Leading in Jewish Social Justice

By Melanie Fineman

(This past November, Melanie spoke from the bima at Friday night Shabbat services. She spoke powerfully about the connection between her Jewish life and social justice. The following are her remarks.)

Our Torah portion this week, Vayeitzei, opens with a journey: Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and travels to Haran (28:10). And so it is only fitting that I am here, having come back to Newton after living in my new home in Washington DC. And just like when Jacob set off to find his place, I will continue, slowly yet surely, to find my place in this Jewish community. Though unlike Jacob, I am not fleeing anything: there is nothing that I would like to escape or avoid. Moreover, I am trying to learn as much as I possibly can to gain clarity about how I personally can partake in tikkun olam, or healing the world.

I have always had a strong Jewish Identity; I became a Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Shalom, went to Eisner camp for one summer, traveled to Prague, Poland, and Israel for five weeks the summer after my sophomore year of high school with NFTY L’Dor V’Dor. I was an avid participant in the Temple Shalom Mother-Daughter Book Group when I was in Middle School. I also had a passion for political action and social justice. Every Sunday, my dad would hand me a dollar bill to bring to Religious School, which I would then place in the class tzedekah box. Temple Shalom’s Mitzvah Day was an annual highlight, and I was proud that my parents ran one of the projects. When wintertime came, I would walk up and down Temple Shalom’s social hall participating in the Mitzvah Mall. As I have grown older, I have discovered that my desire to help others could take root in ways other than through the community service contributions of my youth: I volunteered for political campaigns, interned at government offices, and engaged in public policy work. This political and government activism had always been fairly separate from my Jewish identity, and I was eager to see how the two intersected.

Just as Jacob begins his journey, he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth, with various angels climbing and descending on it. The angels move up and down, fluctuating from the spiritual elements of faith to something more relevant down on
Earth. How could my Jewish values and Jewish ideals connect with policy and with the government action that I valued so deeply?
When I was a freshman in college I came across the Machon Kaplan Internship Program for undergraduate students interested in Judaism and social justice. The program is based in Washington DC and run by the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism, the DC office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns. The organization advocates on over seventy different issues and serves as the social justice arm for the Union For Reform Judaism. The RAC hosts a number of programs, such as Machon Kaplan. For six weeks, students intern at various nonprofits, take classes exploring the relationship between faith and social justice, and live in dorm rooms at George Washington University with the other program participants. I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program. I was so fortunate that I could be a part of the RAC that, like a ladder, relates Judaism to work on the ground and ultimately makes it relevant to
the structures and systems facing us in today’s society. The RAC also has a fellowship program where recent college graduates participate as Eisendrath Legislative Assistants, or as LAs.

Several members of the Temple Shalom family were LAs including Julie Vanek and Liz Piper-Goldberg Hirsch. I am fortunate to get to be one of six LAs for the 2014-2015 season. This week’s Torah portion also emphasizes the outcome of hard work. Jacob is asked to work for his Uncle Laban by tending his sheep for seven years. Only after his hard work can he advance and ultimately achieve this end goal. Sometimes, we all have to persevere through difficult situations. At the RAC, I currently work on the economic justice portfolio. This includes housing, homelessness, hunger, taxes, the budget, aging and the elderly, children’s issues, labor, minimum wage, and paid sick leave. These are a lot of issues, and very important ones at that. I am responsible for researching these issues, relating the topic to our tradition, educating clergy and URJ members, lobbying and writing on the RAC blog. Let me share with you some of the
findings of my research and some of what I have learned over the past few months.

In our society, there are too many people currently 46.2 million Americans are currently in poverty and 47 million Americans, or 15% of the population, receive SNAP benefits, or food snaps. The US Department of Agriculture reports that last year over 49 million
Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food. 15.8 million children struggled with food insecurity issues in the past year and 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before they reach the age of 20. Our Jewish tradition is explicit in the command that we feed the hungry and help eradicate hunger from our society. For instance, In Isaiah 58:7, God commands us to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.”

It has become increasingly difficult for American families to stay in their own home. A recent comprehensive state-by-state report sponsored by the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research shows that the number of homeless children in the country has reached a record high, amounting in one in thirty children being homeless! This means that 2.5 million children in the United States, about half of whom are under the age of six, go to sleep without a home of their own each night, a historic high in the number of homeless children in the U.S.

All of these issues are interconnected: The major causes of American homelessness include the high national poverty rate, a lack of affordable housing across the country, the Great Recession’s continuing impacts, racial disparities, the challenges of single parenting, and how traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families. High costs of living, compounded by the lack of
affordable housing, further exacerbates the problem. Federal housing assistance, state housing assistance, and incentives for developers to build low-income housing units have met the high demand to feed America’s homeless. We can’t just solve or fix one of these problems – all of the issues regarding economic inequality in our society must be solved together. We need to address all of the root foundations that place people in poverty and that place people behind.

