A Jewish Response to the Hungry : Mazon Links New Approach to Tradition of Giving Help

Times Staff Writer

If you offer your compassion to the hungry

And satisfy the famished creature

Then shall your light shine in darkness

And your gloom shall be like noonday

--Isaiah 58:10

"I like to underline that we are giving contemporary meaning to Isaiah," Irving Cramer said by way of explaining Mazon, the program he directs.

Called "a Jewish response to hunger," Mazon asks American Jews to put a voluntary surcharge of 3% on celebrations such as weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs, birthdays, anniversaries and give that money to the hungry through Mazon to programs that feed poor people or work toward eliminating hunger.

In operation for less than a year, it made its first grants last June, seven small grants ranging from $1,250 to $10,000 to secular, Jewish and Christian programs across the country. Because there was little time to solicit proposals, the grants were almost "symbolic," Cramer said, more an assurance to donors that the work had begun. Next time, around the end of the year, he said, they will have more money to give away and more proposals to consider.

It is a new program and a decidedly new approach to a very old tradition.

"The whole proposition is about Jewish tradition," Cramer said. "It's Jewish tradition that you don't have a simchah (celebration) of any kind without having the poor. We begin the Passover Seder by saying, 'Let all who are hungry enter and eat.' Today we do that behind locked doors."

Wide Participation

That being the reality, it would seem, at least to Cramer and his board of directors, Mazon is an idea whose time has come. The boards of about 70 synagogues and temples have formally elected to participate in the program.

Contributions are also coming in from another 150 congregations that have not yet formally adopted the program, and from individuals.

Mazon's national office in Westwood is full of joyful, grateful letters from those who have already made contributions indicating their acts have indeed dispelled their gloom.

Come Yom Kippur, the day of fast when Jewish congregations hear the words of Isaiah, Mazon hopes to take a major step forward. A letter was recently sent to the rabbis of 5,000 Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in the United States.

In it founding board member Leonard Fein of Boston and board chairman Theodore Mann of Philadelphia, president of the American Jewish Congress, urge that on Yom Kippur, Oct. 13 this year, rabbis talk to their congregations about the problem of hunger.

They have included a sample sermon with their letter that says, in part, "There are two fasts happening on this Yom Kippur day. There is our fast of cleansing and repentence, our fast of return. At day's end, our fast will end, and we will resume our daily affairs, our work and our play, our eating and drinking, our loving and laughter.

"And there is another fast, a fast that did not begin last night and will not end with tonight's setting of the sun. It is the involuntary fast of a billion--1 billion people across this, God's Earth, a billion men and women, and God help us all, children whose every day is a day of hunger."

Beyond talking about the issue, Fein and Mann urge that the rabbis use the occasion to launch Mazon in their congregations. The rabbi plays a significant role in Mazon, acting as a middleman, Cramer said, both encouraging the congregation as a whole to participate and then advising and reminding families during the planning of a celebration.

It all started with a conversation in the parking lot of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino between Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Leonard Fein, editor of Moment, a Jewish magazine. As both men tell it, they were talking of the growing problem of hunger and what to do about it when the temple caterer's van came into the lot.

A Case of 'Eureka'

To Fein, who recalled it recently during a visit to Los Angeles, seeing the van was "Eureka! I suddenly realized a lot of stuff passes through these narrow channels. How many bar and bat mitzvahs per year, how many weddings, how many dollars per year. The idea was almost full blown. I thought, 'My God, if we could get a percent of that.' I shared it with Harold."

"I got immediately excited," Schulweis said later. "I like the personalized gift out of a personal experience: 'It's my wedding. It's my daughter's wedding. I've gotten something out of this world. And I've got to give something back.' "

Schulweis has many stories relating the personal nature of giving that was the tradition in biblical times and persisted until fairly recently, providing a rich folklore of beggars-at-the banquet in Eastern Europe. Nor was it unknown in the small, stationary communities of America a few years back. But not anymore, he said:

"When you live in a middle- and upper-middle-class society and you don't see the poor, you begin to think they don't exist. That's a sad part of economic segregation. It's why a synagogue has to have a window. You're supposed to look outside the sanctuary and see how people are living so you can pray and realize what those prayers signify."

It is that aspect that appeals to Harriet Bay, who chairs Mazon's volunteer committee for Los Angeles, serving as a liaison with temples and synagogues. It is she who often makes the contact with the people planning a celebration.

Important and Real

"I put that it's a great thing to pass on to the kids. I don't think kids always realize. They have to be reminded that these are real things and real acts, that it's real important," she said, adding that some children are sending in part of the money they receive at the bar and bat mitzvahs along with their parents' contributions.

Having had his moment of vision in Los Angeles, Leonard Fein went back to Boston last year and launched Mazon in his magazine, challenging Moment's readers to "find a way to translate ritual into reality."

It took off.

"I've never touched anything that has met with so much success," Fein said, echoing Cramer's description of the response he constantly meets. Both men have no doubt that for some people it "provides an excuse," and "makes people feel more comfortable in spending." But guilt is not what they are aiming at. They are speaking from a tradition that sees wealth as a blessing that ought to be shared. And they think that at 3%, it will be shared.

'Enough to Be Meaningful'

"Three percent is large enough to be meaningful, but small enough not to intrude," Fein said, saying they wanted to preclude possible "on top of everything else--this" excuses.

"If you talk of more, you've got a selling job. Three percent sells itself," he said, adding that many donors have sent more.

Since they have calculated that a minimum of $500 million per year is being spent in North America on simchahs , 3% of which is $15 million, they think their goal of $4 million to $5 million a year is realistic, a modest amount that will, nevertheless, Fein said, "help a lot of people."

The possibilities are almost endless. The founders and directors of Mazon say they would like nothing better than to see churches pick up on the concept. And, among the Jews, why stop at life-cycle events?

"I had a party," Bay said, "that was temple-related, but social. I had 40 people there. I am contributing the 3%. It feels comfortable doing that. I don't know if I'll do it for every party. . . ."

Fein and Cramer would have it so.

"Our hope," Fein said, "is that it will be virtually impossible to hold a celebration, including home events, without being contacted."

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