Making dignity sustainable
JTA — When you walk into the back door at my home away from home, Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, you’re greeted with a faint scent of kosher matzah ball soup mixed with the slightest hint of mildew from a 70-year-old building that can’t quite manage its moisture anymore.
On your left, you’ll see the kitchen, the heart and soul of our congregation. It is often where the most invaluable Torah is taught and learned. That happened a few years ago, when my wife, Mel, was joined one snowy Saturday night by our rabbinical intern.
“Mel,” he asked, “do you always need to make this many sandwiches for the food pantry?”
“No,” she replied. “Demand has gone up over the past few years, but we always need to make double at the end of the month.”
“Why,” he inquired, “should you need to make any more at the end of the month than at the beginning?”
Mel stood there somewhat stunned by a question that should not have felt like a Talmudic riddle. How could he not know? I am sure he knew why we blessed two challahs for each Shabbat meal (to remember God’s grace in the desert, when ahead of Shabbat the Israelites were able to gather double the amount of manna [Exodus 16:22]). But why did he not know why we need to double the number of sandwiches we make at the end of the month?
“Most of the clients we serve, some of whom are members of our own congregation,” she explained, “rely on WIC and EBT, government benefits that are issued at the beginning of each month and that often run out by the end, especially in families with children.”
“Oh, okay. I didn’t know that,” he said with a humility that endeared him so deeply to all of us at Beth Israel.
He didn’t understand the significance of the double portion at the end of the month, but the truth of the matter is before I came to Waterville, I didn’t either. I knew nothing about communities like Waterville. And what I thought I knew was not only wrong, but actually, in retrospect, was harmful and offensive. And if I did think about class differences when I lived in Brooklyn, I rarely thought about it in connection to the Jewish community.
But my ignorance and that of my student should not surprise us. Because how many of us really talk honestly about class? Class isn’t just about money. It’s a messy alchemy of financial wealth, social connections, political and cultural power, the opportunities people encounter in their lifetime and the communal regard they receive. To put it more concretely, someone can have the money — through personal resources of scholarships — to attend a Jewish summer camp. But class is also knowing which brands everyone else is wearing, knowing where to access those in-fashion clothes, and being able to own them.
The trickiness of class is what brought one of my Maine rabbinic colleagues to warn me about sending the kids in my congregation to major Jewish summer camps, “Even if you can get them the scholarship, Rachel,” she said, “the teasing they might endure might not make it worth it.”
Why aren’t we talking about class? The topic is tender because class is inextricably linked with our dignity. In Hebrew, the word for dignity is kavod and it shares the same root with kaved, heavy. Dignity is about how much leverage we have — in creating a world that gives us what we need and brings us into spaces with the promise of fullness, respect and agency. And the inequitable distribution of this kavod is impacting the ability of the American Jewish establishment to sustain functional, holy communities equitably nationwide.
For many small-town rabbis like myself who travel back and forth regularly between large cities and our small-town synagogues, the disparity in services, luxuries and opportunities we witness between urban communities and our home shuls is striking and often painful.
Synagogues like ours are struggling to pay their heating bills so that their pipes don’t freeze. Our congregants often cannot make their rent or pay college application fees, and our boards struggle mightily to raise the funds for paltry part-time rabbinic salaries. These heroic small-town lay leaders work the equivalent of unpaid, full-time jobs so that every member of their congregation can have a human hand to hold when life gets real — during times both of transcendent joy and deep distress.
Over the past 50 years wealth and social power have been increasingly concentrated in 12 metro areas to the exclusion of large swaths of our nation. The organization I lead, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College, estimates that 1 in 8 American Jews lives outside one of these areas. At the same time, we must also see that class disparities exist within every locale. And so, as we plan programs and craft policies as an American Jewish community, I would challenge all of us to ask ourselves and our institutions questions out loud that we usually don’t ask.
- Who is included or excluded by the price of this event or membership?
- What services should every member of a Jewish community be able to access, regardless of price? Who will provide it? Who will pay those who are providing those services and will they be paid a fair wage?
- How do we work to address the pain and shame caused by unacknowledged class differences within our community?
Not all of these questions have simple answers, but we have to start addressing them. There are three steps we should be taking as an American Jewish community to make our community more economically equitable now.
First, even though livestreaming has been a blessing and increased accessibility and access in ways that cannot be overstated or taken for granted, we still need to reiterate — in all of our communities — that it doesn’t replace the importance of physical presence. For most of us, to be human is to be embodied, and we cannot let physical presence and contact become a luxury good.
Second, every state in America should have at bare minimum one full-time, at-large, pluralistically oriented rabbi with an endowed salary that serves the entire Jewish community of that state, regardless of ability to donate or pay.
Third, we need to find ways to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, so that every Jew’s soul is fed. We cannot afford to lose anyone. The eternal faith of the people Israel is a covenant that should not be contingent on one’s class — it is up to all of us to make sure that every member of our people is spiritually sated, held by community, known and called by name. We need a new American Jewish budget that fulfills the basic birthright of every Jew in this nation — to be served and held as a worthy member of our people.
Recently I turned to Central Synagogue in New York City to support the work of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. They answered the call immediately — partnering with us not only financially, but as thought partners in building community and capacity through Central’s The Neighborhood online community and my organization’s programs. Two other Manhattan synagogues — Rodeph Sholom and Park Avenue Synagogue — came in alongside them, eager to help us spread the story of small-town Jewish life and advance our mission. They are funding our National Impact program, Makom, that trains small-town lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals in order to make small-town Jewish life sustainable. They are also supporting our Shaliach Tzibur program that trains small-town Jews to lead rituals and services when no clergy are present.
But there is so much more to be done on a strategic, national scale to ensure that we are touching and serving every member of the American Jewish community with dignity. We will need to continue this work together, large and small Jewish congregations working together to serve the entirety of our people with dignity.
On every Shabbat to come, let’s dream of lechem mishneh, a double portion for all, and let’s start ensuring that everyone, at the very least, has the flour for a single loaf. As our rabbis teach, “eyn kemach, eyn Torah” — without flour, without physical sustenance, our Torah cannot live.
This essay was adapted from a guest sermon given by the author at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.