"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.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.