By Irene Howard-Weitzen
How many times have you heard a young child in a middle-class family beg for a snack, complaining, “I’m starving!” That child has probably never been starving, and, hopefully, never will be. However, this outburst shows a sad truth of our society: that many middle- or upper-class people are uneducated or even indifferent about poverty. Because they have so little experience with it, they tend to underestimate its impact. Pictures and stories can only do so much; they cannot make you stand in their shoes. People pretend to others and to themselves that they understand what the poor are going through, but in actuality they have no idea. As famous author Elie Wiesel once said, “Hunger is isolating; it may not and cannot be experienced vicariously. He who never felt hunger can never know its real effects, both tangible and intangible. Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present.” read more »
By Rabbi Steve Gutow
Deuteronomy Chapter 15 reflects the rather conundrum-like nature of the eternal war against poverty. In an enigmatic turn of phrase the Torah teaches us first that there is no right or justification or moral acceptance of poverty. Verse 4 states unambiguously as a command directly from God: “There shall be no needy among you.” The chapter then continues by making it clear that each of us has a duty to respond to the needy with an open heart, great generosity, without regret, and with the knowledge that God appreciates the response. Then, the Torah suddenly says in verse 11 of chapter 15 that there will never cease to be needy among you. It is as if the Torah recognizes the impossibility of its command. It asks that we do something that it knows cannot be done, that we do our part to alleviate that which cannot be fully alleviated.
The Enigmatic Commandment read more »
By Isabel deKoninck and Joseph Berman
There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers said: All the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other. Midrash Rabbah Exodus 31:12
In January we traveled to El Salvador as a part of the American Jewish World Service’s rabbinical school delegation. The trip was designed to bring rabbinical students from all of the major rabbinical schools together to see the work of AJWS, learn about sustainable development and the impact of globalization, and discover new ways to bring concepts of global justice into our emerging rabbinates.
Much of our time in El Salvador was spent in Ciudad Romero, a small community nearly two hours outside of San Salvador. In many ways, Ciudad Romero is representative of both the extreme poverty that afflicts El Salvador, as well as the kind of dynamic hope that is made possible by grassroots ingenuity and funding from organizations like AJWS. read more »
By Ruth Messinger
American World Jewish Service, New York
The extraordinary Rally to End the Genocide in Darfur in Washington, DC, on April 30 of this year occurred at an auspicious moment in the Jewish calendar and in the 40 month history of the genocide in Sudan. Three weeks before the Rally, Jews all over the world gathered around their seder tables and declared:
Halachma anya, di achalu avahatana b’ar’a d’mitzrayim. This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come share our Passover meal.
We say these words as part of the formula of the haggadah, and we often joke about how hungry we are at that moment – the parsley, salt water, and eggs have not satisfied us and we eagerly anticipate the steaming bowls of matzah ball soup and the meal that will follow. But it is worth being thoughtful and precise about the deep meaning of the words in the phrase—affliction, hunger, need. read more »
This week's offering consists of excerpts of a handbook created by Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia which they created in response to their study and participation working on "The Living Wage". The handbook includes Jewish texts, information about the living wage issue, and some information about the congregation's engagement.
Congregation Bet Haverim's handbook for working on the living wage. (When you click the link it may open Word in your browser or possibly download it directly to your desktop, depending on your browser settings.)
