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Turning Disappointment into Food for the Hungry

Turning Disappointment into Food for the Hungry

Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm

When Shirley Chisholm was elected in 1968 to represent New York's 12th District, which included her own neighborhood of Crown Heights, she made headlines as the first African-American woman elected to Congress. However, she soon found her congressional career stunted at its start by race-related politics. Bowing to political pressures from southern politicians, the House's leadership assigned Chisholm to the Agriculture Committee, a place where it was assumed that she could have little influence.

At the time, some in the New York media questioned the appointment and expressed doubt as to Chisholm's ability to affect the legislative agenda.

The less-than-open-arms welcome caused Chisholm, who died in 2005, an understandable amount of frustration, according to Anna V. Jefferson, a former state senator from New York's 22nd District.

She was interested in taking care of the issues in the inner city. That committee had no power "She was trying to help poor people," explained Jefferson. "She was interested in taking care of the issues in the inner city. That committee had no power" to do that.

But a phone call from the Rebbe's secretariat – a simple "the Lubavitcher Rebbe wants to see you" – changed her attitude, says David Luchins, who was a senior advisor to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and chairs the political science department at Touro College.

According to Luchins, a 20-year veteran of Moynihan's staff who in 1983 heard the story first-hand from Chisholm at a party celebrating her retirement from Congress, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, told the congresswoman, "I know you're very upset."

Chisholm, who lived a block away from the Rebbe and had met him once before when she was running for Congress and searching for endorsements, told the Rebbe, "I am upset. I'm insulted. What should I do?"

The Rebbe, who had declined to endorse Chisholm's candidacy and that of her predecessors because of his policy of non-involvement in political campaigns, turned the situation around.

"What a blessing G‑d has given you!" the Rebbe told Chisholm "What a blessing G‑d has given you!" the Rebbe told Chisholm, urging her to take advantage of the Divine Providence that put her in a position to do something about food supplies. "This country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people. You can use this gift that G‑d gave you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it."

Tasked with this charge, Chisholm happened to meet U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) on her first day in Washington. The farm-state politician – and later Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate – was looking for help in shoring up the economic plight of Midwestern farmers who were losing money on their crops.

"Americans started purchasing [produce] from Cuba," explained Jefferson, who was a close associate of Chisholm's. "So as a result of the imports, the farmers were poor."

David Luchins (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)
David Luchins (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)

According to Luchins, Dole told Chisholm: "Our farmers have all this extra food, we don't know what to do with it." Chisholm thought, "One second. The Rabbi!"

During the next few years, and for the duration of the 1970s, Chisholm worked to expand the national Food Stamp Program, which allowed poor Americans to buy subsidized food. Finally, in 1973, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act mandated that Food Stamps be made available in every jurisdiction in the United States.

It was in the creation of the WIC program, however, that Chisholm really made her mark. The 1969 White House Conference on Food Nutrition and Health recommended targeted food supplements for high-risk pregnant women and their infants. Chisholm, in the House, and Dole, in the Senate, championed the idea and got Congress to approve a two-year pilot project that would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA, though, fought the measure. It finally took a federal lawsuit to get the USDA to relent, and today more than 8 million people receive WIC benefits each month, according to U.S. government figures.

Chisholm "was responsible for the food program," said Vernell Alburary, former president of the Shirley Chisholm Institute for Children. "She was a strong, determined individual."

But Chisholm herself gave ultimate credit to the Rebbe, said Luchins.

She "said at her retirement party, 'I owe this because a Rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you may think is a challenge is a gift from G‑d,'" said Luchins in an interview he gave to Jewish Educational Media. "'And if poor babies,' I heard her say this, 'If poor babies have milk, and poor children have food, it's because this Rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.'"

Click here to watch Luchins' interview with Jewish Educational Media (JEM).

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Yosef Dahne Brooklyn January 19, 2015

Taxes for the Poor is a Jewish Idea In response to an earlier comment that suggested that the Rebbe would never support a tax to benefit the poor...

