Tikkun Olam-Repair of the World

Every day we encounter problems that cry out for Tikkun Olama Jewish concept that means repair of the world. As a founding member and President of my synagogue,  Shaarei Shamayim, who has dedicated my professional career towards Tikkun Olam, congregants regularly ask me for advice on what they can do to help repair the world. Such requests have increased significantly since the last election.

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Fortunately, my synagogue has a spiritual leader, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, who is also dedicated to Tikkun Olam, and our congregation gladly supports her efforts. However, she knows that it is not enough for her to speak out or take action on issues by herself. Members of our congregation and our community must do so as well, if genuine repair of the world is to occur.

Shortly after the election, we were privileged to have one of our members, Ruth Conniff, the editor of the Progressive magazine, talk to our members about the election results. Her talk inspired many of our congregants to look for ways to get directly involved in Tikkun Olam. Rabbi Laurie convened a number of meetings to determine how best to facilitate the desire of so many members to do good work in our community. I am very pleased to report that we now have now formed 4 projects available to our members:

  • Friends of the State Street Family-providing food and other assistance to people who are homeless in our community.
  • Circles of Support-working with Madison Urban Ministry to provide support to individuals leaving the prison system and returning to our community. I am joining other members of our congregation to participate in this project.
  • Jewish Social Services Resettling Refugees Project-through which our members will help provide assistance to 50 new refugees to our community.
  • Protecting Vulnerable Communities – Reflection, Advocacy, and Action-a group that will look for ways to protect vulnerable communities that may come under attack in the coming days, weeks and years.

For some, it may be difficult to take time out of their busy lives to get directly involved in such projects. Many have realized that it is also important to provide financial support to organizations who are doing good work. I have provided links to the groups our Congregation is working directly with who can certainly use financial support. Recently, I responded to a congregant who was looking for Jewish groups who were taking on the important task of Tikkun Olam as she wanted guidance to provide financial support to them. While there are many such groups, in addition to the groups mentioned above, I also informed her about the following laudable organizations:

  • T’ruah-the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
  • Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS)-HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. For more than 130 years, HIAS has been helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.
  • American Jewish World Service-a community of Jewish global citizens committed to repairing the world.
  • New Israel Fund-Invests in hundreds of Israeli organizations whose work changes the equation on civil rights, on religious freedom, and on social justice. Also organizes, advocates, trains, and convenes to build a community committed to a vision of a democratic, just, and equal Israel.

Of course there are many more projects and organizations which provide ways in which to engage in Tikkun Olam and no one can engage in all of them. So, pick one or more if you are able, and do your part to repair the world. In helping others, you will feel better for doing so.

Although there is much to fear about the unsettled state of our world, I am inspired on a daily basis by the amount of energy that is going into all the work needed to make our world a better place despite the ominous forebodings that surround us. Together, we will repair this world.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

My Rabbi’s Granola Bars

Earlier this week, Jews all around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins the 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews consider how they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them in the year to come.

As the High Holy Days are typically the time when Jews attend synagogue in higher numbers than at any other time of the year, rabbis often take extra time and effort to send inspirational guidance to their congregations through their sermons. At my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), which my wife and I helped to start nearly 30 years ago, and where I currently serve as President, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman gave a very personal and compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah that struck a chord with many.

Rabbi Laurie described a very personal moment that virtually everyone in Madison experiences. Over the past few months, many people who are homeless have taken to seeking donations by holding cardboard signs at concrete median strips at major intersections that say things like, “Homeless: Any Assistance Appreciated.”

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Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin, who has repeatedly attempted to criminalize and demonize those who are homeless, has sought to make such solicitation, or even standing on those medians, illegal. Thus far, his efforts to criminalize this type of panhandling have been rebuffed by Madison’s City Council. Sadly, rather than trying to provide needed services and housing to Madison’s homeless, Mayor Soglin continues to try to criminalize harmless behavior such as sleeping outdoors and keeping their possessions outdoors, even while Madison fails to have a much needed homeless day resource center to store their possessions and provide employment, health care, and housing services.

Many of us are unsure what to do when confronted with a homeless panhandler. We may not want to confront the problem. We may worry that any contribution will be spent on alcohol or illicit drugs. We may be concerned that the panhandlers are not truly homeless and are just operating a scam.

Rabbi Laurie pointed out that Jewish teaching about tzedakah (charity) admonishes that it is better to help one impoverished beggar even if 99 out of 100 are not truly needy, than to fail to help any of those in need, rather than allow that single hungry person to starve. She described the Jewish attitude towards poverty as rooted in two key biblical concepts:

  • b’tzelem elohim which means that humans are made in the image of god and therefore all humans must be treated as we would treat god; and
  • achicha which means your brother and Jewish teaching admonishes us to treat everyone as if he was your brother (or sister).

As I have written before, when I have the time and opportunity, I will ask panhandlers if I can buy them a meal, and I have been able to do this a number of times. But, that is generally impossible in a moving traffic situation.

Rabbi Laurie realized that she simply did not want to explain the possible moral complexities of which homeless people may or may not deserve charity to her two young daughters who are often in the car with her while driving around Madison. So, she made a simple, helpful, and incredibly powerful decision. She now carries a box of granola bars in her car and offers them to anyone who is seeking assistance. While she acknowledges that her granola bars alone will not solve Madison’s growing homelessness problem, they will provide a little nutrition to those who receive them from her. Perhaps equally important, they will make each of them feel more human through Rabbi Laurie’s acknowledgement of their need.

As I was contemplating writing this post, it just so happened that as I was driving home from a meeting, my car was stopped at a light where someone who was homeless had a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless: any assistance appreciated.” Mindful of Rabbi’s Laurie’s sermon, I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a granola bar and offered it to the gentlemen, who gratefully accepted it.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I will buy extra granola bars and keep a stash in my car so I can continue doing my small part to help my brothers and sisters who are made in the image of god be a little less hungry and a little more dignified.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Designed for Success

Earlier this week, I attended a Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association meeting during which a draft Homeless Day Resource Center concept paper, that was developed through a collaborative effort of the City of Madison, Dane County and United Way of Dane County, was presented by City and County staff as well as a representative from Dorschner Associates, the firm which whom Dane County has contracted to do the architecture and design work to transform the old Messner building into the the new Day Resource Center. Many interested neighbors attended, along with advocates for the homeless, potential service providers, and some people who are homeless.

When the concept paper is finalized, it will serve as the guiding document for the Request for Proposals to solicit an operator for the resource center. But, before the concept paper was discussed, the Dorchner representative presented the design for the completely reconfigured building.

It is important to keep in mind, that the old Messner property has been an eyesore for a long time. This is what it looks like now.

The new design will restore the original brick exterior of the original Coca-Cola bottling plant that the building was designed for and remove the front and sides so the set back from the sidewalk is restored to 15 feet and there is space to create a garden and an enclosed children’s play area.

As I had hoped, the new design will transform the current eyesore into a welcome addition to our neighborhood. The interior design transforms what is now a big empty space into a multi-function area that should be well suited to providing many basic needs to people who are homeless in our community. I commend Dorschner Associates for their design work.

While there are many steps that still need to be taken, including finding a qualified operator, the concept paper sets out a fairly good initial framework for a successful resource center that could become a national model for a homeless day resource center.

The concept paper proposes that initially, the day resource center will have the following services:

  • Case management to help with assessment, planning and access to critical resources;
  • Computer Lab to conduct housing and employment searches;
  • Coordinated intake to conduct housing assessments and connect individuals and families with shelter, housing, eviction prevention and rental assistance;
  • Housing Navigator to assist with housing searches, applications and addressing barriers to housing;
  • Private Partner Offices where individuals and families can confidentially connect with community resources;
  • Day rooms to provide refuge from the elements;
  • Kitchenette to prepare snacks and light meals;
  • Laundry;
  • Mail/message center so people without a fixed address can receive mail and messages;
  • Outdoor space including an outdoor playground for children and a separate outdoor space for adults;
  • Showers;
  • Day storage;
  • Telephone Access; and
  • Van transportation.

It is envisioned that as the provider builds organizational and financial capacity, the following services could be added:

  • Benefits counseling;
  • Haircuts;
  • Medical services;
  • Mental Health assessments;
  • Legal Services; and
  • Alcohol and other drug addiction (AODA) services.

