Fighting Poverty in Judaism

Fighting poverty globally and locally

Print this page Print this page

Decide on an Issue

Even with a more in-depth analysis of the problem, you will not be able to solve poverty globally, nationally or even in your neighborhood. You will, however, have a better sense of the ways in which you might begin to address the issue.

In choosing an issue that you want to work on, you might begin by asking what is most important to you. Are you a doctor who cares deeply about health care? Did you benefit from a teacher who helped you to love learning? Did you or your parents grow up in a neighborhood that is now struggling? Find a way to articulate your interest in an issue in a way that is compelling both to you and to others.

Social justice activists often talk about "self interest" as a key element in organizing. The concept of self-interest recognizes both that people are most likely to work long-term on issues important to them, and that we all stand to benefit from a more just society. While the poor might suffer disproportionately from inequities, we all suffer when our town, our country or the world as a whole fails to achieve what we otherwise might.

Recognizing our own self-interest in the issues on which we choose to work challenges us to work side by side with people who are less fortunate, rather than seeing ourselves as benevolent outsiders working to help others. This attitude toward fighting poverty and injustice is perhaps best expressed in the famous words of Lily Watson, an aboriginal activist who said, "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together."

Connect with Others

You will most likely not have to start a new organization or project to tackle the issue that you have prioritized. Instead, look for local community organizations or advocacy groups that are already working on the issue, learn more about their work, and find out whether they need your help. You can find these groups by reading local news, asking people who work in the social justice or social service sectors, looking at lists of grantees of local foundations, and searching the internet for groups in your area.

Think Big (and Small)

In one of the richest biblical texts on poverty, God promises that "There shall be no needy among you" and then, a few lines later commands the people to open their hands to the poor "for the poor shall never cease from your land." (Deuteronomy 15)

One way of resolving the apparent paradox of this text is to understand these verses as simultaneously presenting a long-term vision for ending poverty and a short-term strategy for alleviating the immediate needs of the poor. We may not ignore an individual’s need for food, clothing or housing; at the same time, we cannot focus only on band-aid solutions to the point that we forget about the grand vision of creating a world without poverty.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.