Rosh HaShanah Morning 5774
I love Western New York. I love living here, the sense of community, the arts and culture and sports and architecture. I love the warmth (even when there is snow on the ground), the ease of accessibility (as in everything is no more than a 20 minute drive), the diversity and the opportunity. I may not be Buffalo born and bred, but I sure can appreciate what this city and this region have to offer. The Pokras family didn’t come back to Buffalo because we couldn’t find anything better, we came back because this is exactly the place where we can put out a shingle that reads: “Home Sweet Home.”
This is a great place to live. Our economy seems to be turning a corner, and despite our current unemployment numbers, there are hundreds and possibly thousands of skilled jobs that are open and remain unfilled. Don’t believe me? In December 2012, CNBC rated Buffalo-Niagara the number 2 best place in America to relocate to. Also in 2012 we were named the 3rd best performing Metro by Business Insider. Even more, we were also ranked by the Brookings Institution as 2nd nationally and 4th globally in comparative income growth. And for those of us who live in the burbs, Amherst was also singled out as one of the best places in the country to live. Business and industry are moving in, and with them opportunities for the economic well being of many of our citizens.
Yet, amidst great prosperity and opportunity, deep poverty exists and persists.
As Richard Tobe, Deputy County Executive of Erie County and TBZ member puts it, our problem is not average poverty or average wealth or average employment. Rather, it is the deep disparity that exists across our community, with severe concentrations of poverty and all that goes along with it. These large pockets of poverty persist especially among the elderly, recent immigrants and minorities, among which African-Americans are hardest hit. None of these groups are being touched by our newfound prosperity in any significant widespread way. To quote Rich Tobe one more time, “We do not all rise or fall together, and a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some are anchored to the bottom on short heavy anchor chains and cannot rise with the tide.”
Just out of curiosity, with a show of hands please, how many of you have heard the statistic that Buffalo is the third poorest city in the country? This number comes from a 2008 American Community Study that found that 30.3 percent of the people living in Buffalo lived beneath the federal poverty line. Of the seventy-five cities in the survey, we were one of only three cities with a higher than 30% poverty rate. Now, also with a show of hands, how many of you believe that we are still the third poorest city in America? Well, in a backhanded sort of way, I have some good news. In a mayoral candidates’ debate last week, one thing everyone could agree on is that we are not the third poorest city anymore, we are now fifth. We have shown some marginal improvement, and there is reason to think that this could be the beginning of a new and brighter future, but only with an extraordinary and sustained effort.
OK. So now, also with a show of hands, how many of you are wondering why I am asking you about poverty and making you raise your hands this morning? Well the answer is only four syllables long: Larry Rubin. Larry Rubin won the auction at our annual summer celebration (formerly known as the golf tournament) where I give away total control of the topic of one of my High Holy Day sermons to the highest bidder. My rabbinic friends and colleagues think that I am just crazy to do this, but there really is a method to my madness. I hope, with each new topic each year, that I will be inspired to speak about something I would not have otherwise addressed, and in doing so, will write a sermon that at least one person here is interested in. This year, Larry far surpassed my wildest hopes by asking me to address the problem of poverty, or as he put it, helping poor people.
Now, because this is a season of vidui, of confessing our sins, I have a confession to make. When I received Larry’s email with this sermon topic, in a fit of knee-jerk arrogance, I initially thought, ‘this is too easy – Judaism has volumes to say about poverty.’ I am not proud of that thought, and regret it, because in truth there is nothing easy about poverty – nothing at all. And had Larry not brought this to me as a mandate for these holy days, I would have missed an important opportunity for us all. I am deeply grateful to him for his wisdom and his clarity. That said, I am uncomfortable with the label “poor people.” It is an accurate descriptor, of course, of those people who lack enough to provide for all of their essentials – things like food, housing, clothing and more. That’s what poverty means, having a lack of. But the term “poor people” seems to have some fairly heavy baggage attached to it; baggage that suggests failure, or incompetence or ignorance – as if to say that poverty only afflicts those who have earned it or deserve it. I know that Larry did not use the phrase in this way, but I’ve heard it too many times and, since this is a time for honest confession, I used to be one of those judgmental people. I used to look down on “poor people” and sometimes I was afraid of them. They were other, different, not like the “good middle-class” people I preferred to associate with. Perhaps more than any other reason, that is why I am so uncomfortable with the phrase.
