Parshat Toldot: The Jewish Food Stamp Challenge

Sermon by Cantor Angela W. Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City

​Poor Esau.  The twin brother of our patriarch Jacob is portrayed as such a buffoon.  He’s the red-haired Neanderthal hunter--a foil to Jacob, the mild, bookish mama’s boy.  And proof-positive of Esau’s stupidity is the story, found in this week’s portion, of how he is duped into selling his birthright to Jacob over a bowl of lentil stew.

Let’s take a closer look at that story, which Rabbi Friedman will read in a few minutes:  Esau is out, presumably hunting in the fields as he often did, and Jacob is home making a stew.  Esau says, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down for I am famished.”  Jacob responds, “First sell me your birthright.”  What a brother!  Esau says, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”  Jacob says, “swear to it,” then gives him the stew and thus did Esau give up his birthright. 

At this point, most rabbinic commentators harshly criticize Esau for spurning his birthright over a bowl of stew.  They note that his gulping down is a sign of how uncouth and barbaric he is. 

But what if it were a sign of how truly hungry he was. What if Esau really was starving to death?  What if he had been hunting for several days, and come back completely empty handed?  It would be understandable that the only thought he might have in that moment is getting some food. And feeling famished can lead to some rash, shortsighted decisions--like giving up a birthright. 

Fortunately, most of us in this room do not really know the desperation you feel when famished beyond your mind.  But millions in our country feel this hunger and food insecurity every day. 

Some of the very hungriest in our country, over 45 million people, are helped by the SNAP program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as Food Stamps.   The number of people on food stamps rose by 70 percent between 2007 and 2011, driven primarily by a weak economy and massive unemployment. 75% of households on food stamps have children, seniors or disabled citizens. And 85% of households have income that is below the poverty line.  

Approximately 20 percent of children in America are in perpetual poverty and live on food stamps for many years, but many more turn to food stamps during a short-term crisis.   How many more?  I was astonished to read a recent study by the American Medical Association that 49% children in the United States will eat meals at some point during their childhood paid for by food stamps.  Half of America’s children at some point live on this edge of hunger and poverty—this should be a wake up call!  A recent UNICEF report found the U.S. had the second highest rate of childhood poverty among the 35 richest nations surveyed, behind only Latvia.

And yet, even given the tremendous need, the SNAP program has been targeted for financial cuts that threaten this last safety net for the 16 million children, who through no fault of their own, are still hungry.  But these cuts are not good policy.  Every dollar spent in food supplements saves our country $1.81 on subsequent health care issues, decreased productivity, illness and other issues related to poor nutrition.   And just think of the bad decision Esau made when he was hungry!  We can only expect that people can start coming out of their desperate situations if they can make decisions with a little food in their bellies.

In Biblical times, not everyone is born with an equal birthright. Esau was entitled to a double portion, just because of birth order.  And unfortunately, it seems that even today not everyone  is born with an equal birthright. Some people are born into lives of security and abundance, will all the opportunities of growth and education of mind and body.  And some are born into communities of poverty in which their under-performing schools and their empty bellies makes it very hard to grow or thrive. But shouldn’t every child be given the same spiritual birthright--with equal opportunities to grow, be nourished, loved, supported, with the possibility of fulfilling our full potential in the world?  

In our Torah text Jacob turns the birthright order on its head, even though we don’t like the way he did it.  It’s a radical statement that we should not accept this inequality of birthright.

Next week, we are going to sit down for our Thanksgiving meals of abundance and bounty. I know I am going to feel grateful for it.  But the week after Thanksgiving, I am going to take the Jewish Food Stamp Challenge, with many of our Central clergy and I invite you as congregants to do so as well.  For the week after Thanksgiving, beginning November 26th, I am going to live on $31.50 for food, for the week.  It’s $1.50 per meal.  I will be eating a lot of rice and beans and oatmeal. I won’t be shopping at the new Whole Foods on 57th street, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. I anticipate it will be hard and I will feel hungry.
 
