to,” she said.

Listening to the rabbi, I saw the parallel: Abbott in his way was leaping up, too, and feeding the hungry in public was his own take on hospitality.

Abbott “has a certain calling to feed the hungry,” even though he lives in a city that “has told him, and everyone else, this is against the law. He is not deterred,” Ridberg said.

“Our Torah teaches us that we are to take care of the poor, the stranger, the widow,” and that “we are obligated to remember the heart of the stranger.

“To just arrest a 90-year-old man for feeding the hungry and not address the underlying issues that have caused hunger and homelessness in America, I think is not the whole equation. How about getting more resources to the local homeless shelters?”

And what about providing more food and support, I thought, especially before Thanksgiving, to the programs run by Abbott and Baigelman, as well as to others across the country?

Later, rolling through the supermarket, I realized that to save that one person, I would need to make my own leap.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected]


Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on Contact him at [email protected].