If you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature
Then shall your light shine in darkness
And your gloom shall be like noonday
"I like to underline that we are giving contemporary meaning to Isaiah," Irving Cramer said by way of explaining Mazon, the program he directs.
Called "a Jewish response to hunger," Mazon asks American Jews to put a voluntary surcharge of 3% on celebrations such as weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs, birthdays, anniversaries and give that money to the hungry through Mazon to programs that feed poor people or work toward eliminating hunger.
In operation for less than a year, it made its first grants last June, seven small grants ranging from $1,250 to $10,000 to secular, Jewish and Christian programs across the country. Because there was little time to solicit proposals, the grants were almost "symbolic," Cramer said, more an assurance to donors that the work had begun. Next time, around the end of the year, he said, they will have more money to give away and more proposals to consider.
It is a new program and a decidedly new approach to a very old tradition.
"The whole proposition is about Jewish tradition," Cramer said. "It's Jewish tradition that you don't have a simchah (celebration) of any kind without having the poor. We begin the Passover Seder by saying, 'Let all who are hungry enter and eat.' Today we do that behind locked doors."
That being the reality, it would seem, at least to Cramer and his board of directors, Mazon is an idea whose time has come. The boards of about 70 synagogues and temples have formally elected to participate in the program.
Contributions are also coming in from another 150 congregations that have not yet formally adopted the program, and from individuals.
Mazon's national office in Westwood is full of joyful, grateful letters from those who have already made contributions indicating their acts have indeed dispelled their gloom.
Come Yom Kippur, the day of fast when Jewish congregations hear the words of Isaiah, Mazon hopes to take a major step forward. A letter was recently sent to the rabbis of 5,000 Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in the United States.
In it founding board member Leonard Fein of Boston and board chairman Theodore Mann of Philadelphia, president of the American Jewish Congress, urge that on Yom Kippur, Oct. 13 this year, rabbis talk to their congregations about the problem of hunger.
They have included a sample sermon with their letter that says, in part, "There are two fasts happening on this Yom Kippur day. There is our fast of cleansing and repentence, our fast of return. At day's end, our fast will end, and we will resume our daily affairs, our work and our play, our eating and drinking, our loving and laughter.
"And there is another fast, a fast that did not begin last night and will not end with tonight's setting of the sun. It is the involuntary fast of a billion--1 billion people across this, God's Earth, a billion men and women, and God help us all, children whose every day is a day of hunger."
Beyond talking about the issue, Fein and Mann urge that the rabbis use the occasion to launch Mazon in their congregations. The rabbi plays a significant role in Mazon, acting as a middleman, Cramer said, both encouraging the congregation as a whole to participate and then advising and reminding families during the planning of a celebration.
It all started with a conversation in the parking lot of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino between Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Leonard Fein, editor of Moment, a Jewish magazine. As both men tell it, they were talking of the growing problem of hunger and what to do about it when the temple caterer's van came into the lot.
A Case of 'Eureka'
To Fein, who recalled it recently during a visit to Los Angeles, seeing the van was "Eureka! I suddenly realized a lot of stuff passes through these narrow channels. How many bar and bat mitzvahs per year, how many weddings, how many dollars per year. The idea was almost full blown. I thought, 'My God, if we could get a percent of that.' I shared it with Harold."
"I got immediately excited," Schulweis said later. "I like the personalized gift out of a personal experience: 'It's my wedding. It's my daughter's wedding. I've gotten something out of this world. And I've got to give something back.' "
Schulweis has many stories relating the personal nature of giving that was the tradition in biblical times and persisted until fairly recently, providing a rich folklore of beggars-at-the banquet in Eastern Europe. Nor was it unknown in the small, stationary communities of America a few years back. But not anymore, he said: