Orange County looks picture perfect, with its pastoral hills and safe communities. And yet behind that postcard, hunger is an outstanding issue in this paradise, with almost 25 percent of residents living in economic hardship and 890,000 residents at risk for hunger.
“We have high rental costs, high transportation costs and many [people] who are low wage earners, who have lost a job or lost one of the two jobs supporting the family,” Anita Mishook, vice president of social action at University Syangogue, said. “Government food aid, for those who have it, provides about $7 per day per person. Food banks are constantly drained of their supplies.”
The Jewish community may be considered traditionally affluent and above all the problems of society, but the recession has caused a dent in the stereotype. Although there are no definitive statistics, hunger and poverty have hit the community hard.
One community that has felt it has been Congregation Beth Jacob in Irvine, where there are a number of families who are working to make ends meet. “Every Shabbat there is a Kiddush served for the entire community, and many choose to make this their Shabbat meal,” Rabbi Yisroel Ciner said. It is a story that is common, but remains hidden from view.
Those who are suffering from the economy’s breakdown may remain anonymous, but with Mitzvah Day in the hearts of the community, residents are thinking about how to give back in any way they can. For many, that means going to straight to the stomachs of the Orange County population.
Ciner mentioned his congregation’s Chesed Fund as one of the sources of helping those in need in their community. For him, the importance of chesed, or kindness, is the will of G-d and helps people mold themselves in the image of G-d.
In addition to helping those who are hungry, the congregation also arranges meals for those who are ill, who have lost a close family member or who have given birth. However, the rabbi does not limit that kindness to those who might be members.
“Our chesed extends well beyond our immediate community,” he said.
For Monica Engel, vice president of social action at Temple Beth Sholom, performing mitzvot is something that Jews are commanded to do, and the practice should start as young as possible.
“If you can instill it in children when they are younger, it becomes a part of their lives,” Engel said. At her temple, many of the kids get involved in the fight against hunger by delivering during food drives and by helping in Mitzvah Meals, a program that the temple does every Sunday since its start last Rosh Hashanah.
Engel was inspired in part by churches often cooking food and distributing it to the homeless. She wondered why synagogues were not doing this on a regular basis, but rather regulating it to several times a year.
The program consists of members of the temple coming together every Sunday and making and serving food at three different venues in Orange County: Village of Hope in Tustin, Grand Street Center in Orange and Southwest Community Center in Santa Ana. In addition, the temple also distributes food to Wise Place, Western Service Workers and the Hope School. With the help of Trader Joe’s and donations, both monetary and through the congregation’s food pantry, the Mitzvah Meals program at the temple feeds between 800 and 900 people a month.
“For a country like ours, with such abundance, for people not to have food to eat, it’s unthinkable,” she said.
Engel would like to expand the program, but it remains difficult for the synagogue, as it is in need of a new kitchen. Currently, the kitchen is laid out poorly, and there is equipment that doesn’t work. Although there is a lot of fun to be had, it’s tight quarters to the point where the temple’s “food pantry” consists of two sheds that have lovingly been called Mitzvah Mansions.
“We would love to expand, but it’s not feasible right now,” she said. “But if an angel wants to come along and help redesign our kitchen, we’d be happy to oblige.”
On May 15, University Synagogue held its Mitzvah Day. It’s a big day, and there were numerous activities to participate in that benefit a variety of causes, from hunger to children with AIDS.
“Focusing on one or two days a year for Mitzvah Day is more to bring community together — all ages, all abilities, and, when possible, interfaith — for this purpose,” Mishook said.
Among the activities to help hunger were serving at soup kitchens throughout Orange County, preparing food for distribution and working at a food bank. In addition, the community also had a bake sale, Mah Jong and poker games benefitting Mazon, a national nonprofit dedicated to eliminating hunger for all faiths.
In addition to its mitzvah days, the congregation also has three food drives a year and works with many different organizations, ranging from Jewish World Watch to US CARES, which provides small grants to members of the temple for anything they may need but can’t afford. In addition, the program provides babysitting, trips to the doctor and any other aids that would benefit the community.
Although many congregations are doing their part to the best of their ability, hunger never takes a holiday. And yet there are side benefits to social action, including bringing people together through the purpose of helping others.
“We all feel so gratified doing it, and it’s unified our temple,” Engel said. “It has given our temple a bigger purpose.”