Purim groggers, masks and hamantaschen (Photo/JTA-Getty)
Purim groggers, masks and hamantaschen (Photo/JTA-Getty)

On Purim, we remember that charity alone will not end hunger

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We’ll say it straight out — at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Purim is our favorite holiday.

You can probably guess that baked goods, dressing up, and other Purim delights are not the only reasons we are so drawn to the holiday. (Although we do love a good hamantaschen.)

A deep truth about justice sits at the center of Purim, and it’s one that has always been the touchstone for our work. Purim is a celebration of pleasure, including the joy of giving. There’s the commandment of giving mishloach manot — care packages for friends and family. But there’s also the commandment to give matanot l’evyonim, which are gifts specifically designated for the needy.

What’s more, that gift to charity is in addition to our everyday giving — the time or money we are obligated as Jews to give regularly, whether or not it’s Purim or Passover or Thanksgiving or any other holiday. That is, even as Purim embraces the pleasure to be found in giving, it also reinforces that giving is an essential part of everyday life.

In other words, as Jews we need to give both spontaneously, and as a matter of policy. At MAZON, we honor charity, and also know that it’s not enough to end hunger. It’s the first and vital response in times of crisis, but it’s not a lasting solution. We also need long-term, sustained support for people who are struggling. It is the responsibility of our government to commit to policies and investments that address the root causes of a problem.

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Our mission at MAZON is to create durable change, to right longstanding wrongs, and address the problem of hunger at its roots. We focus on serving overlooked populations, currently serving military families, veterans, LGBTQ older adults, single mothers and the people of Puerto Rico and Indian country.

In Puerto Rico, for example, a long history of poverty and economic decline is exacerbated by the fact that Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens, are ineligible for the same federal nutrition assistance that helps Americans who struggle with hunger on the mainland, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We are working to support Puerto Ricans’ efforts to gain access to SNAP, and, last year, we announced new investments in local organizations working on the ground to stem the tide of persistent food insecurity.

Another example: During the 2018-2019 school year — before the pandemic — one third of children at Department of Defense-run schools on military bases in the United States were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s more than 6,500 children, the children of people who have dedicated their lives to serving this country.

These families turn to food pantries that operate on or near every military base in the country — an important charitable resource, but not a solution designed to address the long-term needs of military families. What will address those needs: fixing a bureaucratic anomaly that counts service members’ housing aid as income, which in turn shuts them out of SNAP. MAZON is working with Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who just last week filed the bipartisan Military Family Nutrition Access Act, which would bar the housing aid from being counted as income for the purposes of qualifying for SNAP.

At MAZON, our Jewish values inspire our efforts to understand and solve complicated problems that cause hunger, suffering and stress. We take pride in this process year-round, and with a special zest on Purim, when Judaism reminds all of us that the ability to give is a gift in itself. We wish you a Chag Purim Sameach and hope you will join us in engaging with our tradition’s exhilarating approach to justice, generosity — and joy.

Naama Haviv

Naama Haviv is vice-president of community engagement of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.