But even after that week, I won’t pretend that I truly know what it’s like to live with food insecurity.  After a week, I have the fortune to go back to my regular diet.  But our tradition says that walking in another’s shoes, even for a short period, can shift our sensitivity, our mindset, our understanding.  It is why at Passover we don’t just say, “Our ancestors were slaves,” but “WE are slaves.”  And we eat the bitterness and taste the tears.  We experience a piece of that hardship ourselves.  So I’m taking on this challenge.  And I’m donating what I would have spent on food that week to Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger. And I’m writing to Congress to support the SNAP program.  

And I’m going to encourage this community to take the same challenge. If you would like to join in the Jewish Food Stamp Challenge, even for a few days, you can sign up here. This is a massive effort that thousands of Jews have done in the last year.  We will be writing about our experiences and encourage anyone who is joining us to share their experiences as well.

As we go into a holiday of gratitude and plentiful food, may we be reminded that this abundance is not yet shared by all.  And let us work to create an equal birthright for every child of God, with the opportunities to bring blessing into the world.

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What It Means to Me to Participate in the Food Stamp Challenge by Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane

I was a free lunch kid on the “wrong side of the tracks.”  My mom, a divorced mother of two, waited tables during the less lucrative lunch shift so she could be home in the evenings with me and my younger sister.  Even so, it was not uncommon for us to be home alone for a couple hours after school because our mom could not afford childcare.  I was never hungry, but I remember what it’s like to watch every dollar. 

My life today is much different.  As an adult, I’ve never faced the kinds of financial strains that my mom dealt with when I was a kid, or that millions of families struggle with every day.

I am taking the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge the week before Thanksgiving (November 11-17) to better understand on a personal level – day-to-day and meal-to-meal – what it’s like to live on $31.50 a week or $1.50 a meal. 

Clearly this is not an easy task, which makes me all the more determined to take it on.  I need to know what this feels like because millions of people don’t have a choice.  This is their life.  How do the 42.6 million families (as of April 2012) receiving funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) make healthy, affordable food choices? 

When a trip to Starbucks is a regular treat, it’s easy to forget that that’s a luxury many Americans simply can’t afford.  But we mustn’t forget.  The disturbing truth is that 1/6 of our nation goes to bed hungry every night.

For the last two years I have become increasingly involved in the Mitzvah Meals program at Temple Beth Sholom (Santa Ana, CA) where I am a member.  You’ll find me most Sunday mornings in our temple kitchen helping prepare lunch and dinner for some 200 hungry people. 

Mitzvah Meals is an impressive program, and I’m really proud to be a part of it.  First shift sorts through the weekly donation from Trader Joe’s, creates a menu, and starts cooking.  By 11:15am more volunteers pick up lunch for 75 and deliver it to Village of Hope, a nearby homeless shelter.  In the early afternoon, second shift finishes making dinner, and new servers arrive to deliver dinner for 80 to Southwest Community Center, a local agency serving the homeless and economically disadvantaged.  We also send food to the working poor at Western Service Workers.  (By the way, in addition to Mitzvah Meals, our annual High Holiday food drive this year collected over 500 grocery bags of non-perishable food for other local relief agencies.)


Taking the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge is the logical extension of the volunteer work I am already doing with Mitzvah Meals.  When I was a free lunch kid, I didn’t worry about my next meal.  That was my mom’s job.  Now I’m the mom.  I’m the menu planner, grocery shopper, and chief cook.  So, for one week, November 11-17, I’m going to live on $31.50 and see, even in this small way, what it takes to plan, shop, and cook for a food insecure household.  With that knowledge, I hope to become a more sensitive human being and a more effective activist and advocate for the hungry.



(Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane is a member of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, CA.  An active volunteer for the American Conference of Cantors, she serves as co-chair of the ACC Social Action and Justice Committee, and also represents the ACC on the Steering Committee for the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, as well as the Commission on Social Action, the policy-making board for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.)         

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JCPA Chair Larry Gold Takes the Food Stamp Challenge

I am now almost finished with the Food Stamp Challenge. Today is the last day for me, but it’s not the last day for the millions of people who are living in poverty in this country. Tomorrow, I can go back to eating the “usual” way, but they cannot.  So, the most sobering thought I have today is that my small sacrifice really doesn’t mean very much.  By itself, it won’t help anyone who cannot afford to eat the chance of getting a decent meal or meals.  What will help are the donations that so many people have made to support this campaign and who recognize how important this scourge is and how we must try to eliminate it.   In its starkest terms,  to eat a meal for $1.50 and to have to do that 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, is pretty hard to grasp.  Especially, when most of us are accustomed to spending $31.50 (one week’s ration of food stamps) on a single meal.   I know through this experience that I have become more conscious of my choices for food and more vigilant about what I eat.   But I am so very fortunate that those are my choices and not whether I can afford to eat today.  That’s the bright contrast between those who are fortunate enough to have enough to eat and those who don’t.   I hope I will continue to remember that.  Finally, to those who believe that people who use food stamps are lazy or simply unwilling to move above the poverty line,  I strongly urge them to take this challenge and see how difficult that lifestyle is.   I don’t think anyone could cope with this challenge and come away still believing that it is a choice anyone would willingly make.

 I’ve also learned some interesting facts.  One,  one quart of frozen orange juice makes barely enough to last one week, even if one rations the quantity.  Two,  fruit is ridiculously expensive. Three, one liter of diet coke won’t make it through a week. Even if one doesn’t drink it all, it loses its fizz by the 6th day.  Four,  a steady diet of peanut butter is not recommended.   Five,  being creative with tuna fish is a challenge.

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JCPA Chair Larry Gold Takes the Food Stamp Challenge

I started the Food Stamp Challenge this past Tuesday.  The first eye-opening experience for me was shopping for food.  I kept having to put things back because I was rapidly approaching the $31.50 limit.  So, I had to buy smaller portions of certain items, such as milk and orange juice (bought the frozen kind - it made more and was cheaper) and very little in the way of meats or fruit.  Forget fruit.  Too expensive. 

So, I've been making my lunches all week - simple peanut butter or tuna fish sandwiches - and bringing my lunch to work just like the old days in grammar school - before food cafeterias in schools.  It's been a very sobering and worthwhile experience so far.  It's been better to have work to distract me from thinking about food.  Gosh knows how I will get through the weekend! 

I also recognize how artificial this experience is in many ways, because I know it's temporary and after a week, I can go back to normal for me.  But that doesn't make the experience any less meaningful or powerful.  For people who think that food stamps are a luxury that we can do without as a federal program - just let them try this for a couple of days, much less a week.  And for people who have to live on food stamps, my  heart goes out to them because it must affect their mental and emotional balance each and every day.  The pressure and the stress must be enormous.  I'm very grateful to those who have donated money to support me in this effort and I am especially grateful to my wife, Margo, who has joined me in the project and who is sharing this experience with me. 

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Rabbi Debra Hachen's Final Lessons from the Food Stamp Challenge

Stopped in the supermarket today to pick up something for my husband Peter who is not on the Food Stamp Challenge.  Since I still had 50 cents of my $31.50 budget to spend, I gave in and walked through the fruit aisle.  Picked up the smallest apple I could find and weighed it.  Hmmmm.  At $1.29 a pound it would have come to about 50 cents but maybe a bit over. I put it back and looked for something cheaper. Sure enough there were beautiful pears on sale at 99 cents a pound.  Chose one. Turned out it was only 39 cents at checkout. Thank you ShopRite!

And it was delicious.  Arrived home and ate every speck of it except the seeds and the stem.

This Sunday night is the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  At many synagogues, including ours, folks will take home an empty grocery bag and return it ten days later on Yom Kippur with food donations for the hungry.  A few days ago one of the teens asked me to think about how those who cannot afford to donate food must feel when they are handed that bag.  Are they ashamed that they cannot do the good deed for others that most around them seem to be able to afford? How does it feel to return the next week empty handed?  I explained that someone could just recycle the bag at home, and that people do not bring the bags back all at once so no one would notice if someone did not make a donation.  Still, it gave me pause. There is shame in not having the resources other have.