The concept papers also calls for a security plan to be developed for both those who use the resource center and its neighbors, as well as ongoing community engagement.

Of course, the concept paper is still in the draft stage and some improvements should be made, including making clear the maximum capacity that the center can serve at any one time, and a clear identification of how the resource center fits into the city and county’s overall plan to address and reduce homelessness.

Overall, I believe the City and County, with the assistance of United Way, are doing a good job in moving this critical project forward by designing it for success. If an operator is found, and the county and city give the necessary approvals, the day resource center should be ready to use by the end of 2017. While it has been needed for years, the time taken to develop it wisely will pay off when it opens and serves those who desperately need it.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Let’s Stop Admiring Our Problems & Start Solving them

Last night, Madison Alder Shiva Bidar issued a public advocacy challenge on her Facebook page when she posted the following message:

Tired of people who are against everything. How about focus on things you can be for and change? Don’t throw stones, build a house.

Her challenge to our community was well stated. We live in a data driven world fueled by social media. For many people, this results in posting complaints about what is wrong with the world on Facebook or Twitter, without offering or providing actual solutions.

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In my hometown, 2 major problems that we spend more time admiring and insufficient effort solving, are our insufficient housing and services for people who are homeless, and the longstanding racial disparities in employment, criminal justice and education. These problems have been analyzed and displayed for our community over and over again, and yet, the problems persist because too many people spend too much time admiring the problem instead of rolling up their sleeves to solve it.

Certainly, none of us has the capacity to solve every problem which we face. There are many obstacles which we all encounter: insufficient time, resources and expertise are just a few.

However, the daunting challenge of confronting large societal problems with real solutions cannot excuse the far too frequent lapse into ranting about our problems without actually doing anything to solve them. Despite each of our own personal challenges, every person has the capacity to be a problem solver. For some, solving problems may be at a very local level, helping build community in one’s neighborhood, or volunteering to help struggling children at your local school. It only takes a few minutes to write a letter or e-mail to your local officials to propose common sense solutions to community problems.

Last week, the media trumpeted the fact that 47% of Wisconsin’s registered voters actually voted during the recent Presidential primary and Supreme Court election because that was the highest turnout for a Wisconsin Presidential primary since 1972. That a minority of registered voters turning out is considered high is a tragedy. If you cannot do anything else to solve our community’s problems, the least you can do is show up to vote!

I am fortunate to have spent a 30+ year career working to improve our world. Not everyone has the time, privilege or resources to work on solving society’s problems every day. But there is a wide range between engaging in full time systems change advocacy and carving out a little time to solve one problem that truly troubles you.

Want to help solve the homeless problem? Get involved in the discussion over opening a permanent homeless day resource center.

Overwhelmed by the daily violence brought upon us by guns? Write your elected representatives about passing a bullet tax.

It is true that big problems like racism often require big systems change solutions. But each of us can start at the personal level with an honestly friendly smile greeting those who look different from us.

Systems change requires truth, education, organization, & persistence. Ultimately, the most effective systems change happens through real problem solving

Real change to real problems can be daunting, which is why so many people either opt out and do not even bother to vote and resort to merely complaining about problems without rolling up their sleeves to lend a hand to solving them. When faced with daunting problems remember this: nobody can solve society’s problems alone, however, if each one of us lends a hand, through one effort at a time, we can and will solve our problems instead of admiring them.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Helping the Homeless in my Neighborhood

When I posted Welcoming the Homeless to our Neighborhoodabout 5 months ago, I truly did not expect that it would quickly become my most read blog post, and then get published in the Capital Times. For the most part, the reaction was positive, but that does not mean that all my neighbors support the creation of a comprehensive day resource center just a few blocks from where I live. A community meeting was well attended and the feelings were both strong and mixed. It was facilitated by my next door neighbor, and President of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, Patty Prime, and she did an excellent job of helping to keep the process civil and allowing all voices to be heard.

From the outset, it has been my view that our County desperately needs a comprehensive day resource center to serve people who are homeless and that has been the case for at least 5 years as our homeless population has increased. Of course, we also need a significant increase in affordable housing and both the City of Madison and Dane County have responsibility for housing and serving people who are homeless.

