Unfortunately, I think we’ll have to wait a while longer to get a good sense of how the Egyptian uprising and protests will affect Israel and her relations with neighboring Egypt. One interesting story that I’ve been following during the continued unrest in Egypt has been the role of Jewish people in the situation.
This week one of my children asked if Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday or if it’s a holiday that everyone celebrates. I explained that it was a holiday that everyone celebrates, but there are some Jewish people who do not celebrate it. Some observant Jews believe that Thanksgiving shouldn’t be observed because it is a holiday invented by gentiles and has no basis in Jewish law. Heshy Fried (“Frum Satire”) created an xtranormal video on the matter of why frum (religious) Jews don’t celebrate Thanksgiving including some of the unspoken traditions of frum families eating turkey for the Shabbat dinner on the Friday evening following Thanksgiving (but no stuffing!).
Thanksgiving in my opinion should be a day for feeling grateful. Even if we give thanks to God on a daily basis in our prayers, it is essential to take a day out of our busy lives to be thankful for our country. I believe that the consumerism and materialism that is Black Friday have begun to infringe on the Thanksgiving holiday. Stores that encourage shoppers to wait on line for the best deals on the night of Thanksgiving are contributing to our society’s loss of the ideals of Thanksgiving. A day that has long been set aside to be grateful has become corrupted by those willing to camp out on a sidewalk to save $100 on a substandard flat-screen television and the stores that are opening for those sales on Thanksgiving night.
Not all of my colleagues agree with me that Thanksgiving is a worthwhile secular holiday for the Jewish community to celebrate. My colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading Jewish activist who is passionate about fair wage, public housing, and homelessness, is not a fan of Thanksgiving. She writes:
Personally, I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving… My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur [forbidden], or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.
With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving Haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).
Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism. I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.
While I feel strongly that part of being thankful for what we have should include being charitable, I don’t think Rabbi Jacobs presents a fair picture of the American Thanksgiving holiday. I much prefer my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson’s take on the Thanksgiving experience. He writes in the Huffington Post:
The Sukkot theory of Thanksgiving is really great. And it could even be true. The only challenge is that I couldn’t find any colonial Puritan authors who made that claim. What is charming about it, nonetheless, is the resonance that so many Jews feel toward Thanksgiving. It is a very “Jewish” holiday, even if it wasn’t a Jewish holiday to begin with: Great meal, great company, celebrating life and joy and resilience and freedom in community. All values embedded deeply in Jewish tradition.
But I’d like to invite us to a more nuanced and complex vision of what we can celebrate in Thanksgiving and in what we can dedicate ourselves to for Thanksgivings yet to come.
The term “Jew” comes from the Hebrew word Yehudah meaning thanks, joy, gratitude. At the core of the Jewish way is a resilient joy that directs our attention toward the blessings we already have, those we need to work toward to realize, and the need to share those blessings in community.
Turns out that Native American traditions have such a tradition as well — feasts of gratitude in which the abundance of the earth and community are shared, noticed and celebrated. So do most of the world’s wisdom traditions.
When I was a child, the Thanksgiving story was presented as early Americans (the Pilgrims) hosting a meal of gratitude that hosted Indians. The Indians were guests, the Americans were European. And we latter day Americans focused on the nascent democracy found among the Pilgrims.
As I grew and read, the circle expanded. I learned that the “Indians” were First Americans. They are not outsiders to America’s story, they have always been at its heart. So, Thanksgiving expanded to include two incompatible tellings — the tale as told by Puritans and a very different perspective as recounted by Native Americans. There was a bittersweet quality that joined the older narrative, a tale of displacement, of blindness to the wisdom and depth of the culture of First Americans, of their generosity in reaching out to the newcomers, of opportunities for cooperation and learning missed, of sheer survival against overwhelming odds.
But the expanding circles keep growing. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving Africans joined this continent as unwilling captives enslaved to serve European farmers and merchants. They too were seen as outsiders, and they too are now an irreplaceable component of the American story. Another layer of grief and tragedy, but also of extraordinary courage, caring, persistence and faith was added to our complicated national identity.
