Sukkot Thoughts for 2020

Image: An Israeli street, with sukkot. (Shutterstock image; all rights reserved.)

It’s Sukkot, and on the rare occasions that I leave my house, Oakland looks like Israel this week.

As people lose their housing, the tent camps that already existed are growing. In Israel, the fact that there are sukkot everywhere would not be a surprise – of course there are sukkot everywhere! — but in the secular Bay Area, it is no holiday.

In a normal year, we use the sukkah to remind ourselves of the fragility of our daily lives. In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that the fragility we are currently experiencing is temporary.

In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that these should be temporary structures, not a permanent solution to anything.

In 2020, we need the table in the sukkah to remind us that the people in those temporary dwellings are hungry. We need to be reminded that while we may find the sight of the stars through the shakh (palm covered roof) quaint and lovely, there are people who see any hole in the roof of their shelter as a doorway for rain, cold, and illness.

In 2020, a study by Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food insecurity, predicts that local food insecurity may affect 1 in 3 adults this winter and 1 in 2 children. The food banks literally do not know how they will meet the demand, especially with federal sources of food assistance drying up.

What can we do?

  1. Ask for help if you need it. Many people who were secure last year are insecure this year. Covid-19 and federal policy have destroyed jobs and left many people in a terrible spot. If you are one of them, it may be very difficult to say to the people who’ve always thought of you as a helper, not a helpee. Just remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. Remember, when we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah.
  2. We can support our local food banks. Government aid takes time to mobilize, but the charities are already up and running. They know their stuff. Find the food bank nearest you, or near some community you love, and give them whatever you can.
  3. We can support our local food banks with volunteer labor. Many of the volunteers that have staffed food banks in the past are elders who cannot continue that work because they are at high risk for Covid-19.
  4. We can support organizations that help people who don’t have homes. There are a number of good lists online, both local and national. For instance, the SF Chronicle publishes the SF Homeless Project, listing local programs. Your local Jewish Family & Community Services organization has such programs which serve both Jews and non-Jews. You can also check with Google to get an idea of local organizations.
  5. We can support organizations that serve victims of domestic violence, which has been on the rise. Locally, the organization Shalom Bayit (“Peace of the Home”) continues to do great work with very little money. Use Google to find local organizations you can support with donations or volunteerism.

No money to donate? Or, like me, are you unable to get out and volunteer?

  1. Educate yourself on local issues. What’s going on in your town? Who is helping, what is making matters worse? What bills are in the state pipeline that address these issues? What’s on your ballot that might make a difference?
  2. Write letters to local elected officials (think “mayor, city council, state representatives”) insisting that the care of the hungry and homeless is important to you. Write letters to the editor of your local paper (there’s one I need to do!)
  3. Make your contacts personal. That’s what the staffers of politicians tell us: signing a big petition may be satisfying, but often it makes little impression. Write to YOUR state rep, to YOUR mayor, to YOUR city council person, and explain that they need to do something or they won’t get YOUR vote next time.
  4. Reject NIMBYism. Building lower-cost housing is an absolute necessity, but often after a developer is persuaded to include it in their plans, the neighbors have a fit. Sure, insist on sufficient planning regarding parking and transit! Insist that things be done properly! But don’t be the person who starts talking about how “their kind” aren’t wanted in your neighborhood, and call it out when you hear it.
  5. Pray. If there are solutions or people that scare you, try praying about them before you utterly reject them. Ask God’s help in being part of the solution; ask God’s mercy on those who are suffering.
  6. And I repeat: Ask for help if you need it. Remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. When we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah. They may need the mitzvah every bit as badly as we need the help. It is OK to ask.

I’ve run on long enough; these are my Sukkot thoughts today. I wish all my readers safe shelter from the scary world, and blessings in all that you do.

A Pre-Shabbat Mitzvah?

Image: Box of food for the hungry. (135 Pixels / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Pirkei Avot is a section of the Mishnah which is full of pithy advice. Pirkei Avot can be translated “Verses of the Fathers” but I prefer to think of it as “Advice from the Uncles.” (Alas, there are no women quoted in it!) Here’s one of my Top Ten from the book:

Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression; For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.

