A Tale of two Americas
Over these first few months of 2017, I have often thought of the words of Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
These words from mid19th century England seem to be an apt description of 21st century America. So too, I would argue are the teachings of two rabbis whose words were redacted in the 2nd century in the land of Israel. In Pirke Avot we are taught in the name of Hillel the sage “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? And If not now, when?”
And in the name of Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot reminds us “The time is short and the task of redeeming the world is great … Even if we are not destined to see its completion we still have a responsibility to work toward it.”
The news of the day or should I say the hour — or the “tweet” — can lead one easily to a cascade of emotions ranging from anguish and anger to despair and disappointment. Dickens opening words of, A Tale of Two Cities, are as concise a definition as I can find of the economic disparity in America today. The proposed changes in health care, especially the cuts in Medicaid and the dramatic elimination of support for programs such as meals on wheels, and after school child care, coupled with tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans may result in the “best of times” for some; and they certainly will usher in the “worst of times for many others.
I chose to draw a connection between Dickens the Hillel quote from Pirke Avot because I truly believe that the proposed cuts in federal funding for social welfare and healthcare programs have serious implications for our American Jewish community as well as for American society as a whole. Listening to many politicians one would think that more services can be provided with less money and that many of the recipients of programs such as Medicaid Meals on Wheels, School lunches and Food Stamps are “gaming the system” or otherwise less than worthy of our prioritizing our tax dollars to providing assistance to them.
Few of us realize until it impacts a member of our own family that more than 50% of the funding for Jewish sponsored nursing homes comes from Medicaid. The cost of long term healthcare averages $150,000 a year. When people sometimes need care for many years it often bankrupts them. Even with Medicaid reimbursements, which cover only about 50% of the cost of care, in quality nursing homes such as The Jewish Home in Rockleigh, or Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, our Jewish community must raise millions of dollars annually to provide care and dignity to our seniors. Our Jewish community, Kosher Meals on Wheels and funds that help aging Holocaust survivors in our community and across America also receives considerable funding through federal funds that are now in peril of being eliminated. As look back with pride upon our success in absorbing hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews into our communities in the 1990’s let us not forget that Medicaid helped cover their medical expenses and that Congress and Presidents Bush and Clinton lifted immigration quota to allow our refugee siblings into America.
My point is simple, the proposed changes in federal funding for health and welfare programs will impact you and me, our family and our community. Moreover, Hillel’s second statement; If I am only for myself, what am I? reminds me as I prepare for Passover that more than 30 times in Torah the stranger is listed along with the widow and orphan as people for whom we have specific responsibility to provide care.
So here is my Passover plea to all of you:
1. We, as a Jewish community, must become even more politically active than we have in the past. Working through the Jewish Community Relations Council of our Federation we need to actively lobby against cuts in Medicaid in the Health Care Bill now before Congress and against the proposed cuts in social welfare human services and childcare in the proposed federal budget.
2. We must also do more individually to support efforts in our Jewish community to Feed the Hungry here in Northern New Jersey. In addition to the Center for Food Action which is always in need of our donations, many of our synagogues participate in the Family Promise daily meal program that feeds over 100 people a day in Hackensack. Most of the guests at this meal are actually working at minimum wage jobs and have to choose between paying rent and buying food.
3. We must reach out through our two Jewish homes and our Jewish Family Service to find ways to give our time and our charitable dollars to help support those in our community who are going to be most directly impacted by any cut in federal funding for healthcare and social services.
As I celebrated Purim, earlier this month, I really wished that somehow our groggers could actually blot out the voices of hate that keep rising up around our nation and throughout the world. They couldn’t and shouldn’t. As I sat down to write the column you have just read, I hoped to find a way to write about ‘The Best of Times” by looking forward rather than backward and focus upon the theme of Passover, the Joy of Liberation since sunset Monday March 27th will mark the beginning of the month of Nissan. But then the reality that Rosh Chodesh Nissan is, according to the Mishna Rosh Hashanah, the New Year for Kings, and that the story of Passover can be summarized as a Hutzpadic Jew named Moses demanding of Pharaoh, justice for a bunch of slaves, makes me realize that the quote from Rabbi Tarfon at the beginning of this column speaks directly to our responsibilities as Americans and as Jews today.
The time is short; if we do not act now, changes in healthcare and social welfare will dramatically change the nature of America. And yes, Rabbi Tarfon is correct, many of us may not live to see an America where hunger and homelessness are only memory and where quality healthcare is truly a reality for all but all of us are responsible to work toward these goals for ourselves our community, for all Americans and for all of Humanity.