The Battle Against Poverty Must Be Communal Priority No. 1

Different interpretations abound but, unexplained, there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between two sentences, one from the New Testament (Matthew 26:11) — "The poor you will always have with you," the other from Deuteronomy (15:4), "There will not be any poor among you."

Odds are that most people would accept the first of these as a sensible observation, the second as a reasonable goal.

These days — days of foreclosures and of imminent recession — the persistence of poverty is inescapable. Talk about our failure to invest adequately in America's infrastructure: Is there a more important ingredient of that infrastructure than our human capital, our people — their health, their educational opportunity, their sense of dignity?

To say "there will not be any poor among you" seems to be of a piece with saying "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, neither shall they learn war any more."

So, even as a goal, let alone as a prediction, the ending of poverty seems a futile pursuit.

There was a time in American history when Jews were, and were widely perceived to be, devoted to the eradication of poverty. Lately, it has become fashionable to suggest that, at long last, our prosperity has caught up with us, that we have abandoned our historic concern and tradition, that we have finally become not merely rich but also comfortable.

And some of us have. But the growing evidence strongly suggests that the obituary for the Jewish passion for justice is wildly premature; it appears that Jewish activism is on the rise, not on the decline.

The list of local Jewish organizations that have moved boldly on such issues as health care and workers' rights is long and growing longer. So, too, the list of Jewish foundations that have chosen to focus their philanthropy on poverty. Nationally, American Jewish World Service, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, Jewish Funds for Justice and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — and others, too — are visible and vital advocates and organizers. Their vitality can be measured by their aggregate budget — for just these four, more than $40 million last year — or by their activities.

This week, as the Jewish Center for Public Affairs annual convention meets in Atlanta, this 64-year-old umbrella organization, which includes 14 national and 125 local agencies, warrants special attention because of its new and ongoing initiative, "There Shall Be No Needy Among You."

There are those in the community who think it is no business of Jews as Jews to engage in the kind of advocacy and action that JCPA endorses and urges upon its member organizations. That, evidently, has not deterred JCPA. Specifically, it has already issued, both on its own and in coalition with other faith-based communities, a stinging critique of President Bush's proposed fiscal 2009 budget, arguing persuasively that the federal budget is not only about fiscal policies but about moral priorities, and that the president's proposal is, viewed as a moral document, sub-prime.

What distinguishes the JCPA effort is its approach to getting "buy-in" from local communities. Instead of the typical top-down dissemination of recommendations, JCPA has created what it calls "issue clusters," including working groups on hunger and food insecurity, affordable housing, health care, education and public health. This comes as close to a national grass-roots effort as we've seen in some time, and is a significant refutation of the idea that America's Jews are drop-outs in the ongoing struggle for social justice.

Maybe the poor will nonetheless always be with us. But the struggle persists. It is, in the end, a struggle for human dignity.

Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.


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