This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, in which we are commanded to help those among us that are most vulnerable. We see the ultimate goal of a society that we strive to create in Deuteronomy 15:4:
There Shall be No Needy Among You.
However, we also know that this isn’t the reality of the world that we live in. We continue to work towards the day when there will be no one who is in need, but until we get to that point, we must then follow what the Torah portion says only a few verses later in Deuteronomy 15:7-8:
If, however, there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.
We have a responsibility to help those who are in need and yet, even when we give tzedakah, we too often ignore those who are most vulnerable in our own backyards. How can we help those on the other side of the world who are in need and ignore the needy among us? What does our responsibility to help those “among us” really mean?
Is this referring to those who are in our families? Members of our synagogues? Those living in our neighborhoods and on our blocks? Essex County is unique in the close proximity of the small villages and larger cities that make up this county. South Orange and Maplewood in particular are surrounded by so many that are in need. We cannot simply ignore those around us because they have a different zip code. They are still our neighbors, and in many cases, live only a short walk away.
According to city-data.com the poverty rate in New Jersey in 2013 was 8.5%. That is the percentage of residents in the state who live below the poverty line. In South Orange, that number is significantly less, only 5.3%. In Maplewood, that number is reduced further, to 4.4%. In Millburn, only 1.5% of residents live below the poverty line. Yet, when we look among us, we only need to look down the road. Only a couple of miles away in Irvington, the poverty rate is 17.4%. In Orange, that number is 18.8%. In East Orange, it increases to 19.2%. And in Newark, which begins just down the road from our synagogue (less than a mile away!) that number is 28.4%. All of these communities are among us. All those in need among us are our responsibility.
Two of the ways you can take action and fulfill our obligation found in Deuteronomy 15:7-8 is by volunteering for the Interfaith Hospitality Network and by volunteering for the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. The IHN helps homeless families in our county who are in need of shelter. We partner with other local houses of worship to provide them with a place to stay and three meals. Their children continue to be in a safe space and they are recognized as sacred and holy, even as they deal with such a challenge. Congregation Beth El is one of three synagogues to join other houses of worship in supporting, volunteering at, and running the IFPO. The Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, housed at the Church of the Epiphany in Orange, provides supplemental and emergency food to low-income residents of Orange and East Orange every Wednesday, except the first Wednesday of the month.
At each entrance to our synagogue building, we have collection bins to collect non-perishable food items for the IFPO. While we give out hundreds of bags of food a month, I know that there have been weeks when our bins have been overflowing with donations and weeks when they have been nearly empty. Yet, hunger does not stop. In fact, during the summer months, without breakfast and lunch programs in schools, many more children go hungry. A simple can of food can make a huge difference. Think about how many times you regularly enter our synagogue building. We come for services and for meetings, we come to drop off our children and we come to socialize. We come to learn and we come to teach. Next time you come into the building, bring a can of food with you. In fact, I invite you to bring a can of food with you every time you come in the building. Doing so is a small step to help ensure that we open our hands – and our hearts – to all those in need among us.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky