The Economic Progress Institute. www.economicprogressri.org
For the fifth year, I participated in the Annual Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition's conference, "Fighting Poverty With Faith."
For the fifth year, I walked out of the Conference with so much frustration, I did not know what to do with it. It is appalling to listen to the statistics and translate those numbers into the reality of people's lives:
In 2011 (the year for which we have the most recent statistics), there were 148,800 Rhode Islanders living in poverty. That means that 148,800 of our neighbors and fellow Rhode Islanders were subsisting on $11,000 a year for a single individual and around $18,000 a year for a family of three.
Those are the people who are merely "poor."
68,800 people in Rhode Island are living in "extreme poverty" with income less than half of the poverty level: $9,265 for a family of three.
It is too easy . . . and way too inaccurate . . . to label the poor as those who do not work, whose lives are tainted by addiction, as criminals or parasites on the public.
The poor could be any of us in a blink of an eye: lose a job; get a divorce; become chronically or critically ill . . . and any of us can join the ranks of those who struggle to keep a roof over their heads and need to decide any given week between heat or food.
As a congregation, we are proud of our continuing and consistent support of the Edgewood Food Closet in our old Cranston neighborhood and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry run by the Jewish Seniors Agency. We continued to collect food for both food security projects all during our interim stay in our TY house on Middle Road and we have designed built-in bins in our new TY synagogue lobby (just lift the benches under the windows!) to accommodate our donations of non-perishable food. We hear over and over again that most of the people who come to the Edgewood Food Closet for help are working . . . at minimum wage jobs . . . and are still making that heart-breaking decision between paying the electric bill or buying food.
The minimum wage in Rhode Island is $7.40 an hour.
In 2012, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island was $1,176.
A cost burden exists when more than 30% of a household's income is spent on housing.
A worker would have to earn $22.62 per hour and work 40 hours a week year-round to afford this rent without a cost burden (meaning without the average rent taking up less than 30% of the worker's income).
We do need to continue or unflagging support for our two beneficiary agencies: The Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry.
But I suggest we need to do more.
I think there are projects we can take on as a congregation that could help to assure a more viable future for some of our state's poorest children, young people or even adults. Can we tutor children to read? Can we offer basic information in any of the fields of endeavor in which many of us work? Can we teach someone how to use a computer? Can we show someone how cook inexpensive, nutritious meals?
We cannot do all of these things. Perhaps what we can do effectively is not even on my short brainstorming list. But our neighbor, Newport, is the fifth poorest city in our State and we can sit down with those who are involved in the specific challenges of Newport and devise a project that will help a few people out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Call me if you would like to explore ways to help: 419-5577.
Write to me if you would like to explore ways to help: firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley)
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
"Young lady," he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"
"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."
"But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, "It made a difference for that one."
The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
The photograph on the left is of a street sign in Jerusalem. As is the standard in that holy city, every street sign bears the name of the street in Israel's three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Only in the Hebrew does there appear a short explanation of the street name, or a short description of the person for whom the street has been named. In the case of Martin Luther King Street in Jerusalem, the epitaph appears: An American Leader. A warrior for equal rights in the United States.
This past Monday, people all over the United States, and, indeed, people all over the world, came together in celebration and remembrance . . . and appreciated the confluence of . . . President Obama's second inauguration and the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. There is no question that Reverend King would have been bursting with pride had he survived to enjoy the sight of Barak Obama taking the oath of office of President of the United States. The fact that President Obama's hand rested on Reverend King's bible . . . and Abraham Lincoln's bible . . . acknowledged with humility that President Lincoln and Reverend King made it possible for his hand to rest on their bibles.
I think, though, that Reverend King would also have acknowledged that, although we have come a long way from slavery, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. For Reverend King, visionary that he was, looking into the Promised Land in which race will be a non-issue, was also a clear-eyed leader, engaged in the real-world struggles that shackled innocent people of integrity.
For Reverend King, this week's Torah reading, Beshallach, was profoundly resonant: the people may have left slavery behind, but there is a long way to go before we reach the Promised Land. There are milestones along the way: manna and water, civil rights legislation and a black President of the United States, the attack of the Amalekites and the inordinate percentage of people of color living in poverty . . . . We are still wandering.
The Jerusalem street sign standing at the corner of Emek Refa'im and Martin Luther King Street is a banner of tribute to a man of courage who drew inspiration from the text originally written in the Hebrew of the street sign, and the Jerusalem street. That Jerusalem street sign, proclaiming Martin Luther King street, in the city at the heart of the Promised Land, also stands as a warning against complacence: Jewish sovereignty over the State of Israel does not mean that the journey is over. The inequities within Israeli society: economic, ethnic, educational must also be resolved before we can declare that the journey is over.
On Wednesday afternoon, I had the privilege of walking in procession to our Statehouse as part of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island. A band of drummers from a number of different faith communities led us from Gloria Dei Church to the Statehouse . . . I walked with ministers and rabbis and imams, Quaker community leaders, a Swami and Buddhist priests. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of theology, that divides us. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of our regard for the human spirit created by God (however we conceptualize the divine) that draws us together.
We came together, as we have done every year for the last four years, at the opening of the legislative session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, to stand together to convey our prayer that our elected officials will raise the needs of Rhode Island's vulnerable residents to the top of their legislative priority list.
Maxine Richman, co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition, stood shoulder to shoulder with Governor Lincoln Chaffee and acknowledged with pride that our Governor became the first in the United States to sign into law a Homeless Bill of Rights
Clergy, advocates, shelter residents, food pantry clients and compassionate neighbors all filled the Statehouse rotunda and the surrounding balconies to demonstrate that the momentum of our General Assembly must continue to build to address the needs of so many within our state who are vulnerable: children and adults who do not have a roof over their heads, are deciding weekly whether to buy medicine or heat their home, eating breakfast in rotation through the course of the week because there is not enough food in the house for everyone to leave for school and work with food in their stomachs . . . Naming the Need
This Shabbat we read the opening chapter of the book of Sh'mot. The word "Sh'mot" means "Names" and the text goes on to name those descendants of Jacob who went down to Egypt and whose progeny would ultimately be enslaved there.
This week, in Rhode Island, we recall the names of the needs which bind our neighbors all over our state*:
- In 2011, 148,00 of our neighbors (14.7% of the population) lived in poverty and close to 69,000 lived in extreme poverty.
- In 2011, 47,127 children (21.9% of our youngsters lived in poverty.
- Around 7,000 families relied on the RI Works program for assistance. The monthly payment of $554 for a family of 3 is 60% below the poverty level. Close to 33,000 elderly and disabled Rhode Islanders received Social Security Insurance benefits. the monthly payment of $738 is 21% below the poverty level.
- Between 2010 and 2011, 120,000 (13.6%) of Rhode Islanders under the age of 65 did not have health insurance.
- Between 2009 and 2011, an estimated 13,000 (5.6%) of children under the age of 18 did not have health insurance.
- In 2011, more than one in seven Rhode Island households (15.5%) were food insecure (did not have access to enough food for an active, healthy life).
- In August, 2012 there were 175,590 Rhode Islanders receiving SNAP (food stamps).
- An average of 66,000 people permonth were served at emergency food pantries in 2012 . . . like the Edgewood Food Pantry and the Chester Kosher Food Closet supported by our Torat Yisrael community.
- During 2011, 4,410 people used emergency homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing.
- One-quarter of the people experiencing homelssness in 2011 were children.
- In October 2012, the unemployment rate in Rhode Island was 10.4%, the highest in New England.
*Statistics released by the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty
In Psalm 119 (verse 126) we read:
עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת ה', הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ
It is a time to act for Adonay, for they have violated Your teaching.
When 1 in 4 renters in Rhode Island spend 50% or more of their income on housing, we have violated God's teaching.
When 275 veterans in Rhode Island are homeless, we are violating God's teaching. http://www.yeson7.org/HousingFacts/ForHomes/tabid/202/Default.aspxWhen Rhode Island's homeless shelters need to accomodate growing numbers of people in need: families, singles, children, we are violating God's teaching.
Question 7 on our Rhode Island Ballot this coming Tuesday will provide the resources for our state to provide 600 new, affordable, respectable housing units. The construction of those housing units will provide jobs for Rhode Islanders. People moving into those housing units will support the local businesses in their new neighborhoods--grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats and more.
In my estimation, this is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of principle: Our tradition elevates the care for the needy in our community to a mitzvah, a commandment: "When there is among you a needy person from any one of your brothers, within one of oyur gates in the land that God is giving you, you are not to toughen your heart, you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy one. Rather, you are to pen, yes, open your hand to him, and are to pledge, yes, pledge to him, sufficient for his lack that is lacking to him. You are to give, yes, give freely to him, your heart is not to be ill-disposed in your giving to him, for on account of this matter Adonay your God wil bless you in all your doings and in all the enterprises of your hand! For the needy will never be gone from amid the land; therefore I comman you, saying: You are to open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted one, and to your needy one in your land! (Deuteronomy/D'varim 15: 7-11).
Republican, Independent, Democrat: we can all vote "yes" on question 7. This is an issue that goes deeper than any political affiliation.
I have downloaded a basic information page from the "Yes on 7" website. Please read on. Please vote for the candidates of your choice. And vote "yes" on question 7.
