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
But, Maimonides tells us that the highest form of charity is to step in and help someone else to avoid or step out of poverty permanently, so that they no longer need our charity. Certainly, we know that unless the basic need for permanent shelter is met, there is little possibility that anyone can pull themselves out of the perpetual grind of poverty. Without housing, families become separated, women and children flee to shelters, men become hardened. People cannot find jobs without having a phone or a permanent address or the grooming that requires a place to store clothes and bathe, physical health suffers from insufficient nourishment, and mental health suffers from the stress of life on the streets. We see these effects of homelessness every week at our shelter program. And while our feeding and care may make us feel good that we have addressed the immediate suffering, they do nothing to alleviate the long term, debilitating, and self re-enforcing results of living on the street.
To create affordable housing, congregants at Congregation Darchei Noam formed an independent community board, by inviting community members and becoming incorporated. The community Board was then able to raise private money and to apply for government funding in order to develop affordable housing projects.
The first one, Moshav Noam, is a co-op of 132 units, and it opened its doors in 1995. The second one was developed under a new Board called Trellis Housing Initiatives. Trellis Gardens is its first project, a three-story rental apartment building of 24 units, 18 of which are subsidized.
The residents are from many different parts of the world, and the Board acquired volunteer help to develop a sense of community. Our objective was to develop more than bricks and mortar and we now have a reading club, a homework club, and a ping pong club. Residents have requested speakers on parenting and budgeting skills, and have held one or two very successful pot luck events where each resident contributed a dish of their county’s origin. The Board was invited.
We have seen people change from being stressed, hostile and fearful, to thriving and glowing with health once they are permanently housed. We have created a rent bank to prevent evictions People tell us they feel safe and are proud of their community.
Developing housing requires infinite patience and determination to stick with it during the difficult times that are typical of any development and construction project. A single project can take very many years from concept to fruition. The gratification is not immediate. However it does provides a more permanent solution to the poverty and homelessness than our shelter program. The housing we have built will, we hope, provide homes to marginal people through several generation. It will prevent the residents and their children and their children’s children from almost certainly falling into a cycle of abject poverty and hopelessness common to so many homeless people. We believe it provides a better world for us all to live in now, and it that provides a glimpse of the world as we all hope it will one day be. In our work developing affordable housing, we hope we are living up to our Jewish traditions in several ways, not the least of which is fulfilling the obligation “to seek out opportunities without waiting to be asked; to understand partnership with the One.”
As Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub write in Exploring Judaism “it is not out of charity that we align ourselves with people who are oppressed or less fortunate, but rather out of teaching that all human beings are worthy of respect and opportunity…and tikkun olam may be the most concrete and palpable way to make God’s presence manifest in our world.”
Questions for Discussion and Thought