One way to combat these issues is by ensuring that workers are earning a living wage: the minimum wage needs to be raised in order to help workers earn enough to raise a family. Over the last forty years, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen by
close to 30%, demonstrating a need to raise the wage to account for changing cost values. The 1968 federal minimum wage would be worth over $10/hour in today’s dollars – yet our current minimum wage of $7.25/hour is far below that. Our current
minimum wage translates to a lifetime of poverty, not near enough for anyone to live by: in no states can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment working a 40 hour week. Raising the minimum wage would also help improve the economy, by increasing productivity, reducing turnover, saving on recruiting/training costs, reducing absenteeism, and lifting 2 million Americans out of poverty.

Though the Torah recognizes that we cannot necessarily eliminate all poverty, we are taught that we must work to alleviate its impact. In addition, the Torah also emphasizes the importance of a worker’s wages: “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).” Making sure the vulnerable and the worker are provided for is a responsibility for us as a society as well as us as individuals. Through the RAC, I was able to get involved with the Nebraska minimum wage race and helped a reform rabbi and Congregationalist minister write an interfaith op-ed encouraging voters to vote yes on initiative 425, the Nebraska ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage. It was exciting when the minimum wage was raised in four states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota – after last fall’s election day. We can make a difference.

We can also do more to increase the number of paid sick days individuals have access to. The RAC got involved in our Commonwealth’s Ballot Question 4, a call for Massachusetts workers to have earned sick time. We created an online social media tool called a Thunderclap that reached 85,000 people to raise awareness about Question 4, made a pledge to remind voters to vote on Question 4, and encouraged our clergy to write op-eds about paid sick leave. Temple Shalom’s own Rabbi Neil Hirsch wrote an op-ed that got placed in the Massachusetts Jewish Ledger. We also hosted a conference call for our clergy in Massachusetts about Question 4, and RAC staff members called rabbis at all of our Reform congregations to raise awareness about the issue. It was exciting to be part of an effort to make an impact in my own home state.

I also feel good knowing that I spend every day fighting for important government programs that are helping make individuals’ lives better. Social safety net programs are crucial to ensuring children who are experiencing poverty stay afloat. The share of federal funding directed towards children has declined and today amounts to under 8 percent of the overall budget. In 2013 federal safety net programs kept 8.2 million
children, over 11% of all children, out of poverty.

Our Jewish values encourage us to advocate for systems that can lift people out of poverty. Jewish history also provides us with an example for helping the needy. During Talmudic times, much of tzedakah was done though tax-financed, community-run programs that helped those in needed, paralleling the entitlement security that we fight for and continue to fight for today.

So I’ve spent a lot of time tonight talking about problems and issues facing our society, but I don’t want to lost sight that the RAC believes that we can act to mitigate these differences. What am I doing, as someone working on behalf of this denomination of Judaism, which was founded on the grounds of making your Judaism relevant to your life, on making decisions regarding how to practice faith and how to live a Jewish life through knowledge. I feel so fortunate to be working for an organization that embraces the journey of striving to make the world a better place and to advocate for policies that benefit all, not just reform Jews, or the Jewish community at large.

Visit the RAC’s web site at www.rac.org – on the web site, you will find action alerts that encourage you to contact your elected officials on issues that matter to you.

The other LAs and I write several blog posts a week about the issues in our portfolio and what our reform Jewish values say about them. Soon students from Temple Shalom will fly down to Washington DC to participate in one of the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, opportunities for high schoolers to learn about issues as well as what the reform movement has to say about policies and ultimately concluding in lobby visits, where the students will visit their own elected officials and advocate as ambassadors for Temple Shalom, for the Reform Movement, and ultimately for themselves. My fellow Legislative Assistants and I are doing a lot of work to prepare interactive programs, lobby materials, talking points, and memos to support these conferences – and to provide information to guide these high school students on their own Jewish journeys in pursuit of social justice.

How can we follow in the footsteps of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Rebecca, of Sarah, of Leah, and work to heal the world?

Our Jewish tradition encourages us to not be complacent in the face of these economic injustices, but to continue to advocate for programs to lift up those in need. Tzedakah is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. We are
told in Proverbs 31:9, to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. And these are words that I will continue to carry with me, for the rest of my life and as I continue my journey. Jacob was not sure what his journey would bring, when he left Beersheva to travel to Haran. And nor do I know what will come next. Yet I will remain inspired by the ladder connecting what is holy to what is going on right here on the ground, with the angels floating up and down in between it. And I know that I will do everything possible to do
good work and leave a positive mark on this planet, with my Jewish values guiding me every step of the way.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy holidays.

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