Pirkei Avot 4:2

This verse is the foundation for Living on the Mitzvah Plan, the plan for living I use when depression knocks on my door. It reminds me that our lives tend to spiral in whatever direction we choose to aim them: if you choose a good path, it will go up and up, but a bad path will lead to compounding disasters.

This time of year, there is lots of winter cold left, but the donations and goodwill of the December holiday season are past. Consider looking up your local Food Bank and sending them a buck or two; they will turn every small donation into an astonishing pile of healthy food for their clients. According to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, they turn every $1 donated into SEVEN DOLLARS worth of food!

Here in the Bay Area of California, housing is expensive and many people are going without food — or with less healthy food — in order to keep up with rent or house payments. You may have neighbors who are food insecure and hiding it. By supporting the local Food Bank, you help the working poor eat better, and you may help keep a neighbor from sliding into homelessness.

Linda and I support our local food bank, the Alameda County Community Food Bank. If you don’t know who helps the hungry in your area, check this link: Find Your Local Food Bank.

Friday is a great day to give a little tzedakah (money to relieve suffering or deprivation) since we are just about to enjoy Shabbat. Consider sending any amount to your local food bank, to spread the joy of Shabbat!

Children in Cages: More Ways to Help

Image: A chain-link “room” jammed with people. The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org.

First a quotation from the great teacher Maimonides:

You do not find a mitzvah greater than the redemption of captives, for captivity is in the same category as famine, drought, or exposure, and one stands in danger to one’s life. One who averts his eyes from redeeming [the captive] transgresses [the commandment], (Deut. 15:7Do not harden your heart and shut your hand, and (Lev. 19:16Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor, and (Lev. 25:53He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight, and nullifies the commandment (Deut. 15:8You must open your hand, and the commandment, (Lev. 25:36Let him live by your side as your kinsman, and (Lev. 19:18Love your fellow as yourself, and (Proverbs 24:11If you refrained from rescuing those taken off to death, [those condemned to slaughter–if you say, “We knew nothing of it,” surely He who fathoms hearts will discern], and many such sayings. You cannot find a greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives.

– Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 8:10

One of the most important forms of tzedakah is money given to free the captive, according to Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. I have already listed opportunities for gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness that do not involve cash, in Children in Cages: Things We Can Do Today.

This is a list of good places to donate where your money (however small an amount!) will make a difference for the people in detention camps:

Holly Cooper, Co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis, is one of the few attorney [sic] with legally mandated access to some of the worst facilities where the children are being held. Her team is doing vital work, investigating, advocating and suing to help the children. Over the weekend has already been an outpouring of support for this work, and now we can add ours too. We can click here to donate to Together Rising’s fight for the rights of children in Detention camps. Information here.

From Rogan’s List, June 25; via Valerie Sopher at Temple Sinai

A list of links to places to donate, from Rabbi Suzanne Singer:

        Legal Support

        Political Support

        Bail/Bond Funds and Support

        Psycho-social support

Humanitarian Support        

Community or Multifactor Support

Feeling stressed? Re-commit to Self-Care!

Image: A teddy bear with a stethoscope pressed to its chest. (Pexels.com)

Feeling stressed?

I’m re-committing to self-care today. In a very wigged-out world we have to do what we can to maintain ourselves. I thought I’d share my list with you, in case you’ve been feeling ragged and need some care.

A note: We all have our limits and our challenges. Your self care will have to be personalized for your situation. Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else!

By the way, all of these things are mitzvot. They fall under the headings of “caring for the body,” “preserving life,” prayer, and moderation in appetites of all kinds. The list is in no particular order, because everything on it is important.

