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.

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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.

 

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.

Family: the Building Block for Healthy Communities

The rapid pace of our increasingly information based world continues to challenge society’s ability to build and sustain healthy and viable communities.  In both my personal and professional life, I strive to build and enhance many communities, including in my neighborhood, as I wrote about previously. Healthy neighborhoods, of course, start with healthy and supportive families.  From an institutional basis, there are great programs designed to support healthy families including Healthy Families America

a program of PCA America, strives to provide all expectant and new parents with the opportunity to receive the education and support they need at the time their baby is born.

Prevent Child Abuse America, founded in 1972 in Chicago, works to ensure the healthy development of children nationwide. The organization promotes that vision through a network of chapters in 50 states and nearl 600 Healthy Families America home visiting sites in 39 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Commonwealth of the Marianas, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Canada. A major organizational focus is to advocate for the existence of a national policy framework and strategy for children and families while promoting evidence-based practices that prevent abuse and neglect from ever occurring.

Of course, there are many other wonderful public and private programs that strive to support and nurture healthy families.  Indeed, even the World Bank recognizes that healthy children lead to healthy economies. But these programs cannot replace the individual effort needed to sustain healthy families.

My in-laws, Sandy and Gloria Spitzer, have gone to great lengths to keep their far flung family connected with each other.  While they remain based in their hometown of St. Louis, their children are spread from coast to coast in 4 cities, Boston, Madison, St. Louis and Irvine, California.  Their 8 grandchildren, most of whom are adults now, are similarly spread out, adding an additional state, New York, into the mix.  They are also blessed with a great grandchild in California.  When they grew up, all of their siblings and first cousins remained in St. Louis, so although it took some effort to convene family gatherings, it was not as difficult as it is in today’s world.

To their credit, they formed a Family Foundation, which has two purposes.  First, they have set aside sufficient funds for the entire family (all 4 generations) to gather on an annual basis. This year, we gathered had a lovely gathering that allowed us to celebrate the New Year together, including a rousing game of canasta.

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The second purpose of the Foundation is to make charitable gifts to maintain my in-laws’ long standing dedication to tzedakah (Hebrew for charity, but literally: “righteousness” or “justice”).  In order to insure family unity and collaboration after my in-laws pass away, their family foundation will pass onto their 4 children, who will be required to hold a family meeting once a year to determine which donations the Foundation will make.  Thus, my in-laws have wisely used estate planning both to keep their family together, and to continue their family’s righteous charity through tzedakah.

I am truly blessed to be a welcome part of my wife’s family for over 31 years.  I look forward to many more years of building community with the Spitzer family.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.