“Do you know what it means to be hungry?” Zamir Hasan asked the crowd gathered at the Brotherhood Synagogue in New York City.
A few hands went up.
“Hunger means that you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.” A young boy answered.
“Right. And do you know how many people in the U.S. don’t know where their next meal is coming from?” Zamir asked.
A few more hands.
“Ten million?.....Twenty million?.....”
“Higher” Zamir kept saying.
“It 48 million. And this is the richest country in the world.”
Zamir gave the instructions and the crowd dispersed to their assigned tables and got going. I was assigned to the green table.
For the next 90 minutes, I stood in an assembly line with 4 Jews and 3 Muslims, and packaged food for the hungry. By the time we were done, the assembly of over 50 Jews and Muslims had packaged 10,000 meals for distribution to senior citizens.
How did this come about?
Think of it: A Muslim-led initiative—Hungry Van—organizing the initiative, taking charge, giving instructions, in a Synagogue. And Muslims and Jews lined up in an assembly-line, packaging food for the hungry. A synagogue opening its doors, registering attendees, facilitating, and deferring to Zamir on the logistics.
It all started when in 2008, Rabbi Marc Scheneir, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) initiated a program called Season of Twinning. The program focuses on nurturing ties between Muslims and Jews around the world. Since then, tens of thousands of people have come together around the world to hold educational program to enhance understanding, and undertake social initiatives. The theme of this season is: “Standing Together Against Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism”. The season started in October in Washington, D.C. and will run through the end of the year in various cities in the U.S. Check it out
So who are the players in New York?
Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU)
New York Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee
Muslims Against Hunger
Impressive, isn’t it.
And how did I end up on the assembly line? Just a few days ago, I had received an email from Walter Ruby, the Muslim-Jewish program director for FFEU, inviting me to join the event. Walter and I go back a long way, but most recently, he had read my manuscript and had obtained a blurb from Rabbi Marc Schneier for my book.
I got a bonus out of the food packaging experience. Across the table from me was Zeeshan, a young man, in his early twenties, who had given up his Sunday to come from Queens, and serve the hungry. His parents migrated from Pakistan. Next to me was Rebekkah. Over the 90-minute ritual of pouring rice, lentils and quinoa into Ziploc bags, we got to know one another, and parted with contact numbers and promises to stay in touch.
When we had finished packaging the food, Zamir asked us to assemble.
“Why is it that week after week, year after year, we hand out food to the hungry, and the problem is not going away?”
Again, some hands went up.
“Its because we are not taking care of the hungry in our neighborhoods. We are not there for them.” He then gave us our marching orders. His organization will distribute the food to the needy, but we were to take ten packages each and distribute it to the elderly in our communities.
“Gift wrap the packages”, he advised. “Respect the dignity of the elderly. They are too embarrassed to ask for help, so approach them saying that ‘it’s the holidays, and here is our gift to you.’
I spoke with Zamir later. He told me that they serve food to the needy every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Tompkins Park. There is a kitchen nearby, volunteers assemble, cart the food to the park, and set it up on tables. Most of the recipients are the elderly. He has been doing this for years.
Makes you want to empty your wallet out.
In December, we will join a rally at Dag Hammersjkold Plaza to raise our collective voices against Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism. I will post the date on my Facebook page. Stay tuned, and do come, no matter what the outcome of the presidential election. Our work is not over.