When we make the announcement at services inviting people to take a bag home, we will need to acknowledge that many among us cannot afford to participate so we need others to make an even greater effort this year if they are blessed with financial well-being. And we need to be sure our ushers ask if someone would like a bag - not assume that all will take them.

After Yom Kippur we will also need to ask ourselves: what are we doing for the food-challenged sitting in our own pews? We Jews think of the hungry as the “other.”  We don’t imagine it in our own well-educated community.

We are wrong.

I don’t know the solution yet.  I do know that the greatest impact of taking the Food Stamp Challenge has not been the planning, eating or reading up on the facts about SNAP.  It has been the unplanned conversations that arise as people share their stories of volunteering and donating for the hungry, teaching their children about hunger, or quietly reveal their own situation of food scarcity.  Those stories are more real than the $31.50 worth of food I lived on for the last 7 days.

One challenge is ending, but the challenge we all face - to make sure no child or adult goes to bed hungry -  remains.

P.S. If you are in New Jersey, please consider signing up as an automatic monthly donor at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. Just go to http://www.njfoodbank.org/how-to-help/donate-funds/community-harvesters  

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Eat Your Broccoli. Or Maybe Not. - Rabbi Debra Hachen

With only two days to go in the Food Stamp Challenge, it's looking a lot like there will be leftovers. Not for today or tomorrow's meals, but some leftovers after the week of living on $31.50, the average food stamp allotment.

This morning - Wednesday - I still had 3 eggs, can of tuna, 1/3 head of lettuce, 1/2 block of cheddar, 2 8-oz servings of cooked chicken, 1 lovely purple eggplant, 1/2 an onion, can of lentil soup, 6 pieces of wheat bread, leftover broccoli (more on that to come....), 1/4 box of cereal, about 5 oz. of uncooked pasta, almost a full jar of pasta sauce and enough milk for two more breakfasts.



So for my late lunch - after a long and meaningful morning welcoming new converts into Judaism at the mikvah/ritual bath - I returned home to cook up the eggplant, some of the onion, tomato sauce, 1/2 the pasta and grated cheese over the top. Yummy.  Had two bowls of it.

Dinnertime now with some lentil soup with a few small pieces of the cooked chicken mixed in, and two slices of toast.

I was tempted to add the leftover broccoli.  Then I remembered what it tasted like.  When I bought it on sale it looked a little "old." Sure enough two days ago I had to cut out brown spots and gave up and left a few in.  Bitter but ate it anyway. Once was enough even though I saved it just in case I ran low on food.

Found myself changing other little habits.  Usually I clean my mushrooms and cut off the bottom stems. This time, hesitated and only took off a sliver.  Another meal had a few cooked noodles left over and might have tossed them instead of adding them to the next meal.  Put them away in the fridge.

Honestly, I have it too good. Last night at the Temple Board meeting a dad was talking about how it would be impossible to feed his two teenage boys on $31.50 each per week. Their appetites are voracious.  Another parent joked that it's more expensive to feed teenage boys than to buy clothes for girls.  I only had to feed one healthy adult female without a sweet tooth. (Well, I still miss dried cranberries.)

It's also one thing to cut back on fresh fruits and veggies for only a week; to keep up a balanced diet with enough calcium and vitamins over several months would probably be impossible on this budget.  On top of that, I never ate out. This meant planning ahead and sometimes eating at odd times if I was stuck at work longer without food. (I took to carrying a small bag of cereal in my purse.)

What if I was a busy parent with little time to prep a meal? How could I ask little children to go hungry a few hours until we got back home to make a meal? Might I offer a cheap bag of chips rather than offer an apple that might only get half-eaten? I also have new respect for school breakfast and lunch programs (and the schools that serve after-school healthy snacks or suppers).

