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Jewish Response to Hunger

A new national Jewish organization called “Mazon” (Hebrew for sustenance) has been launched here as “a Jewish response to hunger.” The organization will raise and provide funds to projects on the local, national, and international level designed to feed Jews and non-Jews and to attack the “root causes of hunger.”

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Mazon’s national executive director, Irving Cramer of Los Angeles, said the idea behind the organization came from an article by Leonard Fein, editor of Moment magazine, last Spring. What followed, he said, was a “groundswell” of enthusiasm which led to the formation of a 27-member national board which met last Thursday to finalize details of Mazon’s operation.

The uniqueness of Mazon, said Cramer, lies in its sole method of fund-raising — through a voluntary surcharge of three percent to be added by families to the cost of Jewish “life-cycle” festivities such as weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. With the Jewish community spending $500 million on such festivities a year, Mazon expects the surcharge to bring in $5 to $6 million annually, he said.

The organization is structured to work through participating synagogues and temples. “When the rabbi talks to the family about the logistics of a festivity, he also talks about its spiritual aspects. He will talk about Jewish values and how they can be translated” into the family’s adding the surcharge for Mazon, said Cramer.

At a later stage, Mazon will branch out to reach hotels and country clubs where so many of these affairs are held. Some participating caterers will put Mazon’s logo on their letterhead as “Mazon partners.”

THE PURPOSE OF MAZON

The purpose of Mazon, said Cramer, is to “give contemporary meaning to what the Torah obligates us to do” — feed the hungry — and provide the means for doing so. He pointed to the mitzvah of leaving the corners of one’s field for the poor to glean, and the custom in the East European shtetl (townlet) of inviting the poor “and not only Jews” to share the wedding feast.

Mazon’s three goals, he continued, are: to feed Jews and non-Jews as part of the Jewish concept of social justice; to “raise consciousness” in the community by enabling people to realize that some of what flows in “should also flow out”; and to create in the private sector a “Jewish presence” engaged in feeding the poor.

Asked by JTA why feeding the Jewish poor should require an additional structure given the existence of the Federations, Cramer replied that “the Federations should be doing this, and they do do it to some extent; they are not doing it completely.”

He added in this context that it is the federal government which should be feeding the hungry — they should not only be doing what they did before the budget cuts but “they should be doing more and better.” But, he said, “they weren’t, they don’t and they won’t.” Given this situation, he concluded, “what should we do in the meantime, stand around and watch people starve?”

Just in the past few months, as Mazon was taking shape, “people have been wildly responsive,” Cramer told JTA. Many people feel the surcharge “lends some meaning” to the expensive family festivities indulged in by many American Jews, “and are thrilled to give it.” In addition, when anyone spends $20 or $30,000 for a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, Cramer said, “no one can say they can’t afford” a small surcharge.

Mazon is structured as a volunteer operation, with only two staff persons, and is designed to operate at very low costs. Volunteer committees will work in the cities, with a liaison person for each participating synagogue.

A special advisory committee of experts on hunger, as well as Board members, will review all project proposals submitted to Mazon and make grants at quarterly or semi-annual intervals.

The Board is chaired by Theodore Mann, president of the American Jewish Congress. It includes former Congressional Representative Bella Abzug; actor Ed Asner; Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; and Fein.

Also, Dr. David Gordis, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee; Esther Leah Ritz, president of the JWB; Albert Vorspan, director of the Social Action Commission of the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations; and others.

Mazon will operate out of offices at 2288 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, Cal., 90024.

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