As I enter the fast of Yom Kippur this Friday night, thoughts of my clients at Jewish Family Services will be on my mind. These clients are individuals from low-income Jewish families in Ottawa who are assisted by the JFS Tikvah Program, where I work. The assistance that we provide is basic – food supplies and about $100 a month, but it is desperately needed and greatly appreciated by the over 115 families who benefit from the program.
My thoughts will be with these clients because I know that their experience with hunger is not just a yearly (or six-times yearly) occurrence. These families are faced with hunger on a weekly basis, and they regularly struggle to access the food and nutrition that they need to thrive.
An advocacy group called Put Food in the Budget encourages Ontarians to participate in the “Do the Math Challenge,” asking participants to spend one week on the food budget being faced by fellow Ontarians on social assistance. The question is: could you live off of $585/month? What would a trip to the grocery store look like with that kind of budgetary restriction? What kind of nutritional value would your dinner have on that allowance? What would breakfast look like? Would you have breakfast? What if you factored in the additional expense of buying kosher food into that equation? What would you be eating then?
These are the difficult questions that the “Do the Math Challenge” forces us to confront. (You can also find a video clip of an Ottawa family who took the challenge here.) At JFS, we try to ease that burden for Ottawa Jewish families through the Kosher Food Bank, Miriam’s Well (a monthly fruits and vegetables distribution), and modest direct financial assistance. There is real poverty in the Jewish community all around us, and those families who are experiencing that poverty are living through the hunger of Yom Kippur every day.
I also think about my clients at JFS sometimes as we’re enjoying our delicious Glebe Shul Shabbat dinner feasts. After Stacy kicks off the meal with her famous homemade challah, she follows it up with dips, salads, fish, soup, chicken, quinoa, sweet potato pie, and other delicacies. Of course we all enjoy some wine and beer as we progress through the meal, which is usually followed by a satisfied belt-popping schmooze on the couch over dessert. I think about my clients at JFS because I realize that I am working in two very different worlds. At the Glebe Shul I am working to stuff people full with friends, community, and (of course) food. At JFS I am working to enable people to get by with the most basic levels of nutrition.
What bothers me about this contrast is not that I see the Glebe Shul experience as being excessive. It’s not. The Shabbat dinners of the Glebe Shul are magical evenings where friends are made and community is built, and I wouldn’t want to change any part of them. What bothers me is the absence of any interaction between these worlds. I don’t want people at the Glebe Shul to stop eating delicious Shabbat dinners, the same way that the folks over at Put Food in the Budget don’t want Ontarians to stop eating nutritious food. What I want is for us to appreciate the blessings that we have, and to work to enable other members of our community to share in those blessings.
I want my two worlds to intersect, and I want the Glebe Shul to play a greater role in enabling every member of the Ottawa Jewish community to live with comfort and dignity. I’m fond of the Glebe Shul’s informal motto: eat, pray, love. But we could be doing more to make sure that all members of our Jewish community are able to eat, pray, and love with the same comfort and dignity that we enjoy.
In the long-term, there are several ideas that we, as the Glebe Shul community, could pursue. I have some ideas, and I would love to hear your ideas of programs and initiatives that we could implement to assist Jewish low-income families in Ottawa.
In the short-term we need to start supporting those programs that are already being offered by JFS. For example, JFS is looking for drivers to deliver fruits and vegetables from their monthly Miriam’s Well program to clients who are unable to pick up the produce themselves. This is a simple direct-service volunteer opportunity that will enable low-income families to enjoy nutritious fruits and vegetables. And as the weather gets colder, the number of clients who will be in need of that service is only going to grow. Miriam’s Well runs of the last Monday of every month. Who wants to help out?
Here’s another idea: One lovely part of the Glebe Shul community is that everyone pitches in. Some people bring wine, others bring some fruit, or cake, or beer, or soda. Everyone contributes. But what if in addition to that bottle of wine or bundle of grapes guests brought one non-perishable item for donation to the Kosher Food Bank? In this way we could enjoy our abundant blessings while at the same time working to share that abundance with others. It’s a small gesture, but it carries a giant message of care and concern.
As we move forward with our community, let’s keep in mind the context of the greater Jewish community in which we are living. Let’s work to enhance and strengthen our beautiful Glebe Shul community, and let’s do it in a way that respects and enables all of the families in Ottawa who long to eat, pray, and love along with us.