If you have not already gone online to do some learning around this issue, check out this great website http://www.snaptohealth.org/farm-bill-usda/   The site is aimed at creating ways for the government to increase the impact of food stamps along with educating about nutrition and health. You can read how SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)  - the newer name for Food Stamps - comes up for renewal as part of the Farm Bill every five years.  2012 is one of those years.

Of course it's not so simple to renew the bill since U.S. lawmakers cannot agree on how much to cut support to farmers or food stamps for the poor. Watch for this to heat up in October and November.

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Rabbi Debra Hachen: Food Stamp Challenge day 3

Is a container of bread crumbs a baking ingredient, a starch like rice or noodles, or snack food?
 
This Sunday afternoon three adults and 7 children/teens from Temple Beth-El in Jersey City encountered that challenge when we sorted food at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside for 2 hours, thanks to the efforts of our temple member Jessi who put the trip together.
 
Each year the Food Bank assists over 1500 partner agencies, distributing over 39 million pounds of food in 18 New Jersey counties, helping to feed 900,000 people. Since incorporating in 1982, they have distributed over 400 million pounds of food and groceries valued at nearly 1 billion dollars.
In the last two years they have seen a 40% increase in food needs.

Our small part was sorting some of the hundreds of mixed boxes of food that came from food drives.  We resorted into boxes by food type: coffee, other beverages, canned foods, canned proteins, baking foods, cereals, snacks, health and beauty, bottled water, pet foods, rice/pasta, baby foods, paper goods, pet foods and a few more.  It was family day, so there were lots of young children in the section where we were working.  That made it so much fun – teaching the little ones that a can of kidney beans was protein, not just a regular vegetable.

On the way back we talked in the car about why our teens did this. One fifteen year old was very clear about her motivation: not to feel good or proud of herself, but because it was the right thing to do to live up to your obligations to society and humanity.

So, day three of my Food Stamp Challenge included a renewed sense of urgency to give higher priority to our temple’s weekly collection of canned food.  I’m thinking of calling it “Beyond the High Holy Day Food Drive.”
 
And I’m sure our teens will be volunteering at the Food Bank again this year. 

After all, now we know that bread crumbs go in the baking supplies box.

P.S.  For those curious about my week's food supply: today I reduced it (i.e. ate) bowl of cereal with milk, banana, yogurt, two slices of toast, some pasta, 3 turkey Italian sausages, some tomato sauce, and red leaf lettuce salad. 

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Rabbi Debra Hachen: Food Stamp Challenge day 1 & 2

Day One and Two

Why does the homeless man who “lives” near our temple not have food stamps? It takes so long and the paperwork is so complicated that after five hours trying to file to get public assistance, he gave up.
Bob (not his real name) explained this to me just before Shabbat as he sat in the shade near his bicycle.

I finished Shabbat and the second day of the Food Stamp Challenge (living on $31.50 worth of food for a week) a little hungry and a little jealous of all the delicious cakes I missed at the Oneg Shabbat and the dessert after Selichot services.  Still, it’s nothing like what Bob goes through each day.  Or the members of our temple and community who have to live on $31.50 a person every week – not just this one week.

Attached is a photo of the food I bought on Friday morning for the week. Checking price tags so closely adds a lot of time to grocery shopping.  In the end, it came to $30.96.    I wanted an avocado that was on sale but it was 75 cents.  My only fruit is bananas which were on sale at 39 cents a pound.  I counted the slices of bread when I unpacked – 18 in all.  That means 2 a day and an extra couple for a treat.

As of Saturday night at the end of Shabbat I have managed to eat two bowls of cereal, a banana, a yogurt, a small piece of broccoli, a few slices of cooked chicken breast, tuna with some chopped onion, a grilled cheese sandwich, and scrambled eggs with mushrooms and onion.  Not too unhealthy for two days of food though I sure do miss throwing some raisins or dried cranberries in the cereal.

I’m sure it’s more than Bob eats in two days.

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Rabbi Debra Hachen: Food Stamp Challenge day 1

$31.50 a week.

