‘The Price and the Promise of Citizenship’


Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
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Well into his somber, stirring inaugural address, after pointedly repudiating the policies and behaviors of the past eight years, President Obama set out a new task for his fellow citizens — a return to America’s animating values of hard work, honesty, courage, fair play, tolerance and curiosity to anchor a time of renewed responsibility and duty.

“This,” he told the millions assembled and the millions more watching from afar, “is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

The price and the promise of citizenship. Time will determine whether those words will be the ones remembered when this historic day is recalled, but for now, the formulation of obligation and possibility is just what we need to hear, as Americans, as Jews. After an administration that promulgated an unjustified and misdirected war, ignored basic human and civil rights, allowed the market to take dangerous risks with other people’s money while the rich got much richer and the rest barely held onto what they had — how refreshing to be told the blunt truth with the expectation that we are grown up enough to accept it and act on it.

And how will we act? How will the Jewish community meet this challenge? Certainly the promise of America has been abundantly fulfilled for so many.

Though the Jewish population is proportionally small and shrinking, its prosperity and influence belie its size. Jews are more highly educated, have more prestigious jobs, and earn more than the average American. As for access to power, well, it doesn’t get much closer than David Axelrod’s new White House office, barely 20 feet from the president’s, a stunning journey for a man whose father and grandparents fled pogroms for the safety of these shores.

To hear evangelical Christian pastor Rick Warren quote the words of the Shema (“Hear O’ Israel!”) during his inaugural invocation is to acknowledge that Jews have arrived in the American public square.

With this unparalleled prosperity and status comes a commensurate responsibility, to take care of our own and extend a hand to others. Citizenship has a price tag that cannot be discounted or ignored — that’s a Jewish value as old as Sinai and in need of constant updating. Consider that, by some reputable estimates, as many as 15% to 20% of Jews in America are poor; in New York City, within a subway ride of Bernie Madoff’s penthouse jail, the concentrations of Jewish poverty are staggering. According to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, nearly half of the city’s Russian-speaking immigrants live in poor Jewish households. Often they are old and ill, but a surprising number of poor Jews have attended college. The elixir of education does not always work its magic. Much more help is needed.

In this new era of responsibility, the Jewish community can and should enhance its efforts to address poverty and hunger, first in our own families and neighborhoods, and then in others’. And while some of that work will require more individuals to get their hands dirty, this can’t be solved by charity alone. It also requires tackling the structural conditions that leave too many Americans unable to provide for themselves. The shameful growth of income inequality during the Bush administration is both an economic and civic danger; all the soup kitchens in the nation can’t compensate for a fiscal policy that favored the ultra-wealthy over everyone else.

Another way to repay the promise is to recognize that the storm clouds caused by the economic crisis and compounded by Madoff’s apparent deceit do have a tenuous silver lining. If money is not as plentiful, then let’s be smarter and more strategic about how it’s spent. Let’s practice good citizenship by putting aside the turf wars that have impeded collaboration among like-minded Jewish organizations. Let’s live our values by directing funds away from things and toward people. Let’s feed the hungry, educate the young and care for the sick before launching fear campaigns against enemies real or imagined.

Ever since Haym Solomon helped finance the Revolution, Jews have been in the forefront of many of the great movements that shaped America’s character. This is another one of those moments. Like the struggles to protect workers’ rights, lift the stain of segregation, promote women’s equality, a price will be exacted. We already know that the promise of citizenship is worth it.

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