After County Executive Joe Parisi announced the offer to purchase the Messner property, both supporters and opponents saw this as a bold move. The County Board ultimately approved the purchase of the property and the purchase has been completed. A contractor has been chosen for construction and renovation of the building. However, unfortunately the County rejected the only bid that applied to operate the day resource center, which has left the project in a holding pattern.

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Having lived in Madison for over 30 years, I have watched many projects spin their wheels for years and sometimes decades. Some eventually are built. Others simply fade away. However, in this particular case, I am not willing to let inertia set in while those who are homeless spend yet another winter with inadequate shelter.

With that concern in mind, I had an opportunity to speak with County Executive Joe Parisi today to express my concern that this project must be done right and that he must exercise public leadership to see it to successful completion. Fortunately, he agreed with me. I believe that he is committed to creating a comprehensive day resource center for our homeless population that will be a model for other communities to follow and satisfy our neighborhood’s most pressing concerns for safety and neighborhood participation in planning. He also assured me that the County will not seek the conditional use permit which it needs from the City of Madison in order to operate the center, until it has an operator. The County is currently working with the City of Madison and United Way to join the County to make sure there is sufficient funding for successful operation of the center.

During our conversation, he informed me that he was going to send a memo to County Supervisors to update them about the status of the center this afternoon. His staff provided me with a copy of the memo as well as attachments which included information about successful day resource centers in Fort Worth and Indianapolis. I am pleased to see that County staff are clearly doing their research to identify models worth replicating.

County Executive Parisi’s memo concludes by making clear that,

The day resource center is just one piece of a larger, community-wide effort currently underway to end homelessness for more people and move them into safe, permanent housing.

He mentions the City of Madison’s commitment to create 250 units of permanent supportive housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, including 60 units which will open this spring that have intensive, on-site support on Madison’s east side and 45 more units scheduled to open on Madison’s west side in 2017.

The memo concludes with an important philosophical statement adopting,

a housing first philosophy-where no conditions need to be met in order for an individual to access housing.

I remain personally committed to working with my neighbors, my County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, a committed advocate for people who are homeless, and County Executive Parisi to do what I can to make my neighborhood comprehensive day resource center a model for other communities to follow with a goal to reduce and ultimately end homelessness in our community.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Justice & Charity: Feeding the Hungry & Homeless

For much of my life, when someone who lives on the street asks me for money, I have faced a moral quandary.  On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have the funds to provide the spare change being sought.  On the other hand, I have concerns that my spare change will be used for drugs or alcohol, and not for the bus ride or food which the person claims she needs.

Over the past few months, I have developed a new response for these requests for my spare change.  Since these requests are usually made in a populated area with retail stores and restaurants nearby, I respond by telling the person that if he is hungry, I will gladly buy him a meal in a nearby restaurant or store.  Unfortunately, my skepticism about the use of such funds has often been verified when the person asking for my money refuses my offer to buy him a meal.

However, yesterday, when I stopped to fill up my car with gas, a young man approached me for money for food.  I informed him that I needed to finish filling up my car with gas, but if he was hungry and willing to wait until my car’s gas tank was full, I would buy him a meal in the gas station’s convenience store.  He patiently waited for me outside the store and when I was done filling my gas tank, I asked him if he wanted to pick out a sandwich and a drink, and he agreed to  do so.

Interestingly, when I went in the store with him, both the cashier and the manager asked me if I needed help, but did not ask him.  However, they kept a careful eye on him, as I suspected they were concerned he might be a shoplifter, until I informed them that I was going to buy him a sandwich and a drink.  Both seemed pleased at my effort.  Once I paid for the sandwich and drink, he gladly enjoyed his meal and hopefully for a brief time, was no longer hungry.

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In my Jewish upbringing, I was raised with both the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity), which in Hebrew come from the same root word.  My nearly 3 decades as a civil rights attorney have been in the constant pursuit of justice.  A recent article discusses the biblical roots of these words and concepts.  As the author states:

Tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity) are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

Sometimes systems change is personal.  Yesterday I found success in providing charity with justice.  I hope to find many more such successes as I continue to offer a meal to those who tell me they are hungry.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.