  1. Take all medications as prescribed. I am usually good about this, but it bears repeating.
  2. Drink more water. A lot of things I like to drink (coffee, tea, etc) are diuretics, so they don’t help with dehydration as much as I like to think. Water, water, water!
  3. Pray/Meditate every day. Meditation is part of my prayer practice: there is prayer in which I say words, and meditation in which I listen for the “still, small voice.”
  4. Move the body. Sitting at the computer, sitting at the TV, sitting sitting sitting is bad for both body and soul. I need to move my body every day, joyfully if at all possible.
  5. Guard against sunburn. Wear a hat, wear sunscreen, carry an umbrella if need be.
  6. Listen to the body. Cultivating awareness of hunger and thirst, of moods, of the truth of what I’m feeling is very important for my health.
  7. Eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’ve had enough. Intuitive eating has already saved my life and my sanity more than once. I recommit to it.
  8. Get enough sleep! Sleep deprived people have more accidents and have lowered resistance to illness.
  9. Limit social media and the news. Both are a world of stress these days, and beyond the headlines there is little I truly need. It is always worth asking if an activity is contributing to my ability to improve the world, or limiting it.
  10. Talk things out in a safe place. Sometimes talking things out can relieve a lot of stress, provided I’m careful to choose a listener who is responsible and discreet: a therapist, my rabbi, or a trusted friend.
  11. Say “no” to gossip. Rechilut (gossip) covers everything from celebrity “news” to involving myself in drama that is not my business. All of it is bad for me and for the world.
  12. Hug my beloveds. Beloveds include my wife, our children and their spouses, our dogs, and my dear friends. “Hug” can mean an actual hug, a statement of love, or a decision to assume the best when I am tempted to be cross with someone.
  13. Give tzedakah. The giving of tzedakah (giving money to relieve the suffering of another) reminds me of the power I have to help others. When I am feeling stressed and powerless, it helps to recognize that I still have the ability to help another person.
  14. Perform acts of kindness to others. Just as tzedakah reminds me that I am not destitute, an act of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim) forces me to recognize the ways in which I am able. I cannot walk up stairs, but I can still drive the car and give someone a ride to shul.
  15. Be gentle with myself. I will say nasty things to or about myself that I would never, ever say to a stranger, much less a family member. “Gentle” means gentle – it doesn’t mean making excuses! Sometimes I need a talking-to (“Ruth, get off the computer and go outside to play!”) but I commit to leaving out the cruel adjectives and names with which I am prone to hurt myself. Just like every other human being, I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One, so I have to treat myself with respect and mercy!

Do you have any other suggestions for ways to maintain our health and sanity in stressful times?

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.

What Can We Do after the Christchurch Murders?

Image: Landscape view of Christchurch NZ. (Shutterstock/Clem Hencher-Stevens)

My heart bleeds for the Muslim community of Christchurch, NZ and for all the people of that beautiful, peaceful city. Today two mosques in the city were assaulted during the Friday Jum’ah service, and at this writing, 49 people have perished and many more are in the hospital.

I deliberately chose the photo above for this article because I want to give the perpetrators no publicity, since notoriety appears to have been at least part of their motivation. Christchurch is a beautiful city on the South Island of New Zealand. I had the good fortune to visit there a few years ago, and was impressed with the peace and friendliness of the place. I offer readers a taste of its peace in this photo, as a reproach to any who would have us remember it otherwise.

What can we do to express our horror, our grief, and our solidarity?

  • We can attend a service at our local masjid (mosque) in solidarity and friendship.
  • We can send cards and letters of support to local mosques and Islamic Cultural Centers in our area.
  • We can reach out personally to Muslim friends and acquaintences to let them know that we stand with them at this time of fear and sorrow.
  • We can observe zero tolerance for anti-Muslim sentiment in our homes and workplaces as well as in our houses of worship.
  • We can give tzedakah in memory of those who were murdered and address the notification to our local Islamic institution.

This is a time for all religious minorities to stand together in peace and friendship.

May the day come soon when no one need fear violence in their house of prayer.

A Program Maimonides Would Love

Image: Delane Sims at work. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Sims, all rights reserved to her.)

Maimonides taught that the highest form of giving, of tzedakah, is to assist a person in becoming independent, so that they will not need charity. That might take the form of an interest-free loan for a business, or money for tuition, or a partnership in business.

There’s a program here in California that personifies Maimonides’ teaching. Steps to Success is transforming the lives of single mothers on welfare, helping them move off welfare and into employment and entrepreneurship. This transforms not only their lives but their children’s lives and the life of their communities.

