“May the odds be ever in your favor,” Effie Trinket says in the early scenes of the first “The Hunger Games” movie, but for many in Howard County the odds are not in their favor, and issues of hunger, poverty and housing are of daily concern.
With that in mind, Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia used the movie as a leaping-off point to examine area hunger as part of its participation in Human Rights Shabbat, an initiative of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
On Dec. 5, a few days ahead of International Human Rights Day, 150 participants walked into a Beth Shalom transformed into the world of “The Hunger Games” with the sanctuary taking on the feel of the wooded coal-country home of heroine Katniss Everdeen and the social hall taking on the look of an opulent Capitol gala.
The evening began with 60 people joining together for Shabbat dinner and discussion. On each table, Adam Kruger, youth director and family programmer, placed a Capitol-produced propaganda photo and talking points that posed such questions as: “What was the intention behind this propaganda? Does this remind you of any time in Jewish or world history?”
The children seated at Rabbi Susan Grossman’s table were perceptive and insightful, she said. “We actually do a unit on the Holocaust with the kids in school, and they got it immediately with the elements of propaganda there.”
At a table with younger children, an image of young girl dressed in tattered clothes and with dirty hands grasping an apple elicited a discussion of hunger at home and in the world.
In many ways, the poverty and desperation displayed in the “The Hunger Games” books and movies is a “social commentary on our times,” said Grossman, who invited Anna Katz, cold-weather shelter coordinator for Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, to speak to the community.
While the kids were whisked away for separate age-appropriate programming, adults gathered in a religious school classroom to listen as Katz detailed startling numbers. Behind the manicured landscapes of wealthy Howard County are thousands who live on the edge. Last year, 22,000 individuals were served by Grassroots, which runs a family and men’s shelter, motel shelter and cold-weather shelter, offers 24-hour crisis intervention and runs a day resource center, she said. That need has not abated.
Beth Shalom has a longstanding partnership with Grassroots, but the presentation has the congregation’s social action committee looking into ways to further help the crisis center.
Following Kabbalat Shabbat services, Grossman gave a presentation on “What ‘The Hunger Games’ teaches us about Jewish values,” which focused on the obligation to feed the hungry and care for the poor and correct income disparity, as well as the idea of self-defense, enshrined in Jewish texts.
When the discussion turned to tithing, one astute elementary school student asked: What if you are very rich? Can you give more than 10 percent?
Grossman replied that the “very rich” should give 20 percent, the comfortable should give 10 percent, the poor should give 5 percent, and the very poor should give two pennies.
“You should always give something, but no one should give so much that they impoverish themselves,” she said. “Judaism is a religion of deed, not just of faith, so we have to live what we believe.”