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Confronting and Combating Poverty in the United States

What are the Jewish texts and values underlying the resolution on confronting and combating poverty?

"Our teachers have said: If all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all" ( Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12). Our prophets have taught: God commands us to "share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house" (Isaiah 58:7). And according to Maimonides, the highest degree of charity is to aid a person in need by "offering him a gift or a loan, by entering into partnership with him, or by providing work for him so that he may become self-supporting, without having to ask people for anything. In regard to this, it is written: `You shall maintain him; whether stranger or sojourner, he shall live beside you' (Leviticus 25:35); that is to say, maintain him so that he may not fall and be in need of help" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Gifts to the Poor" 10:7).

If our prophets and sages lived today, surely they would be crying out against a nation that allows children to go hungry and families to sleep on the streets. Surely they would cry out against a society that neglects healing the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the poor as national priorities. We, too, cry out.

Why is it important for the Union for Reform Judaism to speak out about poverty now?

While the Union already has strong policies on a variety of economic justice issues, political circumstances make it necessary for us to reaffirm our strong commitment to ending poverty and helping families move to self-sufficiency. Although poverty continues to be a national disgrace and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, the national will to address or even recognize these problems is waning. Tax proposals that favor the wealthy and guarantee unprecedented budget deficits will further increase pressures to cut back on existing and inadequately funded programs to assist the poor. If we don't speak now, when will we?

What action is required?

The resolution calls upon Reform Jews to "reaffirm our opposition to tax cuts and spending priorities that do not allow our national, state, and local governments to address adequately important national priorities, including the eradication of poverty, or to maintain existing social programs that benefit poor people." There are numerous legislative initiatives that both undermine efforts to address the needs of poor people, and that affectively try to solve them. We must become advocates in the public arena on these issues.

In 2000, only 50 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the presidential elections. The number of voters who write letters to Congress, attend political rallies, or lobby their representatives is miniscule. Therefore, the power of Americans who do choose to become educated and involved cannot be underestimated. To quote anthropologist Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Jewish tradition teaches us a similar lesson. God instructs the Children of Israel: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, `Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'" (Deuteronomy 15:11). Rather than let the fact that there will always be people who are impoverished overwhelm us or exempt us from action today, we must heed the words of Pirkei Avot 2:16: "You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." Together let us find a way to address need today while never losing sight of the fact that until the promise of America becomes a reality for each and every one of us, it is our role as Jews and Americans to stand up and make our voices heard.