Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the spiritual leader of Encino's Valley Beth Shalom, opened a recent Friday evening service with a poignant tale from Leo Tolstoy.
"It seems there was a beggar who approached a man for a handout. 'Can you spare me something, please?' he asked.
"The other replied, 'I am sorry, brother. I have nothing to give.'
" 'I am overjoyed,' said the beggar.
" 'But why?' asked the man, perplexed.
" 'Because you called me brother. ' "
So saying, Schulweis reminded the 250 congregants at the service that it is their responsibility to treat the underprivileged as brothers and to care about the deprivation.
'Society Is Cruel'
"It is hard to raise children who are entitled," he said to the middle- and upper-middle-class congregants. "One of the deepest problems that children of wealth face is that they are brought up in a world that is not poor.
"Our children never see people who are ill-clad, ill-fed, homeless. Out of sight, out of mind. And our society is cruel. If somebody is poor, we think there must be something wrong with him, as if poverty were a sign of laziness or incompetence. We don't want to raise our children to think in this way."
Schulweis contrasted the plight of the poor with the conspicuous consumption he experiences at the temple.
"One bar mitzvah is more lavish than the next. I receive huge invitations, full of glitter and opulence. I think that's wrong. It's not wrong to be wealthy but it's wrong to forget. It's wrong to take, take, take and not give back. The function of a bar mitzvah . . . is to teach our children softness, feeling, compassion."
Schulweis said Jewish tradition is steeped in the responsibility to feed, comfort and heal Jews and non-Jews for the sake of peace.
Struggle Against Hunger
"In the openings of the Passover Haggada, the book that is read during the Passover Seder, which is a celebration of our freedom, the first line states, 'Let all those who are hungry come and eat.' It is very important that Jews identify with the struggle against hunger."
To underscore his commitment to fight hunger, Schulweis introduced his congregation to Irving Cramer, co-founder and executive director of a new Jewish philanthropy, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which seeks to rectify the disparity between consumption and deprivation.
Cramer told the story of Martha Rocca, a poor, elderly woman in Philadelphia.
"Five days a week, she only ate one meal a day provided by the Meals on Wheels program. Meals on Wheels doesn't have enough funding to offer more than that.
"On the weekends she ate nothing, except two peas--one on Saturday and one on Sunday--which she had saved from her Friday lunch. She knew that peas had no nutritional value. But she said, 'At least for two or three minutes on Saturday and Sunday, I have the taste of food in my mouth.'
"To accept the fact that there are hungry people among us is intolerable."
$500 Million on Parties
Cramer said Jewish American families, by conservative estimates, spend $500 million a year on life-cycle parties such as bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Mazon, which means sustenance in Hebrew, asks families to voluntarily tax themselves 3% of the parties' cost.
"If a wedding costs $10,000," Cramer said, "your contribution to the national fund would be $300. It's not an intrusive amount. And it's a way for your family to share its happiness and thanksgiving on this wonderful occasion, to add to your joy without taking."
Contributions are directed to established hunger projects, especially those that not only feed the needy, but also help them to get back on their feet. Mazon's board of directors includes Bella Abzug and Ed Asner.
Months of Organization
The project began six months ago when Cramer, Schulweis and Leonard Fein, editor of the Jewish magazine Moment, were "schmoozing" in the Valley Beth Shalom parking lot about ways to help the hungry.
After months of organizational work, there are now Mazon volunteer organizations poised to help raise the consciousness of Jewish communities to the problems of poverty and hunger in Dallas; New York; Louisville, Ky.; St. Louis; New Orleans, and now, Los Angeles.
Helping the less fortunate is nothing new for the Encino temple. The 5,000-member congregation sponsors more than 15 social service outreach programs and has been awarded for its community service. One of the thrusts of Mazon is to pass on that heritage of giving to children who may have never known a moment of hunger or discomfort.
'Never Too Young'
"Children are never too young to learn that their good fortune is not known by the larger segment of the population and that it should not be taken for granted," said Elaine Berke, temple board member and congregant for 27 years. "Many people who achieve economic success don't remember a time when they didn't have. The lesson here is to start with the children."
Sylvia Bernstein, temple president, agreed. "The congregation is receptive to learning appropriate ways to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs, especially by making commitments to the outside world. Even though this is a voluntary contribution, everyone will be informed.
"Our people aren't insensitive. They may just be uneducated. The more programs there are, the more people get involved. Lives are changed for the better--and that's what it's all about."