By Syd Nestel and Val Hyman
Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada
The Maharal of Prague taught that there are two types of tzedaka: reactive and proactive. Reactive tzedaka is based on compassion for those who suffer, and it is almost selfish because it is giving in order to remove the painful sight of poverty. Proactive givers seek out opportunities without waiting to be asked; they understand partnership with the One. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling commenting on Netivot Olam, Netiv Hatzedaka, Chapter 1 in RRC's Guide to Jewish Practice, Tzedaka read more »
By Syd Nestel and Val Hyman
Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada
Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b:
Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose door-socket he used to throw four zuz every day. Once day the poor man thought: "I will go and see who does me this kindness [in order that I may thank him]. On that day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and [went to place money in the poor man's door] with his wife. As soon as [the poor man] saw them moving the door-socket he went out after them. They fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept. Mar Ukba's feet were burning and his wife said to him: Raise your feet and put them on mine. As he was upset [that his feet burned while his wife’s did not] she explained to him, "I am usually at home [when beggars come calling] and my benefactions are direct." And why [did they make such an effort to escape from the thank you of the poor man?] - Because Mar Zutra b. Tobiah said in the name of Rab …: Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”
Jeffrey Dekro in response to the Talmud from RRC's Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedakah:
The importance of protecting anonymity is the dominant classical opinion. However, the famous story about Mar Ukba and his (nameless) wife preserves another tradition and a completely different mode of tzedakah conduct. When Mar and Mrs. Ukba flee and end up hiding in a still-hot communal oven..., he suffers a double shame, having to rely on a woman and having been "unmasked" while distributing histzedakah. In response to his amazed query as to why she did not suffer from the burning stove, Mrs. Ukba pointed out that she conducted her tzedakah activities face-to-face by making sandwiches for beggars at her kitchen door and, as a consequence, did not suffer red-hot shame at being recognized. So we learn that Mar Ukba's careful accounting and allocations [( we are told elsewhere that he was a very generous and meticulous giver of alms to the poor)] removed him from the opportunity to engage in a true meeting between provider and recipient, while Mrs. Ukba's direct, small-scale tzedakah procedures earned her both affection from the ones whom she benefited and honor from God, who gave her a capacity to endure great physical difficulty that her husband could not. ….”
For the past 12 years, the congregants at Darchei Noam have been one of about 30 congregations and churches in Toronto that run a rotating weekly 24-hour shelter for people who are homeless and hungry. Originally, we ran the program in collaboration with a Roman Catholic congregation, who had space for the program that we do not have. While we now have volunteers who are from both denominations, the volunteers are an ecumenical group that is called the First Interfaith Out of the Cold program in Toronto. Darchei Noam contributes about 60 volunteers. (About 50% of the total.)
Every Thursday night we serve a home cooked three-course meal to about 65 men and women, whom we call our guests. During the evening, guests can get foot care, see a public health nurse, watch a movie, paint, or play games such as scrabble. Or they can just talk to volunteers or other guests. There is a good used clothing boutique. About 60 guests stay overnight, sleeping on mats on the floor. In the morning, a crew of volunteers comes at 6:00 AM to cook breakfast and send the guests on their way with a nourishing packed lunch.
Mar Zutra's position suggests suggests that anonymous giving is the highest order of charity. Maimonides explicitly concurs. In his famous hierarchy of tzedakah the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone else to become self-sufficient and the second highest is give so that neither the person giving nor the receiver know each other's identity. Giving where both parties know who is who is ranked far down the list.
Our program is funded through donations, so there are many opportunities to provide donations anonymously. However, it is our contention that the value of our program is not only that we provide nourishment and shelter, but that because we serve our guests, treat them with respect, socialize and get to know individuals, we are providing a sense of well being and caring that they would not experience through anonymous giving.
We could simply collect donations, and donate them to a city run shelter. But then the guests, who spend many of their days in isolation walking the streets, would not have the opportunity to hug us when they see us. They would not be able to smile at our children doing community service for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or have an empathetic listening ear to the frustrations of their day. They would not have their blistered feet massaged and powdered and given clean dry socks to wear.
Anonymity may indeed be the best way to “give alms”. But tzedakah is not the only way of engaging in tikkun olam – repairing the world. We have found that simple human kindness – Gmilut Chasadim—is, at least, equally important. And we feel that it is not possible to be kind anonymously. It requires seeing and being seen. It requires a human touch.
