There Will Always Be Poor People

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 19, 2018 / 3rd Shevat 5778

Summary: Rabbi Kosak talks about a homeless forum he attended and some of the many ways our community has helped the indigent in our midst.

On Thursday, I spent several hours at the Sonrise Church in Hillsboro. (Special call out to Rachel Nelson who was also in attendance!). A homelessness forum had been convened under the title “Addressing Homelessness: A Dialogue between Faith and Government.” This gathering gave stakeholders in Washington County the opportunity to converse and share the difficulties they face in confronting the very genuine crisis that homelessness poses to our communities and most of all to those of our neighbors who live on the street.

Among of the subjects that we discussed in both small and large group settings was “what would success look like?” This was a useful question, because although we always need to identify what the problems are, having a notion of where we would like to get to is equally important. Goals can energize us and provide necessary hope when confronting otherwise intractable problems. Some of the answers were quite interesting, and show how different homelessness is in rural settings versus urban or suburban settings.

One person in a breakout group said that for her, success would mean that no one is without a home. She didn’t believe humans could ever eradicate poverty, but she felt certain that no one need sleep on the streets. That comment really caught my attention. After all, the Torah says something rather similar about the first part of her comment. In Deuteronomy 15:11, we read that there will always be destitute individuals. As far as I know, the Torah is silent on whether or not homelessness can be eradicated. Still, our obligation to address such piercing needs is absolutely clear.

Setting the bar for success as the total eradication of homelessness may be a noble goal. Some people are motivated by such absolutes. Simultaneously, such an approach can sometimes be unhelpful . If the entire nation shared the same goal and commitment, perhaps such an ideal would be achievable. But when other states, counties and communities sometimes send their homeless across borders, it is easy to understand how any given locality might find its resources taxed beyond capacity.

There’s a more insidious danger when our goals far exceed our grasp. One can grow despondent or give up trying precisely because the finish line is so far off. That’s why realistic goals that still require us to stretch to meet them tend to be more purposeful. Additionally, we are dealing with living human beings, and in the interpersonal economy, all acts of kindness make a difference.

Surely we all remember the story of the little girl who finds a beach full of thousands of washed up starfish (or sea stars if you prefer). Seeing their imminent demise, she begins to toss them back into the sea, one by one. An older man watches her, approaches, and comments, “you know you can’t save all these stars. Your task is useless.” The girl continues skipping down the shore, as she scoops up another star and returns it to its home. “It matters to this one. And it matters to this one,” she says, her joy unquenched.

So while it is good public policy to bring together stakeholders and integrate efforts, we should never underestimate the value that a single person or a small group acting on their own can have. That’s why we can all take pride in the work that our own Neveh Shalom community has been doing to address homelessness over the years.

That includes our long-standing relationship with Neighborhood House, from our food drive at the Yamim Noraim, to our toilet paper drive at Hanukkah time and where congregant Dr. Ellen Singer served as president and board member. It accounts for Rabbi Isaak’s constant work at the Oregon Food Bank along with Barb Schwartz and others, and our Men’s Club efforts with Habitat for Humanity; Our Outside In program, spearheaded by Cathy and Chris Blair before they moved out of town, catered to food insecure teens. Our volunteers have cooked countless meals for the indigent. Joyce Mendelsohn has labored on behalf of the homeless at an east side shelter. The list goes on.

I’m very pleased to announce that thanks to the efforts of Julie Welch, we will have soon have a free “Food Library” pantry on our property. Look for it in the next couple of months. This will allow those who have extra non-perishables to leave a donation while those in need can find what they lack.

For the last two winters, a small cadre of volunteers and I have made soup and sandwiches and brought them directly to the tents and sleeping bags where our most bereft live. While this monthly project does not “solve” the problem of homelessness, it allows us to meet and interact with our street neighbors. It opens our ears and our hearts to their stories. The homeless are no more violent, lazy or dangerous than the general population. That’s a fact which these “close encounters” constantly reinforces for me.

The truth is that there are countless causes that force people on to the streets. No one approach, no agency, no government office can address these myriad reasons. But we can alleviate hardship where we find it. There is value in that as well.

So many starfish, so much suffering, yet each act of kindness matters.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What reactions do you have when you see a homeless individual? Why do you think that is your response?
  2. Have you ever formed a relationship with a homeless person? Who were they and what was their story?

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