The back story, as told by founder Delane Sims to the San Jose Mercury News:

“My husband was a veteran, an engineer, and we were looking at being a solid, middle-class family,” she said, sitting atop a luxurious red-leather bench in one of the salon’s treatment rooms. “Literally overnight I was plunged into being a single mom in poverty when my first husband suddenly became addicted to drugs. I felt like a turtle in the ocean with all my babies on my back. I had to find a way to survive for them. So I promised myself, if I make it through this period in my lifeand ever had my own business, I would do something for single mothers who are struggling.”

Fast forward to today: Delane is now the co-owner of Delane’s Natural Nail Care, a salon that provides manicures and pedicures that meet medical standards of care. The women who work at Delane’s are all on their way up: they are single moms whom Delane has mentored through cosmetology school and into a unique paid internship in her shop. They make a living wage while they learn how to run a business, how to balance parenthood and career, how to deal with the public, and things as basic as how to balance a checkbook. They benefit from networks of resources and relationships that Delane has built over the last 25 years.

As proof of this pudding, meet Myeshia Jefferson, the other co-owner of Delane’s Natural Nail Care. Myeshia is herself a graduate of Steps to Success, the single mother of a 5 year old boy. One of the great beauties of this program is that the women who rise through it become mentors for the next generation of success stories. Other Steps to Success grads have their own businesses in a variety of fields.

So now I invite you to participate with me in building Steps to Success.  To make a tax-deductible donation that will change women’s lives and the lives of their children, click here.

Remember, this is the highest form of tzedakah, of charitable giving! You are making it possible for women with so much going against them to beat the odds and break out of generational poverty.  You are not only helping them and their children, but generations to come.

Another form of support, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area: contact Delane’s and make an appointment for a manicure or pedicure. Meet Delane and Myeshia, meet their employees, and get the safest, healthiest manicure available anywhere. I originally met Delane when I went for a pedicure, to check them out for a diabetic friend.

Maimonides teaches us that there is no higher form of tzedakah, of charity, than to help a person become independent. This is our opportunity to help in exactly that way.

Some ways to learn more about Steps to Success:

Recent article in the San Jose Mercury News

Interview on KGO Radio with Brian Copeland

Story from KTVU TV

“Holiness in the Nail Parlor” (on this blog)

The Sacred Exchange

I am happy to announce that I am a contributor to The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, now available for pre-orders from CCAR Press! This anthology creates a rich and varied discussion about the ethics of money. Our use of and relationship with money must reflect our religious values—this resource aims to starts a comprehensive conversation about how Judaism can guide us in this multi-faceted relationship. The book will be published by April 2019.

The book is now available for pre-order. To order, please visit the CCAR Press page online by clicking here. Add the book to your cart and it will be yours before May!

Jewish Help for Infertility

Image: The logo of Hasidah, a Jewish organization for support of individuals and couples suffering with infertility. It is a stork carrying a bundle, and the word “Hasidah.”

There’s a trope that repeats again and again in the Jewish Bible: a woman suffers from infertility. Such a women is identified in Hebrew as an akarah, a “childless woman.”

Five women are identified as akarot (plural): Sarah (Genesis 11:30,) Rivka (Genesis 25:21,) Rachel (Genesis 29:31,) Samson’s nameless mother (Judges 13:2,) and Hannah ((1 Samuel 2:5)  The prophet Isaiah even characterizes Zion as a metaphorical akarah (Isaiah 54:1).

The stories follow a pattern: a woman grieves because she has difficulty conceiving, someone offers prayer, and God grants the woman a child. The moral of the story seems simple: God, who is central to fertility, listens to prayer.

For many modern couples, the simplicity of the stories and their solution may feel glib or even like a mockery. About 10 percent of women in the United States ages 15-44 (6.1 million) have difficulty conceiving or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While the technology of infertility treatment has made great progress, it is available only at great personal and financial cost. In addition to the physical and financial challenge of infertility, it often raises spiritual and emotional challenges as well.

