Rabbi Steve Gutow makes a six-figure salary. That didn’t matter last November when he found himself famished one day and down to his last 68 cents. He could afford only a banana and two tangerines.
He wasn’t really broke. Gutow was taking part in the 2011 Food Stamp Challenge, a campaign that encourages well-off Americans to try eating for seven days on $31.50, the average weekly allotment for individuals on food stamps. That comes to $1.50 per meal.
Gutow is president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is promoting the challenge once again this year.
Gutow and Lawrence Gold, one of nine regional JCPA vice chairs, visited the Bay Area last week to raise funds for their agency, the umbrella organization of 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils around the nation. They also met with local JCRC leaders.
The JCPA focuses on issues such as poverty, hunger, immigration and civil rights. Its mission also includes safeguarding the rights of Jews around the world, defending Israel and promoting a just society for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Both Gutow and Gold have legal backgrounds. Gutow was a Dallas attorney before he became a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement, later serving in a St. Louis pulpit. Gold is an Atlanta attorney with a lengthy résumé in his Jewish community.
Gutow traces his interest in his current line of work to his involvement with the Dallas JCRC, especially the bridges he built with the African American community there.
Such interfaith work pays off as JCPA and its member JCRCs have led the fight against BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) initiatives against Israel, especially when it comes up in mainstream churches.
“The connections are extremely important to us as it relates to the BDS,” Gold said. “Mainline Protestant churches are constantly bringing up resolutions to support BDS. We fight that strenuously with our friends within each denomination, and we’ve beaten back these resolutions.”
The renewed Food Stamp Challenge is a pet project of Gutow’s. He’s taken the challenge twice, and expects significant Jewish community involvement this year.
Teaming up with Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and governing bodies from the various Jewish denominations, JCPA has targeted the weeks between the High Holy Days and Thanksgiving for Jews to take the challenge.
Gutow said his two challenge experiences gave him a taste of what life is like for the poor.
During his first go-round in 2007, he made a modest Shabbat meal for friends, which included grape juice (“Wine would have busted the budget,” he said) and an omelet made with lentils. When he accidentally dropped the entrée in a bowl of water, he panicked.
“It got me thinking: What happens to the poor when they burn the dinner or things don’t work out?” he said. “If you’re poor and you lose something, it’s over.”
That sensitizing is the goal of the challenge, which, he noted, is grounded in Jewish values, as is the entire JCPA agenda. The organization takes positions not only on Israel and Iran’s nuclear program, but everything from human trafficking to tax policy to flag desecration, as well.
“Jewish values are meant for everybody,” Gutow said. “In Judaism, you don’t just treat the stranger well, you’re supposed to love the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt. When we oppose trafficking, we’re living with Jewish values.”
Having been a lawyer, a pulpit rabbi and now the head of a national Jewish agency, Gutow sometimes blurs the line between his Jewish religious values and his professional mission with JCPA.
However, that does not seem to pose a problem.
“We want to play in this world,” Gutow said. “We’re about life in this world.”