Yes on 7
What is a Bond?
Ballot Question 7 requests voter approval for the State of Rhode Island to issue General Obligation Bonds to finance the construction of affordable homes. Financing long-term capital assets, like homes, over the long-term is more feasible than paying for it all in the year of construction. The bonds will likely be repaid in less than 20 years and the homes will remain affordable for more than 30 years.What Does Approval of Question 7 Do?
Approving this critically important ballot question would provide for $25 million to finance the construction of long-term affordable homes for Rhode Islanders. It will likely be matched by $125 million from other public and private sources generating over $150 million for the construction of more than 600 affordable homes and supporting more than 1,000 construction jobs over the next few years. How Will the Money Be Spent?
The $25 million in bond funding will be allocated over two years. The funding decisions will be made by the Housing Resources Commission (HRC), a 27-member housing policy-making board that includes representatives from a wide range of public, philanthropic and private sector housing and business organizations. The HRC sets program priorities, solicits applications and makes decisions through a competitive and transparent process. The funds will be administered by the Department of Administration with technical assistance provided by Rhode Island Housing. Why do we need a bond issue now?
- Affordable homes are assets that provide a long-term benefit to the state. Homes constructed with funding from the Housing Bond will benefit Rhode Islanders for more than 30 years.
- Most homes, whether publicly or privately financed, spread the cost over the long term
- For renters, the need for affordable apartments is even greater now than when the recession began. The foreclosure crisis, combined with high unemployment, has left Rhode Island far short of the affordable homes it needs to meet the State’s housing needs.
- Homelessness, among families and single adults, has increased in each of the past four years.
- Rhode Island especially needs more affordable homes for its senior citizens, returning veterans and residents with special needs.
- There has never been a better time to borrow. Interest rates are at historic lows, allowing the state to maximize its investment at the lowest possible cost.
- Rhode Island needs to put our construction workers back to work now. With the unemployment rate continuing to hover around 11% with significantly higher rates in the hard-hit construction sector, we cannot afford to wait.
- Rhode Island contractors need the work now and prices are highly competitive.
Sunday evening, our lush, colorful, joy-to-the-senses festival of Sukkot begins. We will gather in our Torat Yisrael Sukkah (erected last Sunday by a great group of three generations of TY members; to be decorated this Sunday morning by our Yeladon and Cohen School students!). With Jews all over the world, we'll recite blessings thanking God for this season of joy and for the natural world that sustains us.
While we are literally counting our blessings on Sukkot, a growing number of Rhode Islanders are struggling to do with less and less. This morning, I attended a meeting of the steering committee of The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. We were greeted with sobering statistics recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
My friends, this is a reality on our doorstep, our tradition, our God, expects us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are barely (or falling short of) providing food, shelter and health car for themselves and their families:
More than 1 in 5 (47,127 / 21.9%) of Rhode Island's children was living in poverty in 2011.
In 2008, 34,816 children in Rhode Island (15.5%) were living in poverty.
In 2010, Rhode Island's child poverty rate of 19.0% was ranked 6th in New England and 22nd nationally.
In 2011, Rhode Island ranked 6th in New England and 27th in the country for child poverty (where 1st is best).
The Providence Journal reported on Friday, September 21st that in August 2012, 175,590 Rhode Islanders used the federally financed plan, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That's a nearly 6% increase from August 2011.
This is a season for compassion.
This is a season for action.
I ask you to join me in organizing ourselves as a community to explore how me might bring some small relief and modicum of hope to our struggling neighbors:
1. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to our Sunday morning Cornerstone Dedication Ceremony.
2. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to Pizza in the Hut on Tuesday evening.
3. Please contact me directly if you are interested in being part of a TY team to explore further what kind of projects we might want to pursue in the realms of food, shelter or other types of basic needs or in education and training pathways out of poverty.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read the following passage from Isaiah as part of the haftarah:
"Share you bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home;
when you see the naked, clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.
Then shall your light burst through the dawn
and your healing spring up quickly.
Then, when you call, God will answer; when you cry out, God will say: 'Here I am.'
If you banish the yoke from your midst; the menacing hand, and evil speech,
and you offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature--
then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday."
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well. My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston. East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from. Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past. This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon
each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food.
We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal
, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers.
Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc.
If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
"If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him--sojourner or resident--and he will live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)
This past Wednesday, I attended the fourth annual Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty Conference. Each year at this conference, we receive the most up-to-date statistics available on Rhode Island's poor: adults and children. We also are given the opportunity to learn from experts in the field of fighting poverty in order to make more effective our own state-wide efforts.
