Tag Archives: tzedakah

Bitter Waters and Bottled Water: Lessons of Flint, Charity, and Justice

This article was originally published on January 31, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

I’ve always been annoyed by the actions of the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt. I’d roll my eyes at their childish and immature behavior. How is it possible that they could complain so quickly after experiencing the miracle of the freedom, so quickly after witnessing the waters part? They complained about not having enough water, about the waters of Marah being too bitter to drink:

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were too bitter (Ex. 15:23).

Too bitter?! I used to scoffed as I read this narrative. Deal with it. Stop complaining. The water is fine. After all, you’re finally free. Drink whatever is put in front of you. But now I get it. You aren’t really free if you don’t have water to drink. You aren’t really free if only bitter water is provided for you. Because that bitterness – that unclean water – still reeks of oppression and discrimination.

I’ve watched the news over the past several weeks in disbelief as Flint, Michigan, an entire city of 100,000 has been drinking toxic and poisonous water. What is scary is that while we were made aware of this by the national media a few weeks ago, the people of Flint have been consuming this lead-poisoned water for over two years. This isn’t a third world country. This is happening in America, where we spend seven dollars on a latte, and yet, government officials try to cut costs by poisoning a city. The wealthy legislators cut costs that only impacted the poor city of Flint, where 41% of the city live below the poverty line, where the majority of residents are black. They did so and claimed that the water was fine to drink, but brought in bottled purified water for all state officials who worked in the city.

I received a letter last week from Mayor Ras Baraka, mayor of neighboring city of Newark. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Mayor Baraka explained that Newark, along with Paterson and Jersey City, will be spending the next two weeks collecting bottles of water to be delivered to residents of Flint. We at Congregation Beth El, like so many other Jewish communities, accept the call to pursue justice and decided that we too would collect bottles of water and we continue to do so. We are committed to donating because we cannot stand idly by. We are committed to donating because we are committed to fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, to not closing our hands or our hearts to those in need.

bottled water.pngYet, after announcing that we were going to be collecting bottles of water, I, like many, read Michael Moore’s letter that had gone viral. The famous documentary film maker who is from Flint, Michigan wrote: “Don’t send us bottles of water. Instead, join us in revolt.” Some questioned if we should be collecting bottles of water at all. I understand Moore’s point and I agree with him. He points out that with 100,000 residents in Flint, we’d have to send roughly 200 bottles per day per person to Flint to meet their essential needs for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, and of course, drinking. That is roughly 20 million bottles per day! He also reminds us in his letter that the damage is done. The neurological damage done to the children of this city is irreversible. Stopping to drink the water now won’t change that damage.

20 million bottles of water per day seems impossible – and there are environmental challenges to that many bottles of water. I agree with him that sending bottles of water doesn’t solve all the problem and Michael Moore knows the city a lot better than I do. I agree that sending bottles of water is a short-term fix. But just because something is a short-term fix, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Food pantries are also short-term solutions and don’t solve hunger. Yet, we still collect donations. Shelters are a short-term fix and don’t solve homelessness. Yet, we still volunteer. In fact, charity – Tzedakah – is a short term fix. I get all that. But what about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until, or if, this problem is resolved? What about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until they are evacuated by FEMA? What about the 100,000 people in Flint who, despite the damage that has already been done, still need clean water to drink?

Moore is suggesting that we focus our time on holding the government accountable and making sure those who did this are brought to justice. I agree that we can’t just send water and feel good about ourselves, and then ignore the dire needs of this city. But I refuse to not try to provide clean water – no matter the damage already caused – for a city. We can still revolt and fight for justice while providing water. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There is a difference between charity and justice. We should not and cannot confuse the two. We cannot only give charity. We must also fight for justice. But we cannot forget the need to do charity while we are fighting for justice. That is the reason that we have two biblical commands: Deuteronomy 15:4, to build a just society, and Deuteronomy 15:7, to help those in need as well strive for justice. We must do both.

