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USDA hosts its first ever Iftar dinner to recognize Muslim employees

In his speech at the University of Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Obama called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims at home and around the world. As a way to answer the President’s call, Secretary Vilsack hosted USDA’s first-ever Iftar dinner to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday, September 10th, in the Whitten Building patio. More than 200 USDA employees and members of the local community, both Muslim and non-Muslim, were present for this historical event.

Ramadan FSIS employee from California with Secretary Vilsackis holiest month of the year on the Islamic calendar, and runs from August 21 to September 19 this year. During Ramadan, Muslims fast each day from sunrise to sunset, not even drinking water. At sunset, they break their fast with dates (ours were American grown) and water, the act of which is called “iftar.” After evening prayers, Muslims sit down with family and friends for a large late dinner. The White House has been holding annual Iftar dinners since 2002, and other government agencies such as the Department of Defense and USAID host them as well. As a result, Muslim employees at USDA were extremely excited about the prospect of having our very own Iftar here at “the People’s Department.” One FSIS employee and his spouse flew to Washington, D.C. all the way from California at their own expense just to have the chance to attend.

The theme for USDA’s Iftar dinner was “A Common Calling – Feeding Hungry People.” Secretary Vilsack addressed the gathering on USDA’s mission to alleviate hunger at home and around the world, a commitment shared by all major religions. He also spoke eloquently about the legacy of Abraham, who is viewed as the common ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims all over the world. The Secretary also spoke of USDA’s commitment to a modern, inclusive workforce that attracts the best and most effective workers of all backgrounds and faith traditions.

Also addressing the attendees were Mr. Sabir Rahman, Executive Director for Interfaith Dialogue at the Muslim Community Center of Silver Spring; Ms. Amina Makhdoom, Chair of the Montgomery County Committee on Hate and Violence; and Dr. Yaser Haddara, the Board Chair of Islamic Relief USA.

During the meal, guests had a chance to watch President Obama’s Ramadan video message, as well as a video on USDA’s involvement in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.

The event Farook Sait, with the Assistant Sec. for Civil Rightswas co-sponsored by USDA’s Organization of South Asian Americans in Agriculture and USDA’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It was a wonderful opportunity for the Department to celebrate the wide diversity of backgrounds of those called to serve “every day, in every way” at USDA.

Secretary Vilsack meets with Jewish leaders to talk about fighting hunger

On Monday, September 14, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had the opportunity to meet with 25 leaders of the Jewish community in America including representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform traditions, as well as national service organizations. The meeting was a wonderful occasion for the Secretary to further President Obama’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Equally importantly, the meeting marked a continuation of USDA’s efforts to involve broad constituencies of individuals and organizations to meet the President’s goal of ending child hunger in America by 2015.

Secretary VIlsack speaks with Jewish community leaders

Secretary VIlsack speaks with Jewish community leaders

Secretary Vilsack spoke to the gathering about USDA’s commitment to feed hungry people at home and abroad. The Secretary told the assembled leaders that he and President Obama believe that collaborating with faith-based groups, among others, makes sense in pursuing this goal, as all faiths are instructed to care for the poor and the hungry. In the Jewish tradition, the laws of Moses demand compassion and justice for those who are in need, including not harvesting part of one’s fields to allow those who need to glean the crops in order to eat. Secretary Vilsack also stated that he and President Obama are both committed to ending childhood hunger in our country by 2015, but that the government alone cannot make that happen. As the President put it, “we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Following the Secretary’s remarks, the assembled leaders engaged in discussion with Secretary Vilsack on how the Jewish community can work with USDA to address the challenge of domestic and worldwide hunger. The conversation was both thoughtful and substantive, and attendees afterwards expressed deep appreciation for the Secretary’s interfaith outreach efforts.

As the meeting came to a close, the Secretary presented each attendee with an apple and a jar of honey (both provided by our own Agricultural Research Service), in celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Traditionally Jews eat these foods during this holy time as a symbol of a sweet new year.

At USDA, we’re proud of our history engaging broad constituencies in our work, and we look forward to continuing to reach out to Americans from all faiths and walks of life as we work to end hunger in our country and around the world.