Questions for Thought/Discussion:
By Bill Marker
Congregation Beit Tikvah
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; thou shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am Adonai your God. Leviticus 19:9-10
Give to the needy readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. Deuteronomy 15:10
Just as many mitzvahs are directed at men, not women, so that women may wonder if they are part of the "us", this and other biblical poverty related statements are directed at the "haves," seemingly excluding the "have-nots" from "us". Individually I am certainly a have, but as a resident of Baltimore City, I am one of Maryland's have-nots. Seemingly my community's schools, police, library, etc. are dependent on subsidies, whether from taxes or charity, from Maryland's richer jurisdictions. Yet Maryland taxes my community at a higher rate than those outside Baltimore City, so that we, in fact, subsidize them.
Doesn't true Tikkun Olam require not only encouraging the wealthy to make transfers (tzedekah) to the poor, but ending exploitation of the have-nots that unjustly enriches the haves? Shouldn't it also empower have-nots to take their fair share?
When Reconstructionists organize Tikkun Olam projects, how might we ensure that the intended beneficiaries significantly manage and evaluate the program?"How... beneficiaries... manage and evaluate the program?" In working with the homeless population, our temple, Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County, often cooks food and donates clothing. Your question is difficult to answer. In my dealings with the homeless I find them lacking self esteem and therefore they are inherently grateful for anything they receive. They are very beaten up by a system that is like a revolving door unable to break the mold of keeping them homeless. Due to problems such as alcoholism, mental and emotional problems, the only way to evaluate our Tikkun Olam projects is to get statistics on how many can actually get jobs and function on their own. Some are quite honestly, not capable of getting to that level. What I see is needed is probably group homes or hospital environments that can treat these vulnerable members of society. We are as a Temple helping one homeless man who is able to fight for housing and appropriate treatment. He has uncovered many abuses within the system and because of his ability to write and clarify these issues he might make an impact. Our temple has helped him with getting furniture, clothing, food and other essential items to live on his own. Many homeless do not have the chutzpah to stand up for their own rights. It will be interesting to see how this turns out and we are rooting for his success. I have also written articles to the local newspaper on the plight of the homeless in our city. Roselyn Altman Tzedek Chairperson Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel Maywood, NJ
By Robin Yasinow
Congregation Beit Tikvah
Organizers who work with the homeless disagree about the best way to support beggars on the street. Many recommend providing a meal, rather than cash. It may take a few extra minutes to pick up a sandwich, or to bring a beggar a cup of coffee and a donut. But in the end, the person on the receiving end will have a more tangible interaction with a caring human being. Most beneficial would be a contribution to a local shelter and advocacy on behalf of affordable housing, in addition to a one-to-one relationship on the street. Rabbi Barbara Penzner from RRC's Guide to Jewish Practice, Tzedaka
If a community lacked a synagogue and a shelter for the poor, it was first obligated to build a shelter for the poor. Sefer Chasidim
Here's a modern variation of that twelfth-century precept: Open a community's houses of worship as temporary shelter to families who are homeless. Assist them in their quest for independence by providing not only meals and professional resources but also companionship and emotional support.
By Rabbi Shawn Zevit
And if your brother becomes poor and his means fail him with you, then you will strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you.(Leviticus 25:35)
In response to this verse from Leviticus, I'd like to share two quotes, the first by Dr. David Teutsch of the RRC:
Jewish Tradition understands human beings to be b'tzelem Elohim, made in the divine image. Humiliating a person denigrates the Divine Presence in the world, so Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of k'vod hab'rioyt, honoring each individual and protecting people's dignity. Judaism has long recognized that dignity depends in part upon sufficient food, clothing and shelter, as well as honorable work. If someone is living in dehumanizing conditions, then immediate tzedaka is needed. The way tzedaka is given should help people to preserve their dignity. (From A Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedaka, pp. 16-17, Dr. David A. Teutsch, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, 2005, http://www.rrc.edu.)
The second is from my recent book: read more »