And the list continues to expand. First seen as interlopers, outsiders, group after group, moved from perifery to core, from alien to American: evangelicals, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Mormons, Mexicans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims — each community (and still others) contributed their stories, perspectives and traditions. These cacophanous tellings were first viewed as threats, eclipsing what it means to be American. Eventually we recognized each new tide as expanding, transforming and elevating what it means to be us.
That process is by no means finished and is very much in process. Women made a claim to their own dignity and humanity — gaining first the vote, then growing power and a recognition for the distinctive ways that women add to American culture and vitality. Gays, lesbians and transgendered people have started to make themselves heard as participants and contributors, no longer tolerating those who would banish them to the margins. People with special needs are gaining a slowly attentive hearing — asking not for pity and charity but for access, dignity, partnership.
Most recently, brave voices have started to speak on behalf of the rest of the biosphere and our beleaguered planet. Can one love America and rape the land? Is is possible to celebrate “from sea to shining sea” while depleting those oceans of diversity and life, while dumping so much carbon into the air that we are literally choking the plankton that helps our planet breathe?
As the circles expand to include those who used to be invisible, marginalized, despised, our tellings of Thanksgiving become more nuanced and layered, and they shimmer with flashes of color they previously lacked. We are all enriched to inhabit a world of raucous diversity and resilient inclusion.
Our dinners may be less simplistic, and our giving thanks is now joined by taking responsibility. But as our telling swells to include many stories, we are made that much greater by the expansiveness of our humanity — warts, joys and all.
And for it all, let us breathe deeply, take it all in and give thanks. God bless us, everyone!
All holidays are complicated. Jewish holidays are complicated and so are our secular holidays. It’s crazy that we Americans spend Memorial Day at the beach, on the boat, and at barbecues. It’s crazy that some Americans spend their Thanksgiving Day camped out on a sidewalk waiting for deals on big-screen televisions. But that shouldn’t dictate whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving. For me, it’s a special day that includes spending meaningful time with family and friends, watching parades and football games, and eating a delicious meal. For all that I remain grateful.
|Kol Nidre on Wall Street (photo: Damon Dahlen / AOL)
What was so meaningful about Friday night’s “Occupy Wall Street” Kol Nidrei services in front of Brown Brothers Harriman on Broadway at Liberty Plaza was how it stood in stark contrast to an earlier episode at Occupy Wall Street. Daniel Sieradski explained on his blog that two individuals (he didn’t use “individuals”) “were caught on video at Occupy Wall Street saying profoundly awful, stupid things about Jews, one of whom was consistently heckled and challenged by those around him.” Contrast that act of anti-Semitism to Friday night’s Kol Nidrei service across from Zuccotti Park attended by approximately 1,000 people. It was in the same place where the anti-Semitic comments were made days earlier.
The Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, donated machzorim (High Holiday prayerbooks) for the prayer service. It was led by Avi Fox Rosen (Storahtelling), Sarah Wolf (JTS), and Getzel Davis (Hebrew College), who are being assisted in preparations by Yosef Goldman (JTS) and Rabbi Ezra Weinberg (RRC).
Sieradski correctly complains that more media attention is being paid to the anti-Semitic comments than to the beautiful Yom Kippur prayer experience that took place in the same area. The young Jewish people who attended Kol Nidrei at Occupy Wall Street have been describing it as the most meaningful Jewish experience of their lives.
Here’s video footage from the Kol Nidrei service at Occupy Wall Street:
In his announcement of the Kol Nidrei service, Daniel Sieradski posted the following:
“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
–Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
This Friday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, Jews around the world refrain from all physical pleasures (eating, bathing and screwing, to name a few), and devote themselves to prayer and supplication, begging the Lord forgiveness of their sins so that they may be written into the Book of Life.
But is fasting and beating our chests really the best we can do to redeem ourselves?
As lower Manhattan erupts with thousands of protesters taking a stand against economic injustice, the words of the prophet Isaiah resonate more truthfully and appropriately than ever:
Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.
Thus rather than spending the holiday safe and warm in our cozy synagogues thinking abstractly about human suffering, perhaps we should truly afflict ourselves and undertake the fast of Isaiah, by joining the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, and holding our Yom Kippur services there amongst the oppressed, hungry, poor and naked.
Not to be cliché, but as Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Kol Hakavod to all those who organized this so that the Occupy Wall Street participants would still be able to observe Yom Kippur.