My perspective was changed when I was a rabbinic student in New York. A few years before I arrived, the student body decided to set up a soup kitchen at the Hebrew Union College that would feed the hungry every Monday evening. We were all encouraged to volunteer, which I did, and what I discovered changed me forever. The HUC Soup Kitchen was unlike any soup kitchen I had ever seen. The usual model was a cafeteria type set up, where the hungry people were forced to line up outside – regardless of the weather – for hours, after which they would file into the kitchen with a tray, would be given some sort of shapeless food, hurried to a table, forced to eat quickly and then sent outside to make room for the next poor soul. The entire experience was impersonal and degrading, and there was a clear demarcation separating the caring volunteers from the unfortunate people they were serving.
The HUC soup kitchen was not like that at all. We (meaning the founding students that preceded me) re-framed the relationship between volunteers and recipients as hosts and guests. We couldn’t solve the problem of the line outside, because we couldn’t open the doors until we were ready, but once those doors were open it was a totally different experience. Our guests were greeted by their maitre-de, a student who would seat them by table in the special restaurant we created for them on the conference level of the college. Each table seated about ten people, and one of the seats was always taken by a student who served as the host of the table and would dine with our guests. Once they were seated, their waiter would arrive to take their orders. You see, we always tried to give them a choice between two nutritious options. And they could have as much as they wanted, seconds, thirds, even fourths if they could handle it. We would keep their glasses and plates filled, and all us of us, but especially the table hosts, would engage our guests in conversation. Over time, we really got to know them, and they were interested in getting to know us too. Each table was assigned only once for the meal, so nobody was rushed out. One student had been a professional jazz pianist, and played during every meal. We brought in free legal aid, provided by NYU law students, and found a seamstress to provide free tailoring (usually mending tears) while they waited.
Amazingly, I began to see some of the poorest of the poor, homeless people who I thought were probably crazy or on drugs, not as poor people, not as other, but just as people – like you and me. And I was surprised to discover that a large segment of the population we served was not even homeless. They were working people who had managed a place to live, but because the minimum wage they received was not a living wage, they had to choose between a roof over their heads or food. Some of them worked two and even three jobs to try to make ends meet, and still couldn’t muster enough. I also learned that for many, perhaps most of them, their poverty was not the worst of their woes – and this was especially true among the homeless population – but rather it was their invisibility. It was the way that other people, let’s call them the “haves,” would walk right by them in the street without even the slightest acknowledgement that they existed, refusing to make eye contact out of fear or revulsion. The Talmudic rabbis understood this pain when they wrote: “Poverty is a kind of death.” [Nedarim 7b]
I remember one night I was working at the door when a homeless guest whom I did not recognize came in, and it was clear that he was on drugs. He started to threaten the three students who were bringing folks down to their tables. I will never forget what happened next. About fifteen other guests jumped between us and then surrounded him. They quickly escorted him out, yelling at him. They said: “Don’t you dare come in here again like that – these are good people, our friends and we won’t stand for it.” And they really sent him packing – almost a whole block away! Even more astonishing to me was what followed. When they returned they actually apologized to us, and told us it would never happen again, and if it did to tell them right away and they would take care of it for us. I was ashamed of my previous fear and ignorance, and went out of my way to greet my neighbors by name whenever we would pass each other on the street.
So I don’t want to talk about helping poor people. I want to talk about helping people; people like us who need our help because they are suffering from the degradation of poverty, and hunger, and homelessness. People like us who live right here in Western New York.
