Friday, September 28, 2012

Kol Nidre Sermon 5773: "Is This the Challenge I Desire?"

     Jewish holidays seem to be dominated by food.  Of course we all know the triumvirate that Rabbi Litwak mentioned on Rosh Hashanah: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”

Perhaps it is unfair of me to offer a sermon about food on Yom Kippur, when we have just begun our fast.  You might be wondering why I would offer a food sermon tonight of all nights.  Maybe you are already looking forward to the breakfast tomorrow night, to the apple that we know awaits us as we exit Neilah service tomorrow evening.  As a people who regularly celebrate around food, we understand the excitement that can surround it.  The anticipation of Grandma’s matzah ball soup, the nose-holding over pickled herring and gefilte fish, the challenge over cooking on Passover.  These are all joys that characterize the Jewish people, and joys that millions of Americans cannot experience because they cannot afford food for themselves or their families.

1 in 7 families in the US receive food stamp benefits.  That’s over 42 million Americans, including 16.2 million children.  15% of Americans currently live below the poverty line, averaging an income of $693 per month per household. The average American family of four spends $950 per month on groceries alone!  To make up some of the difference, many of these people rely on the SNAP program to be able to afford to feed themselves.  SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and used to be known simply as “Food Stamps.”  It provides low-income households with electronic benefits they can use to purchase food at stores authorized by the US Department of Agriculture. SNAP is the cornerstone of federal food assistance programs and provides crucial support to needy households and to those making the transition from welfare to work.  And it is in danger of getting huge cuts as a part of a congressional initiative to cut $1.5 trillion from the budget.

This year I decided to participate in the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Food Stamp Challenge.  This year is the 5th annual Food Stamp Challenge, which usually takes place in November around Thanksgiving.  This year they added one to target the Jewish community the week before the High Holy Days began.

So, what is the Food Stamp Challenge?  It is a way for participants to experience firsthand the challenges of hunger in the United States. 

The average weekly SNAP benefit is $31.50 per person.  This is where the challenge comes in.  For one week—from September 7 to September 13—I spent only $31.50 on food for myself.  That averages out to $1.50 per meal.  To put this into perspective, when planning a teen trip, we typically budget $50 per person per day.  A SNAP recipient spends $31.50 per week.  So I did the same.  No sushi, no Yogurtland, not even a Veggie Burger—I carefully budgeted my $31.50 worth of food.

The program has pretty strict rules.  I wasn’t allowed to accept food from friends and family.  I wasn’t allowed to take food from work, which includes the Oneg table.  I couldn’t even take leftovers from a friend unless I deduct the cost of their food from my weekly budget.  It is a very stringent set of rules set for a very challenging week.  My own eating habits—my love of fresh fruits and vegetables, my vegetarianism, my epicurean tendencies—made this especially challenging on a personal level. 

So why did I submit myself to such a torturous challenge?

As we fast tomorrow we will be reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s words.  In Chapter 58, Isaiah asks,

Why do we fast without recognizing? Why do we afflict our soul without knowing [why]?...Is this the fast I have chosen? A day for afflicting the soul?...Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day for Adonai?

Is not this the fast I have chosen? To loose the chains of wickedness and undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your home?...If you draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light will rise in the darkness and your gloom will be as the [bright noonday sun]

(Isa 58:5-10).

We are reminded by Isaiah of the real reasons we fast.  Not to make a show of it, not to demonstrate what good fasters we are, not to compare who is having a harder time with their fast.  We do this to cleanse our bodies so we can focus on our souls.  We fast to empathize with those who do not have as much as we do.  This is a regular theme throughout Jewish practice.  We are often reminded to help out those in need and to feel what they are feeling.  Consider just a few examples from our tradition:

The Passover Seder reminds us that all who are hungry should join us and eat, and all who are in need should come share in our bounty.

Leviticus teaches us to leave the corners of our field so that the poor can come and glean.

Deuteronomy contains the instruction, “If there is a poor person among you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother [or sister]” (Deut. 15:7). 

Perhaps the best way to soften our hearts to the plight of the poor is to walk a mile in their shoes.  The Food Stamp Challenge in no way gave me complete empathy for people who participate regularly in SNAP.  There is no way I could claim to fully understand what they go through on a regular basis.  Instead, it only gave me a glimpse into what they go through each and every week.

Tonight I want to give you a glimpse into what I experienced during my week on the Food Stamp Challenge.

I went shopping the night before I began.  I found myself walking through the aisles of Wal-Mart with a calculator, deciding what I could and could not afford that week.  Not surprising, I could not afford much in the realm of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Bananas are cheap (and filling), so that was good, but all the vegetables in my cart were frozen or canned.  I am a salad eater.  A typical lunch for me is a salad with a can of tuna on top.  This week, however, it was rice and beans, spaghetti, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Speaking of grilled cheese, this is one of the huge decisions I had to make: peanut butter or cheese.  I knew that both one would give me protein and I could put it on bread all week, but which one would suit me better for the week?  I think about decisions like this and I marvel at the millions of people who have to think like that every time they are in the grocery store.  Cheese or peanut butter is certainly not as severe of a decision as food or medicine, which is the very real choice many SNAP participants have to face regularly. 

