Thursday, October 09, 2008

Yom Kippur Address 5769

Below is the text of a talk I gave today - Yom Kippur - at my synagogue. The talk preceded the reading of the Haphtarah.

Social Justice Advocacy Address
Congregation Darchei Noam, Yom Kippur 5769, Oct 9th 2008

I’ve been asked to speak today on behalf of the Social Justice Advocacy Committee. It is appropriate to convey a message of social justice today, since the call for social justice and the concern for the less fortunate is central to our traditional Yom Kippur haphtarah text. And the haphtarah speaks to us in language meant to unsettle & disturb.

* * *

Why are you fasting here today ?

Do you really think that fasting will save your soul?

Why are you praying here today, … and wailing and beating your breasts?

Do you think that will improve your lives? Will words and posturing make you better people?

There are hungry people in this city! There are people with no homes. There are people who can’t provide for their children.

If we ignore their plight, none of this fasting and praying and wailing and gnashing of teeth will matter one whit. God will not save us! He will abandon us, as we have abandoned the needy.

* * *

Did you find these words harsh or inappropriate?

They are not my words. They are merely a summary of the words of our prophet Isaiah. Words that our sages included in our Yom Kippur Liturgy – see page 569 in the Kol Hanshama if you don’t believe me.

And our sages put these words here precisely to shock us, and to remind us of what true tshuvah is all about: To recommit to our neighbours’ welfare; To remind us that we find God, not only or even primarily through ritual, but through our Godly response to other people; To remind us that Tzeddakah – Social Justice – is a key element of our own personal salvation – however we understand that term.

* * *

Canada likes to pride itself on its social responsibility. But that is a lie!

In Ontario today 15% of the population – about 1.8 million people – live below the poverty line. This includes over 1 in six of our children!

In Toronto today nearly 1 in 4 people are living below the poverty line: a Quarter Million people in Toronto live on very low income - with household incomes of less than $20,000 a year! There are 150,000 people on the brink of homelessness. There are 70,000 people on waiting lists for affordable housing and the wait time is now over 6 years! Many of these poor are seniors, or disabled. Many are in single parent families. And these difficult conditions affect the Jewish community too. In the Toronto 20,000 Jews live below the poverty line – that’s 1 out of every 8!

At the same time welfare and disability pensions in Ontario have fallen in real terms, so that they are about half of what they were 15 years ago. The minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation. Shamefully Canada spends less of its GDP on social programs then France, Germany, Sweden, the UK, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Norway, and even the United States.

* * *

What can we do about this? For years many Darchei Noam members have worked in Out or the Cold and similar relief projects. Recently many of us have become convinced that relief, while necessary, is not enough. Relief gets the most needy through the day, but it does not solve the problem of poverty.

The solutions to poverty are structural and systemic. Only government can muster the resources and initiate the systemic changes that can end poverty. Therefore, we have formed the Social Justice Advocacy Committee - committed to advocating for larger changes that can make a serious dent in poverty. We have begun lobbying politicians, and recently we organized an open letter from 18 Synagogues urging the McGuinty government to do more to combat poverty in Ontario. We are told that Darchei Noam is playing a leading role in uniting the Jewish Community to advocate against poverty. But to be effective you must be part of these advocacy efforts too.

If a politician knocks on your door, ask them what they and their party are planning to do about -
· creating more affordable housing for poor families;
· or about a creating a decent minimum wage for the person who cleans up your office at night or who serves your meal when you go to a restaurant;
· or about creating decent income supports for those who cannot work: the disabled, or those not able to find or hold a job.

Ask them if they are committed to creating a plan for ending poverty, one with clear targets and with regular reporting and public monitoring.

And if a politician does not knock on your door, then go to a meeting, write a letter, sign a petition. And not just in the run up to the federal election, but all through the year with federal, provincial, and municipal politicians.

Poverty can be beaten! Tony Blair’s England made a committed to reduce poverty by 25% in 5 years, and they virtually achieve the goal. In Canada, both Quebec and Newfoundland have social policies that put Ontario to shame. We can do as well, or better, than those jurisdictions.

But we need political will. And only you can help create that political will! Politicians, sympathetic to a social justice agenda, have told us that they are afraid to promote social programs, lest they be labeled as naive or fiscally irresponsible or in favour of taxes. Since when was tax relief become the be all and end all of our public policy! It was not always so.

Why are politicians more afraid of the anti tax lobby than social justice lobby? Judaism demands that we spend significant amounts of money on social justice, and we must demand nothing less from our governments and politicians. Only by making these demands loudly can we hope to make a dent in the scourge of poverty. In Isaiah’s words: “Cry from the throat, do not relent, raise up your voices like a shofar.

Demand that the right and moral thing be done.

* * *

If you want to learn more, or to join our committee, please feel free to talk to me or any other member of the Social Justice Advocacy Committee (many of us have these tags on) or contact Myer Siemiatycki or Amy Block the co-chairs of the committee. Also there is literature on the table near the baby sitting room on the upper level. Or you can go back and re-read our article in the most recent issue of Ner Noam.

* * *

Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. Yom Kippur demands that we promote tikkun olam – repair of the world – as much as tikkun ha nefesh – repair of the soul.

In the words of today’s Haftarah:

… this is the ‘fast’ that I desire:

To let the oppressed go free;
And to break off every yoke;
To give bread to the hungry,
And to house the lowly poor;
When you see the naked, clothe him,
And do not, do not ignore your brother.

… Thus if you offer compassion to the hungry,
And satisfy the famished;

Then shall your light shine in the darkness,
And your gloom shall become
As the noon-day sun,
And the Lord will guide you always.”

Gmar chatima tova


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