My high school students and I were having a vigorous conversation about ways that we can help people here in Rhode Island who wake up every day facing hunger, poverty or homelessness. This led us to a discussion about what they do when they are approached at a street corner by a fellow human being who is holding a cardboard sign asking for money.
Each student explained how he or she decides to do “the right thing” in this situation. They also shared their fears about this kind of encounter, such as: What does this person want from me? Will he hurt me? What will he do with the money if I give it to him?
We were still left with the question, what is the best way to really help people in need?
One student explained that rather than giving money to a stranger on the street, their family’s practice is to carry various types of granola bars in the car. When stopped, they offer food, a smile and best wishes to the person; they know they are doing something to feed someone who is hungry without having to wonder about how the person might spend the money he might have given instead.
This student explained that the family receives a variety of responses from the people who receive the food rather than money. Most often the recipients are immensely thankful and offer gratitude and blessings in return. For this family, it is a win-win solution to the question of how to best help. I later learned that other students in this class brought the idea home to their families and they, too, have now taken on this practice.
As we approach Shabbat Kedoshim and we focus on the ancient teachings of the Holiness Code, I wonder about what it means for us as a community to live a holy life and incorporate our ancient values into our modern lives. The Torah teaches us that one of our imperatives is to feed those who are hungry.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, … you shall not … gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am Adonai, your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10
This week the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty held its annual Poverty Conference to raise awareness and consciousness about the issues of poverty in Rhode Island. The guest speaker was Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. His focus was on various ways that we can all fulfill the mitzvah of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
The several hundred attendees at the conference were reminded of many sobering statistics, including that one in five Rhode Island children lives in poverty and one in six Rhode Islanders is food insecure.
Let me say that again. One in five of our children here in Rhode Island lives in poverty. And one in six Rhode Islanders is food insecure.
This reality is unacceptable to people of good conscience. Each and every one of us who has more than enough food to eat should be ashamed by these facts – and not just feel ashamed, but feel called upon to transform those feelings into action – today. As Americans living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we must live the values of holiness by being sure that our fellow community members have enough food to eat. As Jews we are commanded to do our part to make the world more whole and complete. Some of us will choose to act by actually feeding the hungry. Others will be called upon to change legislation to address the issue at the societal level. The imperative is to do something now. Concrete action will lead us on the path to living a life of holiness.
For even more sobering facts about poverty in Rhode Island and for information about what you can do to help, go to endpovertyri.org
ANDREW KLEIN is rabbi of Temple Habonim in Barrington and treasurer/secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.