Addressing Poverty & Humger

From Rabbi Kuhn
A recent study found that Philadelphia has the highest rate of “deep poverty” – people with incomes below half the poverty line – of any of the nations 10 most populous cities (Philadelphia Inquirer and Temple University Sociologist David Elesh analysis of the U.S. Census American Community survey, Inquirer article March 19, 2013).  The study found that Philadelphia’s “deep poverty” rate (individuals living at half the poverty line of $5,700 per year – or a family of 4 of $11,700) is around 12.9%, or 200,000 people. As Jews, we should be troubled by these distressing statistics, and we should be moved to act to solve the problems of poverty and hunger.
In this week’s Torah portion (beginning this Shabbat April 19-20) “K’doshim” (Lev. 19:9-10), we are commanded: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest.  You shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of our vineyard.  You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger.  I am Adonai, your God.”
These profoundly important words form the very foundation for the Jewish concept of helping people less fortunate.  This commandment is intended not only for our ancestors in ancient times, but also ourselves.
But you may be thinking that you are not a farmer, and you do not have any corners of your fields.  But I would like to offer a contemporary definition of “the corners of your fields,” and an April, 2013 understanding of the word “gleanings.”
What are our fields today?  Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and fold down the corners of the bill.  Those are the corners of your field.  You may support a hunger relief agency, such as Philabundance, with a financial contribution.
What are your gleanings today?  You may participate in food drives by donating non-perishable food items to local food pantries.  Our congregation collects thousands of pounds of food during the High Holy Days.  You may bring non-perishable food items to Rodeph Shalom any time, and we will get it to a local food pantry to help alleviate hunger.
Every time you go to the grocery store, pick up one extra can of vegetables or fruit, bottle of fruit juice or box of pasta, and bring it to Rodeph Shalom.  These are the gleanings of your field in 2013.
Food poverty is a serious problem in Philadelphia, even within blocks of Rodeph Shalom.  We are privileged to work with the Spring Garden Elementary School in our own neighborhood.  Mrs. Laureal Robinson, the wonderful principal of the school, told us that many of the children come to school hungry and live in abject poverty.  We must help the people in our own neighborhood.
Recently, our entire staff at Rodeph Shalom took a “day of service” by volunteering at Philabundance.  All of our clergy, senior staff, office and maintenance staff drove to the Philabundance food service center in South Philadelphia (see pictures below) and worked in their warehouse packing cartons full of non-perishable food items.  We packed 36,000 pounds of food into 1,200 cartons, which were then delivered to food distribution centers and donated to the poor and hungry.
These are the corners of our field.  These are our gleanings.
Solving the root causes that lead to hunger and poverty is an incredibly complex problem.  Long-term solutions require improving the economy so more people can find decent jobs which pay a living wage.  Long-term solutions also involve solving the broken public education system in our nation.  The only path to a good job is through education and training.
But until our nation can come to grips with our chronic economic problems, there is an urgent need for us to provide emergency help to those in need.  Our congregation can be especially effective in helping to provide access to emergency food for those who need it.  We find Philabundance to be an excellent partner, as they are geared up to distribute food to neighborhood food banks.  Last year, they distributed 19 million pounds of food to the poor and hungry throughout the Philadelphia region.
We also have a partnership with Phil Stober, the farmer who provides our food for our Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