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Using 'Hunger Games' to Help Fill Bellies

Read this story in the Jewish Exponent 

Just before the lights dimmed at an exclusive showing of the newest Hunger Games movie the night before its mass release last week, Evan Finkelstein and Leah Kay led a theater filled with about 200 of their teenage peers in a pledge to fight world hunger.

Teens from grades six through 23 also brought canned food to be donated to Philabundance to the vent, hosted by the local chapter of the Jewish youth movement BBYO.

The Nov. 20 showing at an AMC theater in Plymouth Meeting was part of a national BBYO initiate, a “collaborative adventure” that in Philadelphia involved partnering with 10 other Jewish community groups to help raise teens’ awareness of hunger, said Arielle Weisberg, the group’s local associate regional director.

A grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia also helped subsidize the event.

“Jewish teens really do care about issues in their community,” Weisberg said. “They’re helping in hunger relief while also doing something that really social and fun and exciting.”

Finkelstein, an 18-year-old senior at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pa., and BBYO’s regional co-president, has been involved with local initiatives combatting hunger over the past few years. He said he recognized the importance of teen involvement in social action leadership.

He volunteers every few months with the Jewish Relief Agency through his synagogue, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, helping to box and deliver food packages to the needy.

“It expanded my horizons to learn that there’s more to life than just my life. We’re fortunate enough to have food on the table, so we should be helping out everyone else that doesn’t,” said the Bucks County native.

Even as event-goes at the BBYO program on Nov. 20 filled two tall boxes with canned foods. Finkelstein explained that the main goal was to bring new faces into the Jewish youth movement and open their eyes to the helping roles they can play in the future.

“To be honest, I think for the majority of them it’s just an event, but the follow-up is what matters to us,” he said.

Weisberg agreed with that assessment and noted that using pop culture events and social media is the way “to really get teens involved” in volunteering. Another example, she said, is BBYO’s upcoming text campaign, which will be the youth group’s first foray into #GivingTuesday, a national and international movement focused on charitable giving following the shopping frenzies that now occur on Thanksgiving itself, it addition to the post-Thanksgiving spending sprees of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

For that campaign, teens will text their family and friends asking for money pledges for BBYO programming, similar to a telethon, only using text messages.

“Teens are more comfortable texting,” Weisberg said, likening the text campaign to Federation’s Super Sunday, but with a slight twist. “I think that we’re seeing more than even that this is the way to really get teens involved. The passion is there—we just have to find out the right outlets.”

However teens get involved, Weisberg continued, it’s important that they do so because hunger is “not just affecting countries across the world, but it’s also right in our backyard.”

Some 12 percent of families in the Keystone State lived in food-insecure households between 2011 and 2013, according to the Coalition Against Hunger’s website. That’s roughly 1.5 million families—and the numbers aren’t improving.

The statistics can seem daunting, Finkelstein said, “but if you really want to help” in the community, “there’s a way to do it.”

Kay, Finkelstein’s fellow regional BBYO co-president, said that when she was in middle school, she used to volunteer one Sunday night a month at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, serving food to the homeless.

The 17-year-old senior at Harriton High School in Lower Merion Township, said she still thinks about her experience there, and it’s part of the reason she’s concerned with the hunger issue “happening in Philadelphia, just 15 minutes away from where I live.”

“As a Jewish teen growing up in a world where everything is so fast-paced and we just take everything for granted,” she said, sometimes “we need to just stop for a second and think about other people who don’t have that instant gratification, who can’t just go into their cabinet and get a snack.”

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