Seder spotlights ongoing fight against hunger

About 130 people took part in the Jewish Community Relations Council’s annual Community Hunger Seder, held March 25 at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church.  Photo: Andrew Kerman. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

An ancient Jewish ritual meal helped bring attention to the very modern problem of hunger during an interfaith event at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church last week.

“For today’s seder we choose to recognize that while the Jewish people may be free, not everyone has cause for celebration,” Rabbi Josef A. Davidson of Congregation B’nai Amoona told the group. “Many people, even in a free society such as ours, are bound by the hardships and challenges of their circumstances.”

Some of those challenges were discussed at last Wednesday’s Community Hunger Seder. About 130 attended the annual event, which was sponsored by the church as well as the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations and the Bohm Social Justice Initiative of the Jewish Community Relations Council as well as other local agencies.

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Canned goods and other edible items were also collected to benefit both the church’s own food bank and the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

“We have many generous people who are donating,” said Gail Weschler, director of domestic issues and social justice at the JCRC. “We also think it is important to do an interfaith event this year with the Presbyterian community to show that really our religions all speak to the issue of helping the needy.”

Rev. Dieter Heinzl, associate pastor with the church, said it was an honor to be part of this year’s seder. “I hope this will be a good opportunity to learn more about each other and about each other’s traditions, to start friendships,” he said.

Led by Davidson, the proceedings featured readings by members of the Jewish and Presbyterian communities, including parables about helping others, which were interspersed with explanations from the rabbi about various aspects of the seder. The ritual steps were all observed though no meal was ultimately prepared or eaten. 

Much of the event was strongly infused with advocacy regarding the issue of hunger. Participants were urged to call their elected representatives in Washington D.C. to push for passage of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act now before Congress.

Participants learned that one-in-five American children battle the effects of hunger with about 16 million of them living in poverty. Nearly 21 million benefit from the free or reduced-price lunches at schools, which organizers said can help cognitive development and educational achievement.

In addition to the readings, a number of traditional aspects of the Passover meal were reformulated to match the theme of the evening. The Four Questions included queries such as “How could so many children still suffer from hunger when we live in tremendous wealth and abundance?” 

The Four Children were identified as a child who receives free lunch at school, one who receives a free breakfast and two others who participate in the summer feeding program and WIC. Even the Ten Plagues were reworked to include a single mother who gives food to her toddler while she goes hungry, a middle-schooler who doesn’t accept a free breakfast because he is ashamed of being poor, and a young family that lives in an urban neighborhood where there is no full-service grocery store.

The greatest plague of all was identified as apathy, “the failure to make ending childhood hunger a national priority.”

Participants of all faiths seemed to enjoy the event.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to come and really be focused on hunger,” said Deb Lavender, a Democratic state representative whose 90th District centers on Kirkwood. “Right now in this country, we have too many children that are too hungry for too long. To have the opportunity to stop at Passover time and reflect on that as a community is a wonderful way to enjoy the holiday season.”

Lou Albert, executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, said that he was happy with the turnout.

“Passover on many levels speaks to the topic of hunger,” he said, noting that when the Jews left Egypt they did not have enough food. “We remember the story and we apply it to our own time. It is a story with universal themes.”

Louise Levine, an attendee from Temple Emanuel, said people seemed engaged in the evening’s activities.

“They asked lots of questions about the seder and about what the rabbi was saying,” she said. “They were very concerned about the food problem in Missouri and the whole United States. They want to work with us in trying to help rectify that.”

The Muslim community was represented as well with Amana Nasir coming from a nearby mosque to attend.

“It was very moving. I was in tears many times,” she said. “I think this is just the awakening. We need to keep at it and just do things. We’ve heard about it now and we’re pumped so I’m hoping we’re going to stay involved with some causes.”

She said the Ten Plagues recitation hit “too close to home.”

“That’s a good thing because hopefully, we’ll do something about it,” she said.

Rev. Miriam Foltz of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy said that she also enjoyed the powerful message though she joked that it wasn’t the only powerful thing she experienced that evening.

“Taste-wise, always the most impactful is the horseradish,” she laughed. “Physically, that opened up the sinuses.”