This year's topice was: Why Are People Poor? The Systemic Nature of Poverty in Rhode Island. A panel of three leaders in the fight against poverty on the national level spoke: Reverend Peg Chemberlin, Immediate Past President of the National Council of Churches, Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America. Reverend Chemberlin's presentation included encouragement to act despite the prevalence and the momentum poverty has gained: "Pick something and do it. Don't be overwhelmed. Have a work plan."
I learned Torah from Imam Magid: He taught a midrash from the Muslim tradition in which a poor man comes to Abraham. Abraham asks the man, "Do you believe in God?" And the man responds, "no." "In that case," answers Abraham, "I cannot feed you." The man turns away and God says to Abraham: "I've fed that man for forty years even though he does not believe in Me. I send him to you for one meal and you turn him away?" Abraham ran after the man, apologized and invited him to a meal. The poor man turns to Abraham: "You say God sent you to run after me to apologize to me and to feed me? That is a good God. I will believe in such a God." Imam Magid challenges us: "If you want to say you believe in God, show me what you have done to take care of God's creation!"
Rabbi Gutow shared with us the shocking trend that poverty is decreasing in the developing world and increasing in the developed world. In other words, it is in the societies with the greatest resources that the numbers of those living in poverty is increasing. Rabbi Gutow concluded: "The world will be a better place if we do this work. The world will be a worse place if we don't do this work."
I am sickened by the realities of poverty right under our noses here in Rhode Island: In 2010, there were 142,000 Rhode Islanders (14% of the population) living in poverty. The poverty level is defined as around $11,000 of income per year for a single individual and approximately $18,000 dollars of income per year for a single parent and two children. Of those living in poverty, 43% were living in extreme poverty . . . which means people living on an income less than half
of the poverty level figures above. In 2010, there were 42,221 children in Rhode Island (19% of our State's children) living in poverty.
This week's Torah reading, all the force of our tradition, God's expectations of us, all compel us to do more than read about the poor. We cannot click our tongues and make compassionate noises. We must all act. I invite you to contact me
if you are ready to move beyond heartfelt compassion to action.
In the meantime, here are two opportunities for involvement:
Join the Interfaith Advocacy Project and become a Legislative Ambassador. You will be trained to be an effective advocate, you will learn about Rhode Island's legislative and budget processes and about poverty-related issues being considered in the current legislative session. Contact Reverend Donald Anderson
, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches if you have the time and the communication skills to take on this kind of role.
Sign a petition. The federal government is seriously considering cutting funding for SNAP, the newest food stamp program for families. This is happening at a time when more and more vulnerable citizens are losing their food security (literally not knowing where there next meal is coming from). A third grader recently told her teacher that she did not have breakfast one schoolday morning because "it wasn't my turn." Please follow this link and add your name to mine: www.bread.org/snapworks
Shabbat Hanukah 5771 Parashat Miketz Torah Reading: Genesis 41:1-44:17
Parashat Miketz is often the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hanukah. In his rich and insightful book, The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Brad Artson characterizes the the themes of the Torah reading and the themes of Hanukah as "Dedication, Transformation, and Cleansing." He writes: "The miracle of the human capacity to refocus, to begin anew, to reconsecrate our deeds to a path of mindful compassion is a cause for wonder and real celebration...."
This week, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Hellenistic Seleucid invading forces in 165 b.c.e. Everything within the precincts of the Temple grounds was cleaned and rededicated to the exclusive service of the God of Israel. Rabbi Artson encourages us to internalize that dynamic of cleansing and transformation so that we may dedicate our resources, our priorities and our actions to mindful compassion.
I am so engaged by Rabbi Artson's phrase, "mindful compassion." Among the meanings and associations that come to my mind is the principle that help is really only help when we understand the needs of the person we are helping. Mindful compassion compels us to enter into the world of the person we are encountering, and to offer them resources that will address their own perceived needs, not the resources that will bring them closer to a goal that we think they should aspire to.
There are also moments when mindful compassion pushes us to forgo intellectual exercises and simply act to relieve acute suffering.
This Hanukah, this season of re-dedication, well over 200 Rhode Islanders are facing the appalling reality of sleeping under bridges. There are enough shelter beds in Rhode Island to provide a warm, clean, dry place to sleep for just about everyone in need, but the state lacks the funds to open, heat and staff those shelters.
For this reason, the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis have come together to organize "A Call for Compassion During Hanukah," our communal response to the crying need in our state.
There is a collection box in the lobby at Torat Yisrael, and there will be one at my Open House this Sunday afternoon, as well as Sunday morning at the Cohen School. You may donate cash or a check to this emergency appeal. Checks can be made out to: Rhode Island Board of Rabbis with "emergency shelter fund" on the notation line.
You can also donate online directly to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless at www.rihomeless.org
Mindful compassion also compels us to use our imaginations to understand the realities of someone else's life. Please be generous.