At a meeting of my synagogue’s board of trustees, the discussion turned to social justice. At which local food cupboard, the president asked, should our members volunteer to make sandwiches? While the talk dragged on, I looked around the room: By my count, twelve board members owned their own businesses. Providing free food to the hungry is certainly a good thing, but if we really wanted to help the poor, why not also pool resources and commit to training and hiring people who need good jobs?
My synagogue is not alone in largely following a “safety net” approach to social concerns—most do the same: food cupboards, clothing drives, furniture donations, etc. My current temple even conducts an annual underwear drive.
These projects provide immediate relief to those in need. But why, I wonder, when we think of social justice, do we so often think in terms of subsidies and handouts that mirror the welfare state? What if we added other projects aimed at helping people become more independent?
This is not a new idea.
Twelfth century Jewish philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides, taught that the highest form of charity is to help a person become employed “so that he will not need to be dependent on others.”
Those whom we aim to help often tell us the same thing.
“This is a great sandwich,” one homeless person told a man passing out free food in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, “but I really wish I had a room to stay in and a job to pay for it.”
But what would a social justice agenda look like if it were designed actually to help those in need build self-sustaining, independent lives?
Ironically, I think many of the projects would reflect core values of conservatism.
I saw “ironically” because many people view social justice as primarily a concern of those who are politically liberal. But that’s not true. Conservatives share the same goals of building a more just society—they just favor different paths for getting there.
Those paths—built on belief in individual responsibility, education, the dignity of work, strong families, and free markets—can help people break the cycle of poverty and become independent.
We need not argue over Left vs. Right, however. In truth, both approaches—a safety net to meet immediate needs plus paths toward long-term independence—will together achieve the greatest good.
So if your synagogue wants to affect lasting social change by expanding its social justice agenda, here are eight projects to consider. Why not give them a try?
One thing new immigrants often struggle to establish is good credit, and yet immigrants often need extra cash: for the down payment on a house or car, to buy school supplies, host a wedding, or start a business. And studies show that immigrants—more than the native-born — are more likely to start businesses. Therefore, one of the best ways we can help immigrants build successful new lives is by providing free loans. More than a century ago, the Hebrew Free Loan Society provided loans to immigrants from Eastern European who were unable to get credit from banks. To help today’s immigrants become self-sufficient, your synagogue can start its own free loan fund or partner with an existing fund. Many have been springing up lately e.g., The Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan Association.
Frederick Douglass wrote, “It’s easier to raise a healthy child than heal a broken man.” Yet for many families in poverty, it’s not at all easy to raise a child with both physical and emotional health. “Disorganized attachment”—caused by inadequate bonding between an infant and mother or other caregiver—is often many times higher in areas of concentrated poverty than in the general population. Left unchecked, this condition predicts poor school performance, aggressive behavior, delinquency, and violent criminality. Home visits by therapists and nurses to promote prenatal care and parental bonding can break this pattern. In clinical studies, one year of weekly home visits reduced by 50% the number of children with disorganized attachment. Those children will then have a real chance to fully develop cognitive skills and build healthy social relationships. These programs are expensive, but your synagogue can help with financial support. To find a program in your area, contact Nurse-Family Partnership, Child First, or Circle of Security.
An Ohio organization, Cincinnati Works, has received praise nationally for success in helping people move from generational poverty to economic self-sufficiency. Through its programs, more than 8,000 people—including youth transitioning out of foster care and men and women released from prison—have found jobs and stayed employed. One key to success is that Cincinnati Works pairs each individual seeking work with an employment coach who serves as a guide during the job search. The Cincinnati model has been replicated by more than 23 organizations in 11 states. If a jobs agency in your area is using it, your members can help by volunteering as coaches. Contact Cincinnati Works or a related organization, The Network.
An effective role model can help set a young person on the path to a successful, independent life, and an excellent way to become a role model is through Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS). This organization, the oldest and largest of its kind, matches adult volunteers with children—ages five through young adulthood—for one-on-one outings such as walks, museum visits, and picnics. Children with a parent in prison especially benefit from a mentor’s guidance. Your synagogue can form a Mentoring Committee for those who want to volunteer. Over time, this gift of time and personal attention may do more to help disadvantaged children than anything else. Contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
The absence of fathers—whether due to childbearing outside marriage, divorce, or incarceration—has enormous consequences for millions of children: poorer mental health, lower academic achievement, more delinquency, and higher rates of teen pregnancy. “Responsible Fatherhood Programs”—now available in cities across the country—aim to help men become better fathers and providers, including finding employment so they can pay child support. These programs welcome support in the form of volunteer mentors, administrative help, or cash or in-kind donations. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse can help you locate a responsible fatherhood program in your community.
Today, more than 7,000 public charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educate more than three million children, the majority of whom are minorities: 26% African-American, 33% Hispanic. About a third of charter students attend high-poverty schools where more than 75% qualify for free or reduced price lunch. While performance varies by school, as compared to their peers in traditional schools, charter students score higher on college entrance exams and are more likely to graduate high school and attend college.
Synagogue volunteers can help mentor charter students, read with students (many begin charters 2- to 3-grades behind in reading), and provide financial support by helping with expenses not covered by public funds, such as for building and maintenance, books and supplies, special programming, or even a school pizza party. See: the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools or the National Center for Education Statistics.
For many seniors, the ability to remain at home—age in place— and stay socially connected predicts continued good health and longevity. A peer-to-peer support movement called “The Villages” helps seniors do just that. Seniors pay annual dues and in exchange may receive volunteer services from other members: rides to doctor appointments and shopping, and social supports such as morning check-in calls, lunch seminars, movie outings, and evening socials. In low-income neighborhoods, Village services may be provided by non-member volunteers from the larger community. Villages now operate in more than 250 U.S. cities. If your town already has a Village, synagogue volunteers can provide rides and home maintenance, and help cover administrative costs. If there is no Village yet, you can help start one. For locations of existing Villages and tips on creating a Village, see: Village-to-Village Network.
Helping transform vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods into lush and productive community gardens is a great way to help your local environment. Community gardens also provide low-income residents with the ability to produce their own fresh food. In Binghamton, NY, for example, the non-profit VINES partners with local churches, synagogues, YMCAs and others to build and maintain more than a dozen community gardens.
If your area has a community garden, your members with gardening skills can help train people to work their own individual plots. If there is no community garden, you can start one. The American Community Garden Association offers guidelines on how to do so.
Peter Lovenheim, a journalist and author, splits his time between Washington, DC and his hometown of Rochester, NY. His most recent book, The Attachment Effect, was published by Penguin Random House in 2018.