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Addressing Homelessness: One Synagogue’s Journey to Justice

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Rabbi Julia Weisz, and Rabbinic Intern Lori Levine

47,000 people are living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. The Bible mandates we “give shelter to the homeless” (Isaiah 58:7). A Reform Jewish congregation with a long history of taking on troublesome social justice issues. Measure H, a ballot measure designed to end homelessness, is endorsed by both Democratic and Republican leaders.

Put these all together and what happens? At Congregation Or Ami, it resulted in an energized community, committed to fight to end homelessness.

An Evening of Action on Homelessness

After a multi-year listening campaign, Or Ami’s Organizing Team, inspired by Rabbi Julia Weisz and Rabbinic Intern Lori Levine, decided that Jewish values demand we tackle the growing problem of homelessness in Los Angeles County. The results &emdash; in terms of growing education, awareness and commitment to addressing expanding housing insecurity &emdash; have been nothing less than amazing. On this one evening alone, the synagogue was filled with so many inspired people &emdash; ages 8 to 88 &emdash; embracing a can-do, must-do approach.

The Talmud, Judaism’s compendium of law, teaches us to begin holy work no matter the expected outcome:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin libatel mimena.
It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.(Pirkei Avot 2:21-20)

On that day we added in the urgency of NOW, the Jewish ethic. The Talmudic dictum, Im lo achshav, eimatai – If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14), demands we seize the moment to act quickly.

The night was inspiring. Or Ami’s Noshery (kitchen) tables were overflowing with people writing postcards advocating for passage of LA County’s Measure H. Around the building, callers of all ages – a second grader with her mom, fifth grader and high school students, and plenty of adults – invited congregants to get out and vote, and especially to consider supporting Measure H. The classrooms of students held deep discussions about Jewish values on housing insecurity, using curricula developed by teams of congregant-educators. The Foyer served as basecamp, where children assembled hygiene kits, bags of needed toiletries for the 14,000 women living on the streets.

A representative from County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office explained the multilayered approach our elected leaders were advocating, and to praise the gathered volunteers for their deeply significant work. Organizers from LA Voice helped the synagogue’s Core Team guide the inspired group toward success. In between, the rabbis kept looking up from the postcards they were writing, and the details they were addressing, to pause and kvell (burst forth with praise and pride).

Jewish Tradition on Adressing Homelessness

Jewish tradition is unequivocal on our need to respond to housing insecurity. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

A few Jewish sources explicitly speak of the provision of housing as a means of tzedakah (charity). Most famous among these texts is the exhortation in Isaiah to “take the poor into your homes,” read as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur (Isaiah 58:7). This prophetic cry defines the relief of homelessness as a religious duty, preferable to fasts, sacrifices, and other ritual observances.

Other texts specifically define housing as one of the obligatory types of tzedakah. The Bible commands that a poor person be granted sufficient for what lacks, according to what is lacking to him. One talmudic text understands each phrase in that command as referring to a specific type of assistance one might grant a poor person: “Sufficient for what he lacks”–this is a house. “What is lacking”–this is a bed and table. Significantly, this text imagines the primary needs of a poor person as being related to housing.

More people are experiencing homelessness in LA County than we might imagine. At last estimate, 47,000 people are enduring housing insecurity, including many women and children, too many homeless veterans, and way too many people like you and me who fell on hard times or faced a debilitating collection of financial, mental health and other challenges.

Measure H: A Solution of Best Practices

So after years of community building and months of evaluating congregant priorities, and multiple sessions trying to understand the problem and the emerging solutions, our synagogue’s efforts coalesced around county-wide Measure H, designed to use best practices to end housing insecurity. Measure H aims to raise dedicated funds to place social services in housing for the homeless, ensuring that the people and the services they need are under the same roof where they live. Experts agree that this is the standard of care, which will bring us ever closer to solving the problem of homelessness insecurity.

This is how a community responds. Congregation Or Ami’s Organizing Team did their homework: studied, discussed, partnered and acted. And we filled every inch of the synagogue with people and projects. A sacred plan. An evening of holiness. Just one more step in our continuing efforts to fulfill the Jewish exhortation and the Bibical mandate to “give shelter to the homeless” (Isaiah 58:7).

To learn more about Congregation Or Ami’s efforts to address homelessness and to get involved, please contact Rabbinic Intern Lori Levine ([email protected]818-880-4880).

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