I was truly saddened, and even embarrassed, to learn this week that nearly 50% of all children in New York City live at or below the poverty line. In the United States as a whole, the percentage of children living at or below poverty level is over 20%. These are children who are food insecure and who, for many, live in neighborhoods with inadequate schools. How is it possible that the richest nation on earth can allow so many of its children to live like this? The only industrialized nation with a greater proportion of children living in poverty is Romania. These are the same children who do poorly on national and international standardized tests, the results of which bring down America’s ranking among industrialized countries. What are the chances for these children? We know that the odds of them lifting themselves out of poverty are very slim without help and support.
I know there is no easy answer. And my purpose is not make a political statement. Ultimately, I do not believe there is just one right approach. I believe that government has a role in protecting the most vulnerable among us, and I believe that every citizen, both in the public and private sectors, has an obligation to help those in need. We cannot look the other way.
There is an ethos in this nation – the collective American myth – that this nation was built by the will and effort of the rugged individual. We believe in grit and “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps!” While this is a great metaphor for the limitless potential of the individual, realistically it is seldom possible without the help of another, compassionate human being.
While Judaism values the individual, our people and tradition have long recognized the necessity of one looking out for the other. In fact, we learn, Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. It has come to mean that we are responsible to insure that all Jews have their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Our local Jewish community does an outstanding job assisting the most vulnerable Jews among us. That is one compelling reason why every Jew in Detroit should participate in the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit’s annual campaign.
As Americans, we should also feel the same obligation to help any of our neighbors, Jews and non-Jews alike. The problems facing our nation are immense, and yet not insurmountable. We can take the attitude that there is nothing one person can do, or we can take the attitude that if everyone did something – the world could change, and perhaps next year fewer children would be below the poverty line.
As we come to the end of this tax year, please consider giving tzedakah to Federation, Yad Ezra, Gleaners, and Forgotten Harvest – as each organization helps those who are most vulnerable – and most of them are our children! After all, we are responsible for each other!