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"We Can't Give Up on the Heart of Our Democracy"

"We Can't Give Up on the Heart of Our Democracy"

Protesters holding signs including one that says FIGHT POVERTY NOT THE POOR

Back in 2018, I met a woman active in the Jewish community here in Cleveland, OH, where I live. As we shared stories about our lives and how we got involved in Jewish engagement, I learned that she grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, her family only marginally connected to Judaism. She told me that when Detroit chose to desegregate the public schools, her parents, seized with the uncertainty of what this change might bring, resolved to send her to Jewish day school beginning in sixth grade. 

That move changed the future trajectory of her life. At 12, she began to find not just her Jewish self – but her Jewish soul. She became a passionate advocate for the neediest in the Jewish community and is still doing this work today. Her parents made a decision that protected the best interests of their child.

It brought to mind the timeless maxim of Hillel the Elder, “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?”

The woman’s story reminded me, however, that with every success, and every triumph, there is an untold story of consequence to the neighbor in our midst. When I played back the story in my mind, back to that time of desegregation in Detroit, I couldn’t shake the feeling that historically, advocacy for our own is often practiced at the expense of another. In fact, Detroit’s plans for desegregation were thwarted in the court system, and that city’s urban student population languished. Most families did not have the means to make a decision that would have changed the trajectories of their children’s lives.

Regretfully, the same issues that plagued Detroit and other cities and towns across our nation decades ago still exist today – and not only with education inequity. Funding cuts to prekindergarten education, voter ID bills that make it disproportionally difficult for African-Americans to vote, and paltry pay that does not meet the goals of a living-wage, the tenacious drug crisis, the scourge of mass incarceration... all of these issues demonstrate that our country has fallen short of its promise that “all men are created equal.” 

In light of these and other pressing issues of our day, scores of organizations, from faith-based groups to unions to education advocates to military organizations, environmental advocates, groups of doctors, parents, and dozens of others, mobilized in 2018 to enact a new iteration of the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 campaign for the poor. Today's movement is called The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and I am proud that our Reform Jewish community, through the Religious Action Center (RAC), is a partner in this important campaign.

Some of the RAC’s best work is being done locally, and ties in to the same issue-driven agenda. Reform Ohio, a statewide project of the RAC, was founded on the principle that every person has the right to live with dignity and honor. As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are committed to seeking justice that will enable everyone to change the trajectories of their lives for the better.

In autumn 2017, lay and professional Reform Jews from our State of Ohio descended on the capital to lobby for a bill that would reduce the incarceration of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. We met with legislators, some of whom assumed that, as Jews, we must be there either to advocate for Israel or to back state vouchers to fund Jewish day school students. When we told one state senator that we were there not only for Jews but for all those who face discrimination after being charged with felonies that make it nearly impossible to get a job, he looked confused.

It was at that moment that I felt like our movement is getting it right. I thought of the words of the dynamic leader of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev. William J. Barber II, when he contended that we need to be “the moral defibrillators of our time.” Barber, speaking to a group of supporters, declared, “We must shock this nation with the power of love, we must shock this nation with the power of mercy…we can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever!”

Join the Poor People's Campaign by visitng

Rabbi Joshua Caruso has been a member of the clergy team at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH, since 2002. His greatest joy is serving the Jewish people.

Rabbi Joshua Caruso
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