The actions of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, in our biblical narrative are some of the most important actions in the Torah. He is there alongside Moses and the Israelites as they receive the Ten Commandments, representing the Divine law. But juxtaposed to this event is Jethro – an outsider of sorts – who tells Moses that a court system, a justice system, must be set up. We read:

This thing that you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, and this people that are with you as well. For this task, this burden, is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone (Ex. 18:17-18).

Jethro is doing more than just helping Moses find the proper work-life balance. He is doing more than making sure Moses isn’t micromanaging. He is acknowledging that as the Israelites are receiving law, law is not set in stone. Law does not always equal justice.

Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it is just. Jethro teaches that we must wrestle with law, struggle with the legal system, and make sure that laws are just for all. That is the justice system that he set up. That is the justice system that we still seek. So yes, Michael Moore, we should revolt. We should pursue justice. We should hold Governor Snyder and the state officials of Michigan accountable for poisoning an entire city. But we have an obligation to give charity, to give Tzedakah, while we fight for Tzedek. We have an obligation to throw that metaphorical branch into the bitter waters to make them sweet. We have an obligation to provide clean, drinkable water, to every resident of this country. And we have an obligation to continue to fight for justice while we do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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Would You Sleep Well in a Hotel Bed Made by an Underpaid Maid?

This article was originally published on September 1, 2014, Labor Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

 

The Torah has much to teach us about Labor Day.

For many in the United States, and especially the northeastern part, Labor Day is the official end of summer. If schools are not yet back in session, the school year begins after Labor Day. The last three-day weekend for quite a while, Labor Day is also the end of the “pool season” for communities that don’t have warm climates for most of the year. For most, Labor Day represents the finale of their vacation, one last attempt to get the most out of a summer that went by way too fast.

For others, it is a day for celebrating justice.

The day, thanks to the support and influence of labor unions, emphasizes the economic and societal achievements of labor workers. By marking this day, we celebrate the achievements of American workers who contribute to our society.

This year, Labor Day comes two days after Jews read the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, the Torah Portion of Shoftim:

“Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue” (Deut. 16:20).

Shoftim reminds us that, unfortunately, justice does not come naturally; it is an ideal that we must work for. We are commanded to not simply love justice, to not simply believe in justice, but, rather, to pursue justice.

When we Jews consider Labor Day in the context of Shoftim, we understand that it is about more than just a celebration of hard work. It is about fighting to ensure that all those who work hard get their fair share. Labor Day becomes not just a celebration, but a reminder that the fight for justice and equality in the workforce is ongoing.

Deuteronomy 16:20 continues, clarifying that we are to pursue justice so that we can not only dwell in our land, but also thrive in our land. Without justice, without each worker getting their fair share, we cannot truly thrive as individuals, as a people and as a nation.

The legalized formation of labor unions with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was a large step toward justice and equality, fighting for the success that these workers deserve for their hard work. This law mirrors our faith’s collective imperative to pursue justice, but there is still much work to be done in our pursuit of justice for all.

Even with the influence of unions, Congress has failed to act in increasing the minimum wage, in ensuring that those workers who do in fact work hard get their fair share. The current federal minimum wage in America is only $7.25. A dual-income family where both individuals are earning only the minimum wage has a household income right around America’spoverty level. Clearly, the minimum wage is far from a living wage.

In light of Congress’ failure to act, cities and states across the United States have begun passing legislation of their own. Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco have been pushing wage increases between $13 and $15 an hour, while states like Minnesota, Maryland and Massachusetts have increased the minimum wage, albeit more modestly. Just like these states and cities stepped up and acted when the nation’s legislators refused to do so, the Jewish community, inspired by the teachings of the Torah, must exert pressure on our nation’s leaders to ensure that all hard working individuals get their fair share.

hotelbedWe cannot, in good conscience, be comfortable knowing that those who take care of us in hotels and hospitals, restaurants and retailers, live in poverty. We cannot allow them to work hard and not make a living wage, just to keep prices lower for us, the consumer. We cannot sit at the pool and celebrate Labor Day when those who serve us poolside are not getting their fair share. We must pursue justice. We must ensure that the minimum wage in America is a living wage.

