Op-Ed: Time to step up and tackle poverty

NEW YORK (JTA) — Our world is turning upside down. Poverty is the devastating type of problem that we should lose sleep over and motivate us to action, yet while it unfolds before us we stand still and silent.

Americans are going to bed hungry. Food stamps are so common today, at least half of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will be forced to redeem them during their lives.

Of those with children, more than 80 percent will report that they are forced to rely on low-cost, less-nutritious food to feed their families, and more than half will report that they simply cannot afford to serve their families a balanced meal. Most striking, one in four will admit that their children are not eating enough because they simply cannot afford the food.

It feels like no one really cares about poverty. Jewish institutions talk about it some, but not enough. Perhaps we do not have the luxury of ignoring the problem anymore, as we watch the demise of the middle class and witness people losing their jobs every day. We can act surprised as to how we have reached this point, but I am afraid that we do not have to look far.

We have become a nation of materialists. We like our creature comforts and feel we are entitled. Rather than move from a home that is clearly too big for our family to a smaller home, we "need" a home that is even bigger. We worry about our clothes and cars rather than pay enough attention to the public school system. Our focus on materialism has become idolatry.

Judaism is hardly silent about all this. Opposition to intemperate greed and the need to worry about the poor are two supporting poles of Jewish theology. When did we, fundamentally decent people, decide that what we own is more important than who we are?

Judaism is a religion that teaches us that "community" matters, that everyone has the capacity for discernment that we are supposed to be a nation of priests. This notion of community not only asks us to be engaged in the community but to take responsibility for the community.

Fighting poverty trumps new buildings; fighting poverty trumps one more vacation trip to Europe or Asia; fighting poverty trumps watching basketball games. At least it should!

When people do not eat and learn and stay healthy in a society, we all suffer not just because the society becomes unstable and hard to sustain but, even more so, because it becomes spiritually bereft. Our kids and our friends, and we ourselves, become functions of materialism and its incumbent idolatry. Then we must ask ourselves, “What are we/ What have we become?”

When we put, even for a second, our own desire for wealth above the beneficial wherewithal of the community, we are hurting not just ourselves but all those around us today and those who will live after us, who will look at the way we lived and not know that we knew it was wrong. Our poor values of this moment will have legs and impact far beyond today. If we do not find the will and the ethics to write a new story, a new narrative, our future will be damaged.

The JCPA has carved out a place for itself as a warrior against poverty that is striving for a world without the idolatry of money as its god. We must stand that test, fight that fight, and win that war. And fighting  poverty is right here, right now. Even in this hard time, we must make a commitment to more tzedakah.

JCPA is committed to educating and mobilizing as many people as possible. More than 12 million kids go hungry each day. More than 8 million children do not have health insurance. There will likely be more than 43 million Americans living in poverty by the end of 2009.

But don’t just read the numbers and shake your head. Get up and do something about it. One kid, one legislator, one hungry mouth at a time.

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