Mitch Albom received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from my alma mater the Jewish Theological Seminary last Thursday. This was not Mitch’s first time at JTS, as he has been a guest speaker there several times in the past.
I grew up in Metro Detroit reading Mitch Albom’s columns in the sports section of the Detroit Free Press. Before going to school each day, from middle school through high school, I would check the daily box scores to see how our local Detroit teams had faired the night before and read Mitch’s insightful take on the various subjects of the Detroit sports scene. In high school and college I would listen to Mitch’s radio show on 760 AM each weekday. At home, my library contains a section with every single book that Mitch Albom has ever written, all personally inscribed.
I’ve enjoyed reading The Live Albom volumes — his compilation books of his Free Press columns as well as his wonderful biographies on such notable sports personalities in Detroit as Bo Schembechler and the Fab Five. His heartwarming and spiritual books, For One More Day, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Have a Little Faith have all been resources for me in sermons, eulogies, and introductions to Yizkor (the memorial service on Jewish holidays). And of course, his magnum opus Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson has been an inspiration for me since I first picked it up the day it was first published in 1997.
Mitch Albom is very deserving of this honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and I’m especially proud since it was awarded by an institution that is near and dear to my heart. Mitch has truly practiced tikkun olam (helping to heal our fractured world) through his tireless work on behalf of Detroit’s poor. I was uplifted and inspired when I attended his event at the Fox Theater a couple years ago to benefit the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry, a homeless shelter in Detroit. Mitch has raised an impressive amount of money through his Hole in the Roof Foundation and has traveled to Haiti with his Schechter Day School classmate Rabbi David Wolpe.
Mitch Albom has more talent in his pinky finger than most people could even dream of having. He’s turned his books into movies and stage productions. He’s an accomplished playwright whose current production about Ernie Harwell is on stage in Detroit. In one day, I read his Free Press column, listen to him on the radio, and then see him on TV as an ESPN commentator. And somehow, in that same day Mitch finds the time to raise money to benefit the neediest among us. He might not be the most religious guy, but he has a tremendous amount of faith. He doesn’t have a reputation of being a particularly warm guy on the outside, but there’s no question about how warmhearted this guy is.
Congratulations to Dr. Mitch Albom on his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
What follows is the Wall Street Journal full-page ad of an open letter from the Jewish Funds for Justice and signed by 400 rabbis calling on Fox News to sanction commentator Glenn Beck for his “over-the-top” attacks on George Soros. Kudos to Simon Greer and Mik Moore of Jewish Funds for Justice on this initiative.
George Soros, who as a child in Hungary survived the Holocaust by living with a non-Jewish family “used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”
November 11, 2010
There are some “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anyone can use the word ‘Holocaust’ on the air.”
November 16, 2010
“[NPR] are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left-wing of Nazism.”
November 17, 2010
January 27, 2011 – Dear Mr. Murdoch, We are rabbis of diverse political views. As part of our work, we are devoted to preserving the memory of the Shoah, and to passing its lessons on to our future generations and to all humankind. All of us have vigorously defended the Holocaust’s legacy. We have worked to encourage the responsible invocation of its symbols as a powerful lesson for the future.
We were therefore deeply offended by Roger Ailes’ recent statement attributing the outrage over Glenn Beck’s use of Holocaust and Nazi images to “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anybody can ever use the word ‘Holocaust’ on the air.”
In the charged political climate in the current civic debate, much is tolerated, and much is ignored or dismissed. But you diminish the memory and meaning of the Holocaust when you use it to discredit any individual or organization you disagree with. That is what Fox News has done in recent weeks, and it is not only “left-wing rabbis” who think so.
Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, a child survivor of the Holocaust, described Beck’s attack on George Soros as “not only offensive, but horrific, over-the-top, and out-of-line.” Commentary Magazine said that “Beck’s denunciation of him [Soros] is marred by ignorance and offensive innuendo.” Elan Steinberg, vice president of The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, called Mr. Beck’s accusations “monstrous.” Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, called them “beyond repugnant.” And Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, says Beck is using traditional anti-Semitic imagery.
“I haven’t heard anything like this on television or radio — and I’ve been following this kind of stuff,” Lipstadt said. “I’ve been in the sewers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial more often than I’ve wanted.”