As the United States’ Department of Labor points out:

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known … It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

We celebrate the worker because it is hard work that leads to freedom, justice and equality. The essence of the American promise, as well as the promise of democracies throughout the world, is that everyone has a fair shot. In a land of equal opportunity, if you work hard, you can succeed. It is up to us, to ensure that success for all.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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After Sterling’s racist remarks, Jewish community can’t accept his money

This article was originally published on May 5, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

The owner of the LA Clippers have given tens of thousands of dollars annually to local Jewish causes. Taking a stand against his racism means refusing his charity.

Every Jewish institution, organization and synagogue that I’ve ever been a part of has been dependent on donations. Especially in the economic climate of the past several years, nonprofit organizations have been hoping for specific individuals to give major gifts to bridge the deficit gap. We depend on gifts of tzedakah – charity. The Los Angeles Jewish community has relied on one individual to help them meet their fund-raising goals over the past several years, and now they are left to ask themselves: “What do we do with these funds?”

DonaldSterlingDonald Sterling, the now infamous owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, has given tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to local Jewish causes, including major gifts to the Los Angeles Jewish Federationand, somewhat ironically, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

Now, even non-sports fans know Sterling’s name, as we learned last week of secret recordings in which he made racist comments, bluntly informing his mistress that he did not want to see her taking pictures with African-Americans or inviting them to Clippers games. In fact, he even stated it would be better if no African-American fans attended in general.

The NBA responded sternly and appropriately to these comments, with a lifetime ban, a fine of $2.5 million, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saying he would encourage the NBA’s Board of Governors to vote and force Sterling to sell the team.

Some have suggested he should be forced to give more money and donations to organizations that combat racism, bigotry and hate. However, is accepting his money not a tacit acceptance of his thoughts, opinions and viewpoints? Does accepting his donations not condone his prejudice?

Furthermore, to continue to accept donations from him suggests that his comments, at least in private where he made them, are acceptable and commonplace.

The Jewish community as a whole must be more careful in considering whose charitable gifts we accept. Otherwise, we run the risk of being defined by the unethical and prejudiced viewpoints of some of those who give. We must always look a gift horse in the mouth. Donald Sterling’s recent racist comments are just a reminder of that.

Diane Tobin, founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization which focuses on ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community, explains that the sentiment behind Donald Sterling’s comments are more troublesome than the comments themselves.

She explains: “The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end, as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades – a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents – it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.”

Mr. Sterling’s comments suggest a white superiority that the Jewish community cannot hold. His comments became public last week only days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we mourn and memorialize the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, and the 11 million people murdered because of religion, race, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. He made bigoted comments as a Jew only days before world Jewry mourned the scariest result of such bigotry: mass murder and genocide.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is now commonly referred to as Yom Hashoa u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. This is because we do not only mourn the six million Jews murdered simply because of their faith; we also honor and celebrate the brave men and women, Jew and non-Jew, who were willing to take a stand in the face of bigotry and hate.

We must be willing to stand up to bigotry as well.

We, as a Jewish community, must publicly take a stand and declare that Sterling’s views are not our views, that he does not define us, and that we refuse to benefit from his money. If we truly believe in the promise of ‘Never Again,’ then we must stamp out all forms of bigotry in our midst.

Tzedakah is about more than just writing a five, six or seven figure check. The root of the Hebrew word tzedakah is tzedek, meaning justice. Let us ensure justice for all by ensuring that each individual is treated with the dignity and respect he or she deserves, and not be bullied into beliefs, opinions or bigotry by those who have the means to influence such beliefs. Let us embrace each other. As we hang our heads in shame at Sterling’s comments, let us proudly say that they do not represent us, for we see God in each individual. This, after all, is the real meaning of tzedakah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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