Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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There’s something happening in our city and state that I didn’t know about until recently. Maya Angelou famously taught—when you know better, do better. So I’m trying to do better now and I wanted to share with you what I’ve learned so maybe we have a chance of doing better together. Maybe some of you already know this and I’m late to the game, and if so, I honor that and I’m glad you are already here.

This pandemic we are living is hitting folks hard. That we know. Physically, mentally, and economically. That we know. And there are some financial support systems in place to help folks through—unemployment pay, federal stimulus checks, and other regular income support available to workers at this time. But there is a category of people who do not have access to any of the financial support that many New Yorkers are receiving to weather this storm. As a group, they’re called Excluded Workers. They are our neighbors and our friends. They are New York. And right now, they are in trouble.
Excluded Workers include undocumented people who have lost their job in this pandemic, immigrant families whose breadwinner has died from COVID19, people recently released from incarceration who are searching for work, and more. These are folks who pay taxes, contributing more than $140 million dollars a year to unemployment, but don’t receive a penny of it.
More than half of our state’s essential workers are undocumented. So this is about the people who were caring for the sick and elderly, cleaning public spaces, making and delivering food, making sure New York doesn’t fall apart. Many are domestic workers who clean homes, are our trusted partners in childcare, or with our aging elders. And then they got sick or lost jobs or their spouse in this crisis. And now they are going hungry. Families are on the verge of homelessness. They have no way to pay their next bills. Children are waiting on growing food lines. We are mainly staying inside and so not seeing it, but they are there. One woman, Fatoumata, is a street vendor who hasn’t been able to work since March. She’s months behind on rent, and can’t provide for her own children because she gets no help.
Nearly 530,000 families are facing the same challenges as the rest of New York, if not more pronounced, and they are at risk of falling endlessly through this moment to lie in the rubble of our cities.
In our Jewish calendar, we are in what we call “the 9 days,” which is the excruciating time from the first of the month of Av to the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’Av, a date we will observe before another Shabbat passes. It’s a time of collective grief and communal weeping. On Tisha B’Av, both the first and second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed, leaving the city in rubble and ash. And historically, terrible things happen on this day. The Jews were expelled from England, the Jews were expelled from Spain, World War I began, and so many more. It is a day with a gravitational pull of generational devastation. And on this date, again, more than one million of our neighbors and friends will teeter on the edge of ruin.
This week, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Isaiah to mark this Shabbat, which is called Shabbat Chazon, or the Shabbat of Isaiah’s prophetic vision.
Isaiah pulls no punches as he speaks directly to the people. He says to them: In your city, there is no justice for your widow or your orphan. He calls out the officials of the city for their indifference. And he says to all the people: y’deichem damim malei’u. Your hands are full of blood. This ancient metaphor is the same as ours—Isaiah is saying to the people of his city—your most vulnerable are suffering and don’t look away, their blood is on your hands, because, he tells them, we are responsible for one another. Isaiah says to the people—you are sitting in an Ir n’tzurah. A city that is beleaguered, besieged, and in trouble.
But…this is not a text about being stuck or self-flagellating in guilt. Isaiah calls out the people so they can respond. So they can change. He’s not delivering punishment—he’s opening a door for them to live differently. This text epitomizes what we, as a people, believe—that change itself is possible. A whole city can change! Isaiah’s chazon, his vision, is a text that allows for teshuvah, return and repair and becoming. In all of its darkness, Isaiah’s words illuminate a path forward and cannot help but be words of hope.
See, tucked into the beginning of this bleak excoriation of his people, Isaiah outlines a ten-step process that God asks of the people. He says, here’s what you do: “rachatzu, hizacku, hasiru roa ma’al’leichem. Wash yourselves clean. Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow.” Isaiah lays out the turn-around plan. He’s not berating the people. He’s teaching them.
So what can we pull from this? As Tisha B’Av reverberates through time, Isaiah’s vision from 2700 years ago is an echo of our own Ir n’tzurah, a city in trouble, whose most vulnerable are also in grave danger. Whose officials need to be called to account. Whose people know we are responsible for one another.
And this is a text of hope for us, too, because we have the chance to follow Isaiah’s turn-around plan. Even as there are so many cracks in our city and state, knowing one way we can make a difference, helps us transform our ir n’tzura, our so-called “city in trouble,” which we call New York State, to being an ir shalvah, a city of serenity, a city of sustenance, a city of solidarity.
There is a strategy afoot to transform our state in this way. I’ve learned that Make the Road and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice are working toward an Income Replacement Fund for Excluded Workers, the same kinds of funds that have helped us and other New Yorkers we love. So far, the legislature has failed to take action on this. But next Friday, we can learn more about the strategies to end this moment of hunger and impending homelessness, and act immediately, calling our legislators, who are in the position to change this. If you want to be part of that, you can sign up in two ways—we’re dropping the registration link into the chat now and will also send it out early next week in our weekly email (see below). Our Tisha B’Av observance, alongside our mourning the destruction of Black lives, will raise up this tragedy in our midst as well. We’re not the type to just sit here in the rubble.

At a time when some are being excluded, may we lean into inclusion. At a time when vulnerable bellies are hungry, may we act to change the story. In this unprecedented time of need, which is both ancient and urgent, may we hear echoes of the Prophet Isaiah and transform our ir n’tzurah into a city rebuilt.

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