We share a belief that the Holocaust, of course, can and should be discussed appropriately in the media. But that is not what we have seen at Fox News. It is not appropriate to accuse a 14-year-old Jew hiding with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Hungary of sending his people to death camps. It is not appropriate to call executives of another news agency “Nazis.” And it is not appropriate to make literally hundreds of on-air references to the Holocaust and Nazis when characterizing people with whom you disagree.
It is because this issue has a profound impact on each of us, our families and our communities that we are calling on Fox News to meet the standard it has set for itself: “to exercise the ultimate sensitivity when referencing the Holocaust.” We respectfully request that Glenn Beck be sanctioned by Fox News for his completely unacceptable attacks on a survivor of the Holocaust and that Roger Ailes apologize for his dismissive remarks about rabbis’ sensitivity to how the Holocaust is used on the air.
Mitch Albom has been writing more eulogies lately than most rabbis. I was deeply moved Sunday after reading Albom’s beautiful memorial for his sister (technically his wife’s sister, but he lovingly removed the “in-law” title), who died after battling breast cancer recently.
Yesterday, Albom traveled to New York City with Reverend Henry Covington to appear on NBC’s “Today Show” together. Covington, the pastor of Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper ministries in Detroit, was featured prominently in Albom’s best-selling book last year, “Have a Little Faith.”
Sadly, Henry Covington passed away Tuesday night at 53 in New York, his hometown. Covington’s church was well-known for the giant hole in its roof, which led Albom to create the Hole in the Roof foundation. As the driving force behind the fundraising efforts, Albom was able to help have the hole in the church roof repaired.
I had the great opportunity to meet Henry in October 2009 at the Fox Theater in Detroit when Mitch Albom brought many of his friends together to raise money for the I Am My Brother’s Keeper ministries in Detroit. While it was great to meet such celebrities as Dave Barry, Anita Baker and the late Ernie Harwell, the biggest treat was talking to Rev. Covington who truly became a local hero in Detroit.
Mitch Albom posted a statement on his Web site, announcing Henry Covington’s death: “Henry was a dear friend, an inspiring pastor, and a very kind soul. He took care of those who were ignored by others. He opened his home and his church to those who needed him most. And he gave thanks each day for the opportunity to do so.” Covington is survived by his wife, Annette, and their four children.
UPDATE: Mitch Albom has published his obituary for Henry Covington on the Detroit Free Press website.
Here is my Hanukkah message that was published on the Read the Spirit website. Read the Spirit’s editor David Crumm introduced my message by connecting it to the Retik family. Ben Retik, who lost his father in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, lit the White House menorah last week. Crumm wrote:
Ben’s mother Susan might have retreated from the world in her grief. Instead, she and another 9/11 widow founded BeyondThe11th, a nonprofit group that works with widows in Afghanistan whose lives have been devastated by war and terrorism. Talk about shining one’s light to the whole world! Despite their loss, the Retik family has made the planet a better and safer place through their charitable work in helping widows half a world away rebuild their families’ lives.
I often hear complaints that Jewish organizations don’t market themselves well. Even when they try to be cool and attract the younger demographic, they often fail by being hokey or forcing the humor.
Well, the American Jewish World Service has solved that problem. The solution is as simple as having Judd Apatow round up his A-List celeb friends and giving them a hilarious script to read on camera. And that’s exactly what Apatow did for the 25th anniversary of the American Jewish World Service, which celebrated that milestone as well as the 70th birthday of the AJWS director Ruth Messinger at a $1,000 per ticket event at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The video is extremely funny, but it’s also a bit racy with some of comedian Sarah Silverman’s patented minority humor. For that reason (and probably a few others), the public service announcement begins with a disclaimer that it is not approved by AJWS.
I considered listing my favorite parts of the PSA, but there are just too many. The video includes Don Johnson, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, John Mayer, Jerry Seinfeld, Susan Sarandon, Sir Patrick Stewart, Andy Samberg, Ken Jeong, Tracy Morgan, Helen Hunt, Dane Cook, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denis Leary, Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog (Yes, he’s Jewish!), and many others.
Watch the entire video to the end so you don’t miss celebrities trying to speak Yiddish, Ben Stiller suggesting to rename the organization “JAWS” to get publicity on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Brian Williams attempting a Tevye impersonation, and Lindsey Lohan shouting “Challah!”
