Rabbi’s Corner: Opening Our Hands and Hearts

I have always lived in places where the issue of homelessness was present and growing: Boston, Jerusalem, New York City, Toronto, Chicago and now here in Orange County.

In New York City, Boston and Toronto, ‘Faith-Based Shelters’ tried to address some of the immediate needs of the homeless, especially in the winter. Synagogues, churches and mosques would join together and offer dinner to un-housed clients, ‘restaurant-style’ (lovingly cooked and served by volunteers). Medical, social, and housing services were provided, as well as a complimentary ‘stores’ for clothing and personal care items. Clients would sleep in the synagogue/church/mosque overnight and would be provided with breakfast, a bag lunch and bus money the following morning.

Many of the clients were the working poor: people who had jobs and homes, but ran out of funds for food. Others were ‘down on their luck.’ Each person was unique
with their own special circumstance and reason for being there.

Orange County is the first place I have lived where I witness the problem of homelessness so acutely every single day, multiple times, on my way to TBS, in and around our neighborhood. In fact, this past June, The UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative conducted a study, which was the largest examination of homeless adults in nearly three decades. It showed that there are more than 171,000 people who experience homelessness daily in California, about twice as many as the next highest state, New York.

Why am I thinking about the issue of homelessness now? Actually, I have been thinking about it for many months.

However, this week two different events juxtaposed themselves with each other that bring this topic to the forefront for me: first our Torah portion for the week, Re’eh from the Book of D’varim (Deuteronomy), and second something I experienced in San Francisco on the first two days of my vacation.

Re’eh contains two important and contradictory ideas. Deuteronomy 15:4, states “there will never be any needy in your midst” while simultaneously, Deuteronomy 15:11 states ‘there will never cease to be needy in your land.’ In between those two verses, the text tells us that we must ‘open our hand to lend sufficient for their needs, [to all who are needy].

How can there ‘be no needy’ yet ‘need will never cease’ at the same time? We know that we produce enough food to feed everyone on our planet, yet we lack the means to distribute it efficiently, effectively and equitably. We also know that the rules and regulations surrounding housing and homelessness do not always help those who most need it. In fact, many of those regulations push those who are most in need further into the spiral of dependency.

This past week, I spent my first two days of vacation in San Francisco. All my friends who live in Northern California told me to skip SF saying it has become too dangerous. I went anyway and I was shocked. The levels of homelessness have skyrocketed since the pandemic. It’s impossible to walk anywhere without passing by those who are living in garbage and squalor on every street, in so many neighborhoods. People meander into traffic in a manner I have never seen previously. It did not feel comfortable to be there and I could not wait to leave for the next part of my trip. This made me very sad and left me very troubled.

My experience in Orange County, my experience on vacation and my Jewish values are motivating me to action.

First, I am now on the Board of Friendship Shelter. Friendship Shelter is a non-profit homeless services agency founded in 1988 and dedicated to ending homelessness in South Orange County, one person at a time. Friendship Shelter operates a full spectrum of services to end homelessness, including outreach, shelter, housing navigation, financial assistance, and permanent housing with supportive services. Friendship Shelter believes in a housing-first and harm reduction approach and values the unique experience of each client we serve.  All of our programs employ trauma-informed principles and are housing-focused, low-barrier, and client-centered.

Second, Steffanie Belasco, our Social Action Committee and I will be partnering to determine best practices for the homeless here in Santa Ana. We hope you will join us in our efforts once they are launched. Stay tuned!

I understand that these simple measures will not eliminate the issues of homelessness or need. However, as the rabbinic sages maintained, when you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer: “I used to feed the hungry, I clothed the naked, I tried to do my part” you will be told: “This is God’s gate; you, who fed the hungry, clothed the naked and did your part – you may enter.” (Midrash on Psalm 118:17.)

Perhaps, as the Torah suggests, there will always be those who are homeless – yet the Torah’s realism should not be mistaken for fatalism. As Rabbi and theologian Leo Baeck said:

‘Every suffering of our neighbor must become our own concern, a test and proof of our ethical freedom…When we face poverty, we meet not the language of fate but the demand of a definite duty imposed on us. In the most special sense of the commandment is the poor man our fellow man…Through him humanity appeals to us, bare and naked, humanity, one might say, asking for human fellowship.” (The Essence of Judaism).

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom
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