LOS ANGELES (JTA) — As we prepare for our Thanksgiving feasts, a 90-year-old Jewish man named Arnold Abbott is stirring the pot in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., about hunger and homelessness in America.
Or is it that Abbott, who in defiance of a controversial new city ordinance has been cited several times for feeding the homeless outdoors, is just asking us to pay more than lip service to our Jewish ideals?
The ordinance limits where outdoor feeding sites can be located and requires permits. Groups must provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations. And like a restaurant, they must maintain the food at precisely prescribed temperatures.
“I believe I am my brother’s keeper,” Abbott told the SunSentinel recently. “I’m Jewish, and in Judaism they say that if you save one person, you save the world.”
His organization’s name, Love Thy Neighbor, is found in Leviticus.
Mulling Abbott’s words, as I shop for Thanksgiving, I wonder: As we have acclimated ourselves to a night of secular feasting, have we also integrated into our celebration Jewish ideas about hospitality and to “not stand idly by”?
Sure, I can find kosher turkeys, stuffing and cranberry sauce stocked on the supermarket shelves, but how will all that save even one person?
Looking for an answer, I spoke with Susan Baigelman, who a few miles inland from where Abbott distributes hot meals on the Fort Lauderdale beach runs the WECARE Food Pantry.
The pantry, whose home is the Soref Jewish Community Center in Plantation, Fla., serves about 10,000 people a year, giving out 3,500 bags of nonperishable groceries supplemented with fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as bread donated by a local bakery. Each bag is valued between $40 and $50, Baigelman told me.
Among the people the program serves are “seniors, Holocaust survivors, people living on fixed income and single parents with children,” she said. Also, the disabled, people with mental health issues and the unemployed, as well as those who are working.
Baigelman, who has directed the program for over 12 years and says she knows Abbott, has learned that those who come to the pantry may not be who you expect.
“They could be your next door neighbor or sit at the desk across from you,” she said. “We get people who say ‘I never thought I would be doing this. I used to donate.’ ”
After paying rent or their mortgage, the electricity and medical expenses, people are having trouble making ends meet, said Baigelman, adding that some of the pantry’s clients are “sleeping in their car.”
“We need to help people move forward,” she said. “I wish I was out of a job because nobody would be hungry anymore.”
The Long Island native, who has lived in Florida for 35 years, adds, “Don’t you think Baigelman is a good name to run a food pantry? It was bashert.”
Throughout the year, and especially during the holiday season — at Thanksgiving they try to have turkeys to give — the pantry’s efforts are supported by the local Jewish community, which organizes food drives and contributes funding.
“Hunger never takes a vacation,” said Baigelman, who unknowingly was also reminding me how that “one person” is saved.
As to Abbott’s efforts and the attention they are being given, Baigelman said he was bringing “awareness” to the situation.
Besides the headlines, and Steven Colbert lampooning the city, on the other side of the country, in San Diego, Calif., just days after Abbott becomes national news, Rabbi Yael Ridberg in an online “Torah Talk” saw a parallel between Abbott’s actions and that of one of the forefathers.
“I felt for a moment that I was reading a modern-day story of Abraham,” wrote Ridberg of the Reconstructionist Congregation Dor Hadash.
When I spoke with her, Ridberg explained that in the Torah portion Vayera, Abraham is sitting in his tent in the heat of the day, and as three strangers approach he “leaps up” and “runs to greet his guests.”
“It didn’t matter what was going on his life, he had guests to attend to,” she said.
Listening to the rabbi, I saw the parallel: Abbott in his way was leaping up, too, and that feeding the hungry in public was his own take on hospitality.
Abbott “has a certain calling to feed the hungry,” even though he lives in a city that “has told him, and everyone else, this is against the law,” Ridberg said. “He is not deterred.
“Our Torah teaches us that we are to take care of the poor, the stranger, the widow,” and that “we are obligated to remember the heart of the stranger,” she said.
“To just arrest a 90-year-old man for feeding the hungry and not address the underlying issues that have caused hunger and homelessness in America, I think is not the whole equation. How about getting more resources to the local homeless shelters?”
And what about providing more food and support, I thought, especially before Thanksgiving, to the programs run by Abbott and Baigelman, as well as to others across the country who feed the hungry?
Later, rolling through the supermarket, I realized that to save that one person, I would need to make my own leap.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)