Okay, here’s the video:
Reform Judaism might have been the first Jewish movement to embrace social justice in the 20th century, but the first decade of our current century has seen a vast increase in the importance of Tikkun Olam in the global Jewish community. There are few Jewish congregations in North America that have yet to embrace a coordinated social action initiative.
While there may be some rabbis who would prioritize the adherence to Jewish law, prayer, ritual, study, and worship above social justice work, there are not many rabbis who have the chutzpah to actually criticize synagogues or individuals for participating in such noble endeavors.
But that’s where Glenn Beck comes in. Back in March, the Fox News personality told his audience to leave churches and synagogues that pursue social justice as a value. I am not a regular viewer of Beck’s show, so when I heard this sound bite I thought I misheard him. But, no, he really said it.
Many church groups and Christian leaders fought back, but there was not a strong rebuttal from Jewish groups. Simon Greer, the President & CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, wrote in the “On Faith” column on Newsweek’s website that Glenn Beck is “a con man and America is not buying it. I exhort you to stop bottling your ideological agenda and labeling it ‘theology.’ Americans deserve and demand better.”
Greer went on to tell Beck, “You’ve told us what not to look for in a house of worship. But now I ask you, sincerely, what kind of house of worship do you desire? On March 23, you said, ‘Make sure your church puts God first and politics and government last.’ The question then is, how do we put God first?”
In response to Greer’s column Beck retorted: “This is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany” and that Greer, “a Jew, of all people, should know that.”
Here’s my simple take on this: Social Justice is an essential component of any Jewish theology. As Jews, we should use our hearts to pursue prayer, our heads to pursue the study of Torah and to seek to understand God’s Law, and our hands to assist God in the repair of this broken world in which we share responsibility. The same holds true for all people of faith. Caring about our fellow human and seeking to help them is at the core of being part of a just society.
Glenn Beck? He’s just a crazy man saying ridiculous things to anyone who will tune in and listen. Part of our job in pursuing peace and justice is to publicize just how incredibly wrong and hurtful Glenn Beck’s words are to humanity.
We should be grateful not only for the sacred work that Jewish Funds for Justice is doing, but also for the mitzvah of tochecha (reproachment) that its leader Simon Greer has demonstrated.
Listening to the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret this past Shabbat morning, my attention was focused on the hungry. One might think that it would have been on Yom Kippur that my attention was on the hungry as I spent the day fasting. However, I couldn’t help but think of those human beings without enough sustenance during the Sukkot festival and into the holiday of Shemini Atzeret.
On Sukkot, we move outdoors and dwell in temporary shelters. In the warm climate of Israel this is a nice custom — spending seven days outdoors eating meals in the warm sukkah. However, with the heavy rainfall that lasted the entirety of the Sukkot festival here in Detroit, how could one sit in the cold, wet sukkah and not think of those who must brave the elements each night on the street.
Many friends told me how their sukkah could not withstand the windy weather and it toppled over. It was easy to make the connection for them that during those rainfalls and wind storms, there were human beings sleeping on the streets of Downtown Detroit in empty refridgerator boxes. When one’s sukkah collapses from the inclement weather, one quickly returns into the safety of their sturdy house. This is certainly not an option for the men and women on the street.
We often say that the sukkah stands to remind us to be thankful for the safety and security of our homes — our shelter. We should be grateful that after the eight-day holiday we are free to return to our permanent dwelling place. However, the truth is that the sukkah is not analogous to the temporary shelter of a homeless person. We spend the holiday feasting with family and friends inside our beautifully decorated sukkah, and most of us then return to our comfortable houses to sleep safely through the night. A local rabbi in Detroit who owns a heating and cooling business even told me that he installed a heating unit complete with duct work in someone’s sukkah this year. That is certainly not an option for a homeless person, living in poverty, trying to brave the cold on the streets.
But it wasn’t just the sukkah that turned my attention to the hungry and the homeless during the Sukkot festival. Days before Sukkot, I attended author Mitch Albom’s event at the Fox Theatre in which he talked about his experience at homeless shelters in Detroit. Albom began flexing his philanthropic muscle to benefit the homeless a few years ago as Detroit was gearing up to host Superbowl XL.
