Tag Archives: Hunger

It Begins with a Single Can of Food

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.

IFPOAt 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

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A Vision for Social Justice in Jacksonville

On Tuesday night, November 5th, 2013, the annual Community Problems Assembly of ICARE (the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment) met at the Abyssinia Baptist Church. As one of the newest member congregations of ICARE, the Jacksonville Jewish Center was proud to be present and participate in the conversation about social justice in our city. Here is the vision for social justice I shared with the almost 600 attendees who were present:

My name is Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and I serve as one of the rabbis of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, which is proud to be officially join ICARE this year as a member congregation, the first Jewish institution to do so. I am here to share the vision of ICARE, but this vision is not only my vision. This vision is not only the vision of my esteemed colleagues, fellow clergy members of Florida’s First Coast who accompany me here this evening. This vision is not simply the vision of this institution. For we do not act to do justice simply because it is the right thing to do. We do not act to do justice because it makes us feel good. We act because the Lord our God, however we refer to God, in whatever language, in our own faiths, commands us, demands of us, begs us, to do so. 

Nehemiah may remind us to do justice, but this is not Nehemiah’s vision. The prophet Amos foresees that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, but this is not Amos’ vision. The prophet Micah commands that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, but this is not Micah’s vision. The Islamic prophet Muhammed teaches that when we see a wrong we should change it with our hand, with our tongue, with our hearts, but this too is not his vision. The Biblical leader of the Jewish people Moses sets up a system of law to enact justice and do what is right, but this too was not his vision. 

For we do not congregate and assemble simply as residents of Jacksonville who are concerned about our city. We come together as representatives of dozens of congregations, of different faiths, and different denominations, people of faith, believers, who are doing God’s will. 

God commands us in Deuteronomy Chapter 15, verse 7 that “if there are needy people among you, you shouldn’t harden your heart towards them, but open your hand to them.” 

God tells us to be kind. God tells us to feed our neighbor, to cloth our neighbor, to help our neighbor; but God does not want us to settle for being kind. Juxtaposed to this verse, immediately beforehand, in verse 4, God commands: “There shall be no needy among you.” God begs us to be kind in the face of injustice, but challenges us to be brave enough to rid this word of true injustice. 

That is God’s vision. That is our vision. A community, a city, a world without any injustice. So we are kind, but we strive to live in a world where we do not help others because they do not need our help. Our vision is a vision of justice. 

As it says in Deuteronomy, in Hebrew, Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof, Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue. God does not tell us that justice is served on a silver platter. God does not want us to sit on our hands and wait for justice to happen. We are God’s partners in creation. We are to pursue justice to complete the utopian Garden of Eden that God originally set out to create. We pursue justice. We chase it. We run after it. We make it a reality. It is not easy, but we do not come together because it is easy. We come together because it is right. We come together because it is sacred. 

ICARE JAXThe mission of ICARE is to powerfully address citywide concerns related to issues of justice and fairness. We use our collective people power to press our elected officials and other city leaders on county-wide solutions to the problems that plague our community. Our vision is that as communities of faith who gather together at least 52 times a year for worship, at least once a year we can all come together to do justice. 

Ultimately, doing justice is worship. Justice is prayer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, once marched arm in arm from Selma to Montgomery with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When asked why he was walking, he explained that he was praying with his feet. So let us do that. Let us pray with our hearts, with our souls, with our voices. Let us act. Let us pray with our feet. Let us pursue justice. 

At the Community Problems Assembly, we were updated on the issues of social justice that ICARE has been tackling, including Youth Crime, Homelessness, Education, and Jobs. The success of ICARE’s efforts is most notable in these fields with the opening of the Downtown Homeless Day Center, which opened last week. The attendees voted on a new issue to work on, and the overwhelming majority decided that together, as people of faith, we must focus on Mental Health. Over the coming weeks and months, experts in the field will study the issue of Mental Health and then we will come together to figure out a strategic plan, so that all residents of Jacksonville can have access to much needed mental healthcare to ensure that Jacksonville is a safer, healthier, and more just city. You can read the Florida Times-Union’s report on the Community Problems Assembly here.

May we all pray and work towards a more just city, society, and world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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