Despite our growing prosperity and economic success, here are some discouraging numbers. According to the United States Census, the poverty level for the city of Buffalo averaged over four years from 2007-2011 is 29.9%. Not surprisingly, poverty breeds crime. According to a 2012 FBI report Buffalo is the 11th most dangerous city in America. According to 2011 census data, we have the 3rd-highest rate of child poverty in the nation, rank in the top 10 for minority poverty, and just in case you did not know, poverty is rapidly growing in the suburbs as well – especially among the elderly. Poverty affects not only our economic well-being, but our physical health, and our emotional and intellectual development. According to Erie County statistics, fully one quarter of county residents receive assistance, and we protect more children and adults than other counties in New York. While U.S. News and World Report gave City Honors a gold ranking as one of the best High Schools in America last year, the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which is sponsored by the UB Regional Institute, claims that only 6% of Buffalo public high school students are really prepared to either enter the work force or go to college after their senior year.
No wonder so many skilled jobs in our growing economy remain unfilled!
Education is clearly the key, but as the rabbis of the Talmud teach: “Ayn kemach ayn Torah.” Without bread there is no learning. The only way to break the cycle is to focus not only on Torah, not only on learning, but also on bread, by which I mean not only food, but also safety, health and a whole slew of other environmental and social factors. And then there are the oldest among us, who face another and different set of challenges.
No, there is nothing easy about poverty, and in picking this topic, Larry Rubin has thrown down a gauntlet that we cannot leave lying. Yet, what can we do? The problem seems overwhelming, to say the least. It is at times like these, when I sense my inadequacies that I turn to the ancient rabbis. Listen to the words of Rabbi Tarfon, who lived two thousand years ago:
“It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” [Pirkei Avot 2:16]
We, by ourselves, will not solve the problem of poverty in Western New York, but that does not mean that we should give up and do nothing. If this day is about creating a New Year that will be better than the one before, and we are serious about our Jewish values, then we cannot just look after ourselves. We must be part of our community, and that means taking some responsibility for each other.
The way I see it, there are two different ways we can take action. The first approach is the one with which most of us are most familiar: volunteering our time to help those in need. This is a palliative approach, meaning it helps to relieve the immediate symptoms, but it does not fix the underlying causes. Going after the root causes is the second approach, which can be accomplished through advocacy and working to change the systems which, in this case, keep people anchored in their poverty. Both approaches are necessary. On the volunteering side of things, we already participate in Family Promise thanks to the initiative of Sharon Winer, and on Yom Kippur our senior youth group TBaZY will be in charge of our annual food drive. Please, please be generous! Later in the year, we hope to open our very own food pantry in Amherst as part of the Town Square initiative to help keep seniors independent and living at home. Under the leadership of Adina Garfinkel and Steven Yonaty, we hope through this food pantry to help alleviate hunger among the largest population of elders in the county, which I was surprised to learn is not in Buffalo, but in Amherst. From the standpoint of advocacy I want to let you know that Rabbi Scheldt and I may be coming to you at different times during the year to ask for your help in supporting systemic approaches to eradicate poverty in our midst. We will not be taking partisan positions, but we will take sides when our Jewish values compel us to act and we will ask you to join with us. I see this not only as a moral imperative of citizenship in our great democracy, but as a moral imperative from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, in which no less than 33 times we are commanded to look after the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst – which is to say those who are most vulnerable in our community.
In the meantime, I have set up a resources page on our new website that will have links and information about a wide variety of organizations that do great work. Some of them, like Buffalo Neighborhood Promise, Say Yes to Education Buffalo, Voice Buffalo and the Matt Urban Center attack the problem of poverty on both the palliative and the curative levels. Others, like the Foodbank of Western New York focus on the immediate need for sustenance. Still others, like Jewish Family Services and Canopy of Neighbors both of which operate out of our beautiful building right here on Delaware Avenue, do not have a specific focus on poverty, but help many of the poorest folk in our midst. When it comes to opportunities to get involved, there is something for everyone, a way for each and every one of us to do our part. But don’t do it because I say so. Do it because every single person in Western New York contains a spark of the Divine, and every one of us deserves to live with dignity. Do it because you recognize the common humanity we share, and because when we help each other and grow closer together we also grow as individuals and grow closer to G-d. Do it because we know what it means to be a slave in Egypt, or to be a stranger in our own land. We can make this New Year a Shana Tovah not only for us, but for our neighbors, and as Rabbi Hillel famously taught: “If not now, then when?”
Here is a downloadable version of the sermon if you prefer to view it offline
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras