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.
Parashat Ki Tavo Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
What do you think of when you hear (or read) the word "mitzvah?"
In every day speech, it's not unusual to hear someone (Jewish) say "He did a real mitzvah?" or "Would you like to do a mitzvah?"
When we talk about "doing a mitzvah," we are talking about doing a good deed. Performing some act of kindness for someone else.
Now . . . what do you think of when you hear (or read) the word "commandment?"
You might think of the Ten Commandments: one God; no idols; Shabbat; honoring parents; no adultery, etc. It's also not unusual to think of commandment as the reason we do ritual things like pray, keep kosher, light Shabbat candles.
It is fascinating to me that these two terms "mitzvah" and "commandment" should evoke such different associations . . . because they are Hebrew and English translations of each other. A mitzvah is a commandment. A commandment is a mitzvah.
The opening verses of this week's parashah / Torah portion shows us exactly how "mitzvah" and "commandment" are, indeed, the same.
"When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before Adonay your God: 'I have cleared out the consecrated portion [that tenth of yield] from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments.... Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel....'"
The "mitzvah" of taking care of the vulnerable people in our society is the "commandment" to give a tenth of one's income to support the community [the Levite who had no land and therefore no income but who maintained the religious structures upon which everyone in the community depended] and the vulnerable [the stranger who was vulnerable because he or she had no communal ties and the widow and orphan who did not have the resources to maintain themselves].
The concept of mitzvah/commandment is an enriching one, for it puts into our hands the power to transform a myriad of actions into moments of "kedushah", moments of sanctity. A check to the Rhode Island Free Clinic, or Crossroads, or Amos House, or The Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry becomes a sacred act, a mitzvah. Paying your synagogue dues is analogous to supporting the Levite and is, thus, a sacred act. Putting others ahead of ourselves, sharing our resources, supporting the community that ties us together are all acts of kedushah, sacred acts.
May we stand together as God looks down from heaven, secure in our knowledge that we have done as God has commanded us and that we are deserving of God's blessing.
Parashat Bamidbar Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
This past Tuesday, I participated in the second annual conference of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition: Fighting Poverty with Faith. The Coalition made a commitment two years ago to cut poverty in Rhode Island by 50% in 10 years . . . as the conference opened, Maxine Richman, Co-Chair of the Coalition representing the Jewish Federation's Community Relation's Council, challenged us with the 8 years remaining to achieve our goal.
This is some of the reality facing innumerable Rhode-Islanders today:
In 2008, over 118,000 Rhode Islanders (12% of the population) lived below the federal poverty level ($17,346 for a family of three, $21,834 for a family of four).
According to the Rhode Island Standards of Need developed by the Poverty Institute, it costs $20,280 for a single adult to meet basic needs.
In 2008, almost 35,000 children (15.5% of Rhode Island's children) lived below the federal poverty level.
The maximum monthly benefit under RI Works is $554 for a family of three. The monthly benefit has not increased in 20 years.
Between 2006 and 2008, more than one in ten Rhode Island households were food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as not always having access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
In March 2010, the unemployment rate in Rhode Island was 12.6%, up from 6.6% in March 2008 and 4.9% in March 2007.
Friends, our neighborhood Edgewood Food Closet, as well as the Jewish Senior Agency's Kosher Food Closet, provide sustenance to hundreds of our State's food insecure families. I know we are constantly reminding you to bring donations of non-perishable foods to the collection center in our Torat Yisrael lobby. Please don't let repetition dull your sensitivity to the call. Please fill our bins to overflowing with canned fish and vegetables, meats, soups, cooking oil and nutritious breakfast cereals.
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.