Day one was Friday, September 7.  I realized what was probably going to be the hardest part about this week: coffee.  I bought a container of instant coffee called “Pampa,” which I have never heard of before.  It is appropriately named, however, because it kind of tastes like licking a diaper.  When it is hot, it is kind of bland with a rotten-nut aftertaste, but when it gets cold—yuck!  By 11am on my first day I was seriously considering spending every penny I had left on better coffee.


There were plenty of other difficulties for me during the Food Stamp Challenge.  Saturday night was S’lichot, the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, and as is tradition, we held a study session before S’lichot services.  After services there was an overnight with teenagers.  When we started the teen portion of the evening, we opened a huge bag of pretzels and another of pita chips, and I was suddenly confronted by a trio of teens asking, “Do we have any hummus?”  I apologized and acknowledged that that would have been a good idea, and then the complaining increased.  “No hummus? Who buys pita chips without hummus? We get the big thing of hummus at my house, and it’s gone in days.  Have you had the spinach and artichoke one? It’s awesome!”

I told the teens all about the Food Stamp Challenge.  I explained that some people in our country can’t even afford to eat pita chips, much less hummus.  I told them that they wouldn’t see me eating anything they were enjoying tonight because I am eating on $31.50 this week.  My friends, there is nobody in the world quite like a teenager.  They got it right away.  They were amazed.  They admitted they would not be able to do something like that, and asked if it was ok if they eat in front of me.

And the next morning, not one person complained about the no-brand breakfast foods I had bought.


When I was a kid, we used to go shopping with mom on the weekends.  Very often she would intentionally take us around lunch time and we would have was my mom called “Tasting Lunch.”  We would walk around Kroger (our version of Publix) and take from the samples all over the store.  We would eat our fill on crackers and cheese, mini sausages, and pizza bites.  My sister and I thought it was fun, and a unique way to try things mom would never buy.  We later learned that those were difficult financial times for my parents.  My dad was trying to start a business, and while we were not impoverished, saving money was incredibly important to my parents at that time, so a chance to feed us for free was welcomed.

One of the rules of this challenge is, “Don’t feed the rabbi.”  I was not allowed to accept food as gifts, nor was I allowed to seek out free food.  I am sure there are food stamp recipients who work in restaurants, grocery stores, and other areas in the food service industry.  I know from my experiences that people in restaurants take food home.  They are given free meals and they might even nibble off of leftovers.

I vividly remember a skinny old man named Charles who washed dishes at a place I worked in Cincinnati called Watson Brothers.  One of the managers found out the Charles was eating food off of the plates we gave him, so a crack-down began.  All servers had to scrape plates before giving them to the dishwashers.  The service staff knew that Charles was poor.  He had six kids at home, and his wife wasn’t working so she could take care of them.  He was on food stamps and told us he would often go without so his kids could eat.  We didn’t agree with the manager’s decision to not allow Charles to eat for free, so we modified the new rule.  Whenever we had to bring back an untouched meal—either because it was returned or cold or the wrong item was sent out—we would pass the plate to Charles.  Over the course of a shift he would probably eat five or six meals worth of food, and chances are he only really ate when he was standing in the dish station.

It makes a difference when it is someone we know verses a statistic.  To say, “There are 16.2 million children living in poverty,” gets a sigh and a mumbled apology to nobody, but to say, “I’m hungry,” elicits a slew of culinary offerings from my co-workers.  That is why the servers at Watson Brother’s collectively, instinctively bucked the system to make sure Charles got fed.  We knew there was something we could do, and we did it.  It didn’t harm anyone, didn’t take any money away from the restaurant.  All it did was give a plate a pitstop on its way to the garbage, and help a man to be able to eat so that he could spend his money feeding his children.


Going back to the Food Stamp Challenge, by the fourth day I started to notice physical changes.  I was having difficulty at the gym.  My heart rate was low, and I could not lift my usual amount of weights by 25%.  It was more than a noticeable fact, it was disheartening—depressing, even.  By the time I couldn’t push the weights up on two of my usual machines, I simply stopped, went to the showers, and cried.

I felt a need to get nutrients and protein into my body.  I wasn’t hungry any more, but I was craving certain foods.  When I was first shopping for the Food Stamp Challenge my thoughts were along the lines of, “How much food can I get for less money?”  By the middle of the week my focus had changed to, “What is the healthiest thing I can buy for $5?”

I had trouble getting focused.  This was the time I was supposed to be hardcore into my sermon writing, but I couldn’t concentrate.  I was tired, I went to bed earlier than usual, snapped regularly at Natalie and the kids, and felt miserable.