Have you ever heard of Maaser Oni? Under Torah law, in the third and sixth years of the shmittah cycle, farmers in Israel were required to donate (they were taxed) 10 percent of their produce for the benefit of the poor. Reply

Lee June 29, 2014

Too much anonymous is the problem Dear Anonymous, no one is questioning the accomplishments of Shirley Chisholm. I only ask for a source unrelated to Chabad e.g. David Luchins to validate Shirley Chisholm crediting the Rebbe for this accomplishment. There is another beautiful story about an unknown politician who met with the Rebbe and was surprised when the Rebbe asked nothing for his own community; instead, the Rebbe asked the politician to help the new immigrant’s in Chinatown. I’m not saying either of these stories are false. I just don’t know if they are true. If anyone has information about these stories of which is unrelated to Chabad speakers or writers, please let me know. I also would like to share these stories; if I could validate them. Reply

Anonymous May 7, 2014

To Lee To Lee, from Baltimore:

A quick search on the internet found this on the website of Congresswoman Barbara LEE:

Ms. Chisholm, who was elected to Congress from New York in 1968, earned a reputation as an outspoken liberal and an advocate for women, minorities and the poor. She successfully pushed to expand the nation’s food stamp program and to create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — known as W.I.C. — for low-income families. Reply

sholom yitzchok October 14, 2012

re: valerio please don't dismiss nationalism so quickly as foreign to Torah. the Torah commands us to give charity at home first then abroad. Jewish law clearly states I should give precedence to the poor of my city as well as support the government and nation which I as a Jew am a citizen and guest of. Reply

Lee Baltimore, md December 24, 2010

Trust, but verify Is Dr. David Luchins the only one to hear NY Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm credit the Rebbe for her accomplishments on the Agriculture Committee?
One would think that if Shirley Chisholm was so instrumental in expanding the national Food Stamp Program, creating the WIC Program, and responsible for Health recommended targeted food supplements for high-risk pregnant women and their infants; this would easily be found all over the internet on websites that do not reference CHABAD.
Did any non-Jews recount the same stories without referencing a Jewish source? Did her press secretary release anything about this?
Please provide me with unrelated Jewish sources that validate these stories.

David Burgess Kansas City, Missouri July 16, 2008

Legislation I have to admit having some misgivings about this article, initially, for several reasons which Valerio Filoso pointed out. I have to believe that if the farmers truly had food and nothing to do with it, then it must have been a problem created by legislation. Why would farmers grow worthless food? Someone else must have made their food worthless.
Ideally, people would be able to give of their own free will, especially if food happened to be so cheap. But if some worthless legislation got in the way and kept the food in silos waiting to rot... at least someone found something better to do with it.
It's always best if a problem can be solved at its source, but if too many politicians get in the way, then at least a new one can come along and feed some children. Reply

Lee Malkin July 8, 2008

This was a great story. Though I followed and voted for Shirley Chisholm when I lived in Brooklyn, this story brings further insight into her and the Rebbe's life. Reply

C. Owen Wisconsin July 2, 2008

Shirley Chisholm Thank you my Dear Rabbi for telling us this story. It touched my heart! You see, many years ago with a diabetic child and no insurance we encountered many medical bills and this WIC program carried us through! I am forever greatful. Reply

Valerio Filoso Naples, Italy July 1, 2008

The trouble with bad economics 1. I can hardly imagine that the Lubavitcher Rebbe of Blessed Memory suggested to Mrs. Crisholm to use taxation – aka, government coercion – to feed people in need. Taxation makes no rhyme with creativity. The Rebbe should not be considered responsible for supporting, even indirectly, a rise in taxation. Doing a mitzvah, like charity, implies free will and government action is designed exactly to prevent people from using it.
2. "Americans started purchasing [produce] from Cuba," explained Jefferson, who was a close associate of Chisholm's. "So as a result of the imports, the farmers were poor." Actually, Americans started purchasing from Cuba since American products were more expensive than cuban’s: accordingly, American customers could afford more food at lower prices. Furthermore, I cannot see any moral principle putting heavier emphasis on American farmers’ income than Cuban’s. This is pure nationalism, a primitive ideology which has nothing to do with Torah. Reply

Inge Reisinger Offenbach am Main, Germany July 1, 2008

It is really true, the more I read about the Rabbi, the more I understand g-d's will and all in our soul comes from g-d. And what does g-d want to happen on earth? That we awake and realise his love for us. Reply

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