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Jewish Group Works to Feed the Needy at Home and Abroad : Charity: Mazon grants $1.65 million a year to organizations fighting hunger. Residents of war-torn Sarajevo were recent recipients.


PALMS — From a little office in Palms, Irving Cramer has built a charity organization that grants $1.65 million a year to organizations fighting hunger across the United States, and now across the world, all the way to Bosnia.

Although it has also responded to crises in Somalia and Kurdistan, Mazon--the word means food in Hebrew--devotes most of its efforts to hunger in America.

"But there are situations we find too compelling to turn our backs on," Cramer said. "The Talmud (the 2,000-year-old compendium of Jewish law) says 26 times, more than anything else, 'Help the stranger.' "

In recent weeks, Mazon has arranged for more than four tons of food, firewood and medical supplies to be delivered to the small Jewish community in Sarajevo, he said.

Its $50,000 grant has helped keep a children's hospital and three pharmacies open, feed 300 people a day and help lay in supplies for the winter, according to a letter from Iso Papo, a spokesman for the city's Jewish population of less than 1,000.

"Our concern and help guides us primarily to the members of the Jewish community," Papo wrote from the besieged city, "but we have been extending our support to the others, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity."

Added Yechiel Bar Chaim, a representative of the New York-based Joint Distribution Committee, which brought the parties together: "In a city without fuel, water or electricity, where land transport has been virtually impossible for the last three months and where (the United Nations) can only bring by air less than half the minimum food needs per day, the value of the aid we are providing with the help of Mazon and others is clearly of cardinal importance."

Funded by 34,000 donors nationwide, Mazon bases its appeal on the biblical requirement for farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor can glean the remnants.

There are two yearly appeals for donations--at Passover, when tradition calls for the door to be opened for the hungry to join the Seder feast, and on Yom Kippur, a day of contrition when observant Jews fast for 24 hours. This year, Yom Kippur begins on the evening of Sept. 24.

"For us to fulfill God's commandment on one hand and come out ahead economically is an anomaly," added Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Baltimore, the chairman of Mazon's board of directors. "So the proper thing is to give that which we would save from the day of fasting, so someone doesn't have to fast for another day. A lot of people find this a very powerful motive for their participation."

But most of Mazon's money, about two-thirds, comes from people who respond to Mazon's call to contribute 3% of the cost of celebrations such as weddings and bar mitzvahs.

The 3% figure was chosen because it is "large enough to be significant and small enough not to deter anybody from doing it," according to Boston writer Leonard Fein, who launched the idea in a 1985 issue of his Moment magazine. "We wanted it to be trivial and significant at the same time."

Supporting kitchens and bread lines from Florida to Washington state, Mazon also underwrites groups that try to take a broader view of the problem that Fein called "less of a tragedy than a scandal" in a land of plenty.

One of its larger allocations has been to California Food Policy Advocates, which opened last year with the help of a $50,000 grant.

The San Francisco-based group has already set up a hot line to help hungry people find food and other aid and authored a ground-breaking study of hunger in the Central Valley. It is about to come up with a proposal for Congress to streamline federal food programs for hungry children nationwide.

"These are things that can't be done in a soup kitchen or a food pantry," said Kenneth Hecht, its co-director, who is also familiar with the other end of Mazon's activities as a volunteer at the Haight-Ashbury Food Program. The group distributes to homeless shelters and other facilities thousands of pounds of restaurant fish that would otherwise be thrown away.

Mazon provided $16,000 to buy a truck and hire drivers. "It's very small but it provides the glue to hold the program together," Hecht said. "The only thing we had to do was promise that we would really come pick up the fish, and the program has gone bananas ever since."

In Southern California, Mazon helps pay for a food bank in rural Santa Maria; food, counseling and job training at the Gramercy Place Shelter of Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles; staff work to increase the number of children in the federal summer food program in Costa Mesa; food, shelter and other services for homeless families through the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council; food and clothing at the St. Joseph Center in Venice; and baby food, formula and juice for infants at The Seedling, a food pantry in South-Central Los Angeles.

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