This month, Jewish communities across the United States will come together and start a yearlong campaign to highlight and address the albatross of poverty that our society carries around its neck. With the holiday season now upon us, a time of year when Americans reflect on the blessings we are all given, I would like to challenge everyone to think beyond themselves — to think about what they can do to change our society for the better.
I know where I would like to see us begin.
We have an obligation to humanity, but that obligation is not being met. Deuteronomy states, “There shall be no needy among you.” Yet today in America, many needy live among us.
According to the Census Bureau, an alarming 36.5 million Americans — roughly 12% of the population — live in poverty. Furthermore, more than 20 million Americans rely for sustenance on the food stamp program — a program that is woefully inadequate.
But don’t take my word for it. I challenge you to at least imagine what it must be like to live as those on food stamps do.
For the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, imagine living on $21 per week, the amount allotted for individuals under the current assistance program.
You can’t really know someone until you have walked a mile in his or her shoes, so I’m lacing up my walking shoes. I’ll be participating in a food-stamp challenge, living on $21 per week and not accepting meals or food from others so I can begin to understand the difficulties food-stamp recipients face.
Twenty-one dollars is all those on food stamps are awarded to buy groceries each week, and I am sure we can all agree this is not much. We must try to better understand the hardships that those on food stamps face as they must forgo things we all take for granted in our daily lives.
We can afford to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses while they must often choose among those things, oftentimes resorting to an unhealthy diet due to the inadequacy of the food stamp program. This must change.
The holiday season has traditionally been a time when many help those less fortunate. There are numerous food, toy and clothing drives. Homeless shelters see more volunteers around Thanksgiving and Christmas than they do for the whole rest of the year.
While this is a start, more help is needed. More advocacy is crucial in addressing our national albatross of poverty, since those busy working two or more minimum wage jobs to support themselves lack the time to speak up.
By taking the challenge, we can shine a spotlight on the issue of poverty and inspire others to take an active role in advocacy for those in need beyond the holiday season.
Poverty is the shackle that binds our American society, and we cannot free ourselves until we address the issue head-on. Poverty should be on the forefront of domestic policy, both in the Jewish community and elsewhere, and we should lobby our local elected officials to put it there.
We all must take an active role in ending the national disgrace of poverty and fulfill our obligations to our fellow man. It is my fervent hope that as we begin this holiday season, there eventually will be no needy among us.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.