The last day of the challenge was September 13, my birthday.  Typically on a staff member’s birthday at Temple Sinai the person is called in for a “meeting” and presented with a cake, a card, and singing.  For the last week people have been saying things like, “Really? You’re not even going to be allowed to have cake with us?”  So this year, knowing I was not going to partake in cake, several staffers came in to my office holding a fruit basket and a candle.  They knew I couldn’t eat the fruit then and there, but expressed their hope that it would get eaten over the next few days, as soon as I could start eating what I want again.  We took a picture of me holding a candle stuck into—nothing, and another of me holding the fruit basket.

It was incredibly thoughtful, fun, and supportive to know that I work at a place where they would still want to celebrate on my birthday with me and offer as much as they thought I could handle.  I know that it takes away from their joy as well, because they surely like to have a little cake whenever it is someone else’s birthday, but had to forgo it because of the Food Stamp Challenge that they weren’t even participating in.

This was one of the unanticipated side effects of this challenge.  People love to give other people food.  Whether it is watching a loved one enjoy a dish you cooked or celebrating birthdays with co-workers, we use food to express our joy.  It makes me realize how lucky we are to have such things provided for us and to be able to provide such things in return.


My last two hours of the Food Stamp Challenge I realized another lesson.  I knew when my time on a tight food budget was going to end.  I could count down and get excited about the midnight snack of a salad that was waiting for me in the refrigerator.  People on welfare and using food stamps cannot do that.  They can’t countdown to the point where everything’s going to be ok.  They have to work hard, have faith, and hope that any day might be the moment when they can make enough money to get off of food stamps.  They don’t know when they will get the job that will get them out of their financial situation.  They don’t know when they will get to make healthful choices in the supermarket because they will have more than $31.50.

Now that I know I can do this challenge, I will be doing it again.  The Food Stamp Challenge is offered both over the week before Rosh Hashanah and the week before Thanksgiving.  So this November I will most likely be doing the Food Stamp Challenge again.  But this time I hope to not do it alone.  I would ask that you all join me.  Whether you do it as a family or as individuals, can you spend only $31.50 per person on food for one week?  As I mentioned earlier, the average family of four in America spends around $950 for one month’s worth of groceries, or about $60 per person per week.  This does not include dining out or snacks bought at vending machines or morning stops at Starbucks, and it is already twice what the average food stamps recipient gets per week.

This is why I am inviting every individual, every couple, and every family from Temple Sinai to join me in the Food Stamp Challenge this coming November.  The week of November 11-17, the week before Thanksgiving, will be the next national Food Stamp Challenge.  If you and your family are willing, join me in raising awareness about America’s Hungry, and see what a mile feels like in their shoes.  You can sign up to join this challenge by emailing me at, or by signing the petition in the main office.  By signing up for this challenge, you are pledging to do two things.  First, you will spend no more than $31.50 on food per person for the week.  This is food and beverage.  It’s not easy, and I am here to support you if you want recipe ideas, shopping tips, or money-saving options.  The rules are pretty simple:

1.    Spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week.

2.    All food purchased and eaten, including fast food and dining out, must be included in the total spending.

3.    During the challenge, eat only the food that you purchase for the project.  Do not eat food you already own, with the exception of spices and condiments.

4.    Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or at work, including food at receptions or coffee in the office.

5.    Keep track of all receipts on food and try to note your experiences throughout the week as through journaling.

Second, donate the remainder of your weekly food bill to help Americans on food stamps get out of their situation.  If you spend $31.50 on yourself, consider sending the same amount or more to those in need.  You can choose your hunger relief organization: Mazon, Miami’s own Kosher Food Bank, Jewish Community Services, or any other organization about which you are passionate.  You can also write a check to my discretionary fund, and on November 18 I will send a check to The Jewish Council for Public Affairs Confronting Poverty Campaign, the organizers of the Food Stamp Challenge.

Not everyone can participate.  People with special food requirements might not be able to handle such a low cost diet.  If you cannot take the Food Stamp Challenge, please consider donating anyways.  If you can, I promise you will feel different by the end of the week. 

If you cannot give and you cannot participate, then advocate.  Write letters to your government representatives asking them to start subsidizing fresh vegetables more than they subsidize meat and corn.  Ask for tax credits for poor families who shop at farmers’ markets and buy local produce.  We need to make it easier to be healthier.  As families, try to go on a fast food fast.  Can you go a week without eating at a fast food restaurant?  How about a month?  Let’s use November, especially the week of the 11th, as a way to make a concerted group effort to make healthful choices with our food.  November 16, the Friday night of the next Food Stamp Challenge, happens to be a Religious School Shabbat dinner.  So I have an offer for all of you who plan on participating.  Let’s make a cheap, under $1.50 per person, healthy meal that night.  I bet if we pool our resources we can come up with something delicious and good for us.

This is the fast God asks of us: To share our bread with the hungry and bring the poor into our homes.  The Food Stamp Challenge gives us the opportunity to share our bread with the hungry, and to bring understanding of the plight of the poor into our homes.  I hope you will join me the week of November 11, and I pray that you will help other Americans end their struggle with hunger.

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