To get a sense of what the homeless and hungry must endure, Albom found himself at a downtown shelter, a Christian rescue mission where he would spend the night. He waited on line for a blanket and soap. He was given a bed. At one point, in line for food, a man turned and asked if he was Mitch Albom. Yes, Albom said. The man nodded slowly. “So… What happened to you?” It could be any of us in that situation.
Albom’s book Have a Little Faith forces the reader to consider the lives of those who live on the streets and spend their nights in deteriorating church shelters in the dangerous neighborhoods of downtown. It certainly made me appreciate my house. I think my sukkah was in better condition than some of the homeless shelters I read about in Albom’s book.
My attention was also sharply focused on the less fortunate — the hungry and the homeless — during the Sukkot festival for another reason. The local Detroit kosher food pantry, Yad Ezra, hosted their annual dinner during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Yad Ezra must be praised for the holy work they do: They provide free kosher food, toiletries, and household cleaning items to low-income Jewish families in Southeast Michigan.
It would be considered blasphemy to criticize this important communal organization. And yet, I was left extremely surprised that during Sukkot they held their annual dinner at a local synagogue. The “strolling dinner,” which likely cost the organization over $20,000, fed their donors gourmet food while their beneficiaries were standing in line for dinner at shelters in the rain. Their mission is to feed the hungry in our community, and yet on that night it was the well-to-do donors that sustain the organization who were fed. It seems that their priorities were not in tune with their core mission.
I’ve been to many non-profit fundraising events that serve expensive, delicious meals. Of course, one could argue, it’s better not to wine and dine, and just allow all the donations to go to the organization’s mission and overhead. However, these events are part of the culture in the fundraising world. I take exception, however, with the Yad Ezra annual dinner because it is their stated mission to feed the hungry through their kosher food bank. To have an excess of food at this event and to spend the evening talking about feeding the hungry seems paradoxical to me.
I imagine a more appropriate event for this agency in which they encourage their donors to stay home, have a nice dinner in their sukkah with their family and then come to the event to help honor one of their most dedicated donors. They would be asked to bring a bag of non-perishables (even though many did just that before Yom Kippur). The agency leaders could then tell the donors how much money was saved by not serving a full meal or providing a strolling, all-you-can-eat buffet. The donors would be relieved and would not feel guilty eating excessively while talking about the needs of the hungry in the community.
Finally, my attention was directed at those less fortunate during the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret. Most of Deuteronomy chapter 15 is concerned with ensuring that there not emerge in the Israelite nation a permanent underclass (persons unable to lift themselves out of poverty). The Torah reading discusses the remission of debts every seventh year and the laws of lending to the poor. Five verses (15:7-11) in the chapter outline Jewish poverty laws requiring us to feed, clothe, and house poor non-Jews as well as Jews. The next verses promote a fair severance pay for workers.
This Torah reading gets to the heart of Jewish ethics and the ideal way in which we must treat our fellow human beings (be they Jewish or gentile, workers or the unemployed). We have a clear role to take care of those less fortunate — the hungry and the homeless.
As I listened to these verses being chanted, I thought about Nathaniel Popper’s harsh critique in the Forward of the Hekhsher Tzedek commission’s Magen Tzedek. He argues that Conservative Jewish leaders who support the “living wage” have done little to lead by way of example and emulate this ethic in their own synagogues. He quotes my colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who wrote a teshuvah (religious ruling) promoting a living wage and edited a book about pursuing social justice to benefit the needy. She said, “There’s somewhat of a reluctance to look inward and think and talk about our own employment practices.”
Fact is, Popper is correct. It is disingenuous for rabbis to call for higher wages and better working conditions at kosher food companies (e.g. Rubashkins) before ensuring that their synagogue’s own janitors and nursery school teachers are compensated fairly. It is easy to levy standards on other establishments, but much more difficult to attain those standards at home first.
What is most important is to work toward a society in which there is no permanent underclass. Not everything will be equal — or even close to it — because that’s not realistic. But we all must help those less fortunate and those who are currently struggling. Not only in the food industry, but in every industry. We should be a part of the process that allows for every working man and woman to earn a fair wage; one in which they can support their family. We rabbis must begin by ensuring that those men and women who clean our synagogues and teach our children are being paid adequately and treated fairly. Then we can branch out to the community-at-large.
Those are the ethics of hunger and homelessness. The ethics of fair rights for the working class. And those are the ethics by which we should strive to live.