In Tough Times, Hoping to 'Corner' Market for Compassion

Retired Teacher Seeks to Leverage Resources to Help Communities

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 06, 2011, issue of October 14, 2011.

If you’ve glanced at the economic news lately, you’ve probably had one of two reactions. You’ve turned the page, struck a defensive pose of indifference and quietly given thanks that you’re still afloat. Or maybe you’ve cast about for a way to help, shuddered at the vastness of the misery and national paralysis and finally sunk into a miasma of despair. Personally, I’m partial to the latter. (I love that word, “miasma.”)

I recently learned about a third approach. A retired English teacher from Massachusetts, Harriet Feinberg, has devised a way to make a real difference without waiting for politicians. It’s a philanthropic initiative that she calls “A Corner of the Field,” after the Torah commandment: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field… thou shalt leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

“Corner” can be undertaken by a synagogue, a Jewish federation or national organization. Wealthy individuals are recruited to pledge a sizable sum to adopt a project Feinberg calls a “package,” chosen from a menu of options (or self-designed), that underwrites the hiring or reinstating of a specific work force that’s been downsized. The pledge is for two years, enough time for the new wages and taxes to prod the local economy. The packages are designed and administered by the sponsoring synogague or agency, making it a community project (and a tax-deductible donation).

Unlike those classic “feed one child at a time” projects that leave the larger landscape unchanged, “Corner” takes on whole communities at a time. It doesn’t so much feed mouths as create jobs and save disintegrating neighborhoods. It might sound radical at first (indeed, Feinberg first posted it on the lefty website TheShalomCenter.org), but in fact it’s utterly apolitical. The scope is as large or small as your resources, and your imagination.

Here’s how it works: “Suppose a community college has had to absorb an across-the-board 10% cut and has let go a mix of administrators, faculty, and staff. It’s a little like running a movie backwards: for each employee, the ‘packager’ needs to check that the employer wants him or her back, that there’s work to do in the same or a comparable role, and that the worker is currently unemployed and wishes to return. The dollar figure for each person includes the total yearly cost to the employer (including any employer contributions) times two (for two years). Suppose the total is $6 million. A gift to the college of that amount by somone who saved 6 million because of the Bush tax cuts would re-employ all those people. Presto! The donor can see actual results.”

The possibilities are nearly endless, and needn’t involve mega-gifts. Music lovers could donate, individually or as a group, to rehire laid-off music teachers at local public schools and community centers. Nature buffs could reinstate park employees axed because of budget cuts. Sports fans (or team owners) could reinstate center-city gym teachers and coaches. Doctors could set up a fund to rehire nurses and home health aides at local health agencies. “This approach would give donors a personal stake in the realm of activity as well as actual results getting many people back to work,” Feinberg writes.

Closely related is Feinberg’s “Jubilee Homes” proposal, based on Leviticus 25, which commands remission of debts and restoration of homesteads every 50 years. Here the donor adopts a neighborhood hard-hit by impending foreclosures because residents can no longer afford their mortgages. There are plenty to choose from, alas. The donor pays off the missed payments, pays down a percentage of the outstanding principal and then negotiates with the lender for lower, more affordable payments on the reduced principal.

“This approach wouldn’t even be that expensive per home,” Feinberg writes, “averaging perhaps $8-10,000 in catch-up payments and less than $70,000 in principal reduction. Homes could be saved for well under $100,000 per home, or about a dozen for a million dollars.” A dozen families would be saved from homelessness, banks would have assured payments, and an entire neighborhood or suburb would be saved from the blight that accompanies foreclosures.

The obvious question in all this: Why should synagogues and Jewish federations, strapped as they are for cash, make this kind of investment of resources — and potential donors’ largesse — on a quest that’s so obviously outside the realm of Jewish self-interest? Three reasons:

First, it can actually strengthen the Jewish community by bringing in idealistic new activists — both as donors and as volunteers — who don’t know us and haven’t responded to our current agenda, but just might catch the bug.

Second, because America needs it. This country is in trouble, and there’s no clear sign that either party can get us out. Do you want to help Israel? Keeping its most important ally strong should be Job One.

Third, because we can. There aren’t many networks as well positioned as the Jewish community with the resources, infrastructure and idealism to get something like this started. Besides, it’s what we’re supposed to do (see above, Leviticus 23:22).

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com



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