Hasidah (www.hasidah.org) is a Jewish organization which supports and assists Jewish couples who experience infertility. It does so by connecting people undergoing the grueling process of infertility treatment with resources for spiritual, emotional and financial support. Hasidah also trains Jewish professionals in the pastoral support of infertile couples.

If you or someone you know is suffering from infertility, contact Hasidah. Also, if you wish to support infertility awareness programs, rabbinic training seminars, counseling and spiritual care,  as well as financial assistance for fertility treatment, you can donate to Hasidah – it is an excellent choice for your tzedakah funds.

(Full disclosure: I am a Rabbinic Partner of Hasidah.)

 

How Can I Give When Money is Tight?

Image: A person pulls their jeans’ pockets out, empty. (shuldnerhilfe/pixabay)

What is the responsibility of the low-income person in giving tzedakah (money contributions for the relief of suffering)? What are the tzedakah requirements for the person who may have income, but whose responsibilities are so numerous that they are “cash-poor”?

Jewish tradition is adamant that the commandment of tzedakah applies to all of us, from the wealthiest Jew to the poorest. For the wealthy, Maimonides prescribes a minimum of 5% of income after taxes with a maximum of 20%. That prescription may seem a mockery for anyone struggling to pay the rent. The Shulchan Aruch, an influential code of Jewish law, is adamant that even the poorest person is required to give something.

What is a low-income person supposed to give, if they have no money? Why require such giving from the poor? What are some strategies for giving when we simply don’t have the cash?

  1. What are the poor required to give? Most sources cite Exodus 30: 12-16, which states that “the poor will not give less than half a shekel.” A biblical shekel is estimated to be $2 or $2.50. The poorest person has fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah if they contribute at least $1 annually to the relief of other sufferers. The recipients  may be relatives of the giver. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 7:13) Those who can give more than that absolute minimum should do so, but not at such a level that their own subsistence is threatened.
  2. Why require such giving from the needy? Our tradition puts a high value on the dignity of every individual. The person who has to receive tzedakah may feel embarrassed at being the recipient of aid, but their dignity is bolstered by the knowledge that they, too, contribute to the support of the poor.
  3. Can a person not contribute instead by volunteering their time? Volunteer work is a different mitzvah: it is gimilut hasidim, deeds of lovingkindness. It cannot substitute for giving tzedakah.

Some strategies for giving when money is tight

I’m speaking here not to “the poorest of the poor” but to the average person who has limited income.

Take stock of the tzedakah one is already giving. If a person is in the habit of “helping out” friends or relatives with the rent or roceries, that’s tzedakah. If a person hands loose change to people on the street, that’s tzedakah. If a person is supporting an adult child or relative with a mental or physical illness, whatever they spend on that is tzedakah. Money one spends on groceries that are cooked into a meal for a needy person is tzedakah.

One may give tzedakah as a gift. If one is a member of any community, there are times when we are expected to give gifts, something that can become quite a burden. Where a gift of a very small amount might be all one can afford, one can give a donation of $5 to a charitable organization in honor of the wedding or the bar mitzvah. The organization does not report the amount given, they just send a card reporting the gift with thanks.

One may make a micro-loan through an organization such as kiva.org. Kiva brokers loans of $25 to create opportunities for people to become self-sufficient. While the money will be tied up during the period of the loan, it is exactly that: a loan. At the end of the repayment period, one can get the entire $25 back. Kiva loans are not risk free, but they are fairly safe, with a repayment rate of 96.9% or a failure rate of 3.1%. Such loans qualify as tzedakah because they allow the borrower to move from a situation in which they need aid to real independence. (According to Maimonides, this is the highest form of giving.)

Keep a pushke or tzedakah box. Collect small coins over time in a little box, and when it fills up, give the contents to any charitable organization or to a needy person. This little box can be a “penalty box” for sin (e.g. a swear jar)  or a “blessing box” for happy moments.

By the way, our tradition includes all money given for relief of suffering to be tzedakah, whether the recipient is Jewish or not. Giving money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents people suffering from injustice or those unjustly imprisoned, is a perfectly acceptable form of tzedakah. It is good to “take care of our own” but the sages also point out that giving that goes beyond the borders of our community promotes peace.