Fighting Poverty in Judaism

Fighting poverty globally and locally

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The task of fighting poverty can seem overwhelming. Each day, the news brings more stories of children without health insurance, families struggling to escape homelessness, and workers trying to support themselves on minimum wage jobs. At the same time, organizations that fight poverty bombard us with letters and e-mails soliciting donations and asking us to contact our legislators about various issues.

It's no wonder that so many of us feel helpless in the face of so much need.

fighting poverty in judaismWhile none of us may be able to single-handedly end poverty in the world, our country, or even our own town, each of us can play a role in alleviating the crisis. Below are a few suggestions for finding your own place within the global effort to eliminate poverty.

Recognize the Nature of the Problem

To fight poverty, you must understand the myriad of issues that contribute to it. These include unemployment, low wages, unequal access to education, discriminatory policies and practices, inadequate health care, a broken criminal justice system, and dozens more. The effects of poverty range from homelessness to malnutrition to drug use to depression to violence.

Given the complicated nature of poverty, it is tempting to address the problem by focusing on a single symptom. For instance, we might combat malnutrition by contributing food to a local soup kitchen or compensate for low educational achievement by starting a tutoring program. While efforts to alleviate the symptoms of poverty are important and necessary, we also need to ask the bigger questions:  why are working people unable to afford food? Why are there no supermarkets in poor urban neighborhoods? Why are some schools better funded and less crowded than others? Why are there so few good jobs available for people with only a high school education?

In one of the most oft-quoted Jewish texts on poverty, Moses Maimonides lays out eight levels of tzedakah (charity), the highest of which involves making a person self-sufficient by giving him/her a job or a loan or entering into a business partnership with him/her. While we should certainly learn from Maimonides the importance of helping people to help themselves, we also need to ask the question that Maimonides does not ask:  What happens when even a person with a job does not earn enough to buy basic necessities? How can we create a society in which people who work full-time are guaranteed of earning enough money to support a family?

To learn more about the causes of poverty, pay attention to both local and national newspapers and to smaller media, such as magazines that focus on urban issues in your neighborhood, newspapers published by neighborhood or community groups, and websites focused on politics and social justice. Most importantly, continuously ask yourself "why?"  Judaism is a tradition of questions—we teach even the youngest child to recite four questions at the Passover Seder, and our oral tradition is filled with the questions of the most learned rabbis. Without questioning accepted realities and searching for better explanations, we will never fully understand either the causes of poverty or the potential solutions.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.