The Mask Project: A Jewish mandate to assist the vulnerable in times of turmoil

At this moment, the world faces an existential crisis not seen in many decades. Political systems have been upended, daily norms shattered, global markets paralyzed, and people already on the brink of society teeter precariously. These are trying times for people around the world and in the United States. But for the most vulnerable, the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic cannot properly be put into words. People are dying by the score in hospitals; medical and essential workers toil overtime to keep us healthy and fed; vulnerable families all over the world are unable to protect loved ones who are at risk for exposure.

Physical distancing is, by its nature, confusing. We are called to do our part to fight the pandemic and aid those most in need. Our impulse is to turn to our grassroots leadership and alleviate—to the greatest extent possible—the burdens of those who are most at-risk during this crisis.

We are not medical professionals who tirelessly risk our lives tending to the sick, nor do we go out into the fields to pick the fruits and vegetables needed so that Americans have the ability to eat. Yet we still have the ability to support those who are affected most by the deleterious consequences of this pernicious virus. We are simply humble Jewish citizens concerned for our neighbors here and around the world, we also have a modest plan to raise spirits and desperately-needed funds to support those who have been impacted by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The teachings of the Torah are our guide during this calamitous and precarious time. When we read of the mandate that teaches us “Do not stand idly by the blood of another” (Lo Ta’amod al Dam Rei’ekha), this isn’t an abstract prescription to provide cursory charity and then forget about the issues at-hand. It’s quite the opposite. The Torah forces us to place ourselves into the lives of the afflicted, the downtrodden, and the suffering. When times demand a major response to systemic injustice and despair, we cannot ignore the mandates which have given our people ethical strength throughout the millennia. 

A Mask Project staff member begins the process to manufacture a fabric mask.

We are called to action to contribute in some way to the needs of our community. We have seen people desperate for any lifeline. We’ve seen the human toll of indifference and lack of empathy. That is why we at Arizona Jews for Justice, in partnership with Uri L’Tzedek, led by our brilliant campaign organizer Eddie Chavez Calderon (who is himself a DREAMer) have developed The Mask Project. First and foremost, our project is about community and the need to bring light in the darkest of times. Our simple, straightforward initiative empowers community members to make a difference by 1) Manufacturing filtered fabric masks for those most vulnerable who cannot afford them (such as Native American communities, seniors who are already immunocompromised, refugees, and asylees who have trouble attaining these valuable medical supplies), 2) Donating to talented out-of-work mothers to manufacture these masks, 3) And build social trust by deepening societal partnerships.

The origins of this story are deep and profound for me. For years now, I have had a wonderful chavruta and mentor in Adam Bronfman, president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. We first met at a Valley Beit Midrash presentation he gave on his father’s book: Why Be Jewish? Since then, we study Talmud, we discuss politics, we celebrate Shabbat together, we strategize about social justice initiatives. This just scratches the surface. When the Sages discussed the beauty of Aristotelean friendship, I don’t think they even had something this rich in mind. His emotional awareness, empathy, and spiritual depth are as profound and far-reaching as his intellectual rigor. So, when he called me with a brilliant idea of how we could (must!) respond to this moment to both help immigrant women in poverty, and also support vulnerable populations with severe health-risks at this critical time, I was all ears.

The idea blew me away.

The first batch of masks ready to be donated!

The goal for any social entrepreneurship endeavor is ultimately to achieve sustainability, if possible. But we were only able to hit the ground running immediately because Adam was ready to personally invest time and resources in the launch. I learned about the humility of a visionary who can launch a major initiative and step back by staying close enough to support but distant enough to empower. 

So, can we move this dream to reality?

While the Centers for Disease Control advises all Americans to wear cloth masks, there is a critical shortage of them. With this project, not only can we get more masks to people who need them, we can also support communities who have been pushed to the brink of poverty due to the aftershocks of COVID-19. And although this project has only begun, it’s beginning to make a difference. We have seen the tears form in the eyes of those who make the masks. “Without this project, I’d be homeless,” one of them told us. It is difficult to fight back against the visceral frustration with the deliberating effects of this situation, but The Mask Project—in its own way—is a beacon of hope.  

We truly believe this project adheres to our sacred mission to act and be part of the work to repair the world. We may not be able to solve every problem, but as Rabbi Tarfon instructs in Pirkei Avot 2:21, we shall not desist from doing our part. The Mask Project is not revolutionary, but it is a clear and sincere way to restore dignity for those going through incredible hardship. 

The Mask Project provides dignified work for the newly unemployed and will provide thousands of masks to those in need in our community. Each of us can volunteer and support now, as we wish, to protect the most vulnerable in our country!

The masks are ready to go!

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 18 books on Jewish ethics

The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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