That's what the average food stamp recipient in our country gets to use toward food each week.

I spend that much from time to time on one meal.  Even on one entree.

Many of us are taking up the challenge to live on this food stamp budget for one week: from Friday, September 7 through Thursday, September 13.  I've signed on.

Why? I want to be able to understand in an even more personal way the struggles of the 45.7 million who live on food stamps week in and week out.  I want to use my experience to motivate others to ask their members of Congress to support SNAP.

Each day during the week I'll be posting here to this blog and also on my Facebook page.

If you would like to support my effort, you can donate to the Jewish Food Stamp Challenge with monies going to advocacy and to organizations like MAZON.

I'll post more ways to be involved in the next few days.

For now, think about what you are eating today.  What did it cost? Could you have managed it on $4.50?

My pre-challenge meals today added up to about $6 or so.
Cheerios with milk and blueberries.
Two slices of wheat toast, half a cucumber, and delicious mozzarella cheese.
Hamburger. Romaine lettuce salad.  Wheat linguine and sauce.
1/2 a bowl of popcorn.  (and two small squares of chocolate!)

Let's see how I do tomorrow.

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What It Means to Me to Participate in the Food Stamp Challenge by Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane

I was a free lunch kid on the “wrong side of the tracks.”  My mom, a divorced mother of two, waited tables during the less lucrative lunch shift so she could be home in the evenings with me and my younger sister.  Even so, it was not uncommon for us to be home alone for a couple hours after school because our mom could not afford childcare.  I was never hungry, but I remember what it’s like to watch every dollar. 

My life today is much different.  As an adult, I’ve never faced the kinds of financial strains that my mom dealt with when I was a kid, or that millions of families struggle with every day.

I am taking the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge the week before Thanksgiving (November 11-17) to better understand on a personal level – day-to-day and meal-to-meal – what it’s like to live on $31.50 a week or $1.50 a meal. 

Clearly this is not an easy task, which makes me all the more determined to take it on.  I need to know what this feels like because millions of people don’t have a choice.  This is their life.  How do the 42.6 million families (as of April 2012) receiving funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) make healthy, affordable food choices? 

When a trip to Starbucks is a regular treat, it’s easy to forget that that’s a luxury many Americans simply can’t afford.  But we mustn’t forget.  The disturbing truth is that 1/6 of our nation goes to bed hungry every night.

For the last two years I have become increasingly involved in the Mitzvah Meals program at Temple Beth Sholom (Santa Ana, CA) where I am a member.  You’ll find me most Sunday mornings in our temple kitchen helping prepare lunch and dinner for some 200 hungry people. 

Mitzvah Meals is an impressive program, and I’m really proud to be a part of it.  First shift sorts through the weekly donation from Trader Joe’s, creates a menu, and starts cooking.  By 11:15am more volunteers pick up lunch for 75 and deliver it to Village of Hope, a nearby homeless shelter.  In the early afternoon, second shift finishes making dinner, and new servers arrive to deliver dinner for 80 to Southwest Community Center, a local agency serving the homeless and economically disadvantaged.  We also send food to the working poor at Western Service Workers.  (By the way, in addition to Mitzvah Meals, our annual High Holiday food drive this year collected over 500 grocery bags of non-perishable food for other local relief agencies.)


Taking the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge is the logical extension of the volunteer work I am already doing with Mitzvah Meals.  When I was a free lunch kid, I didn’t worry about my next meal.  That was my mom’s job.  Now I’m the mom.  I’m the menu planner, grocery shopper, and chief cook.  So, for one week, November 11-17, I’m going to live on $31.50 and see, even in this small way, what it takes to plan, shop, and cook for a food insecure household.  With that knowledge, I hope to become a more sensitive human being and a more effective activist and advocate for the hungry.


(Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane is a member of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, CA.  An active volunteer for the American Conference of Cantors, she serves as co-chair of the ACC Social Action and Justice Committee, and also represents the ACC on the Steering Committee for the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, as well as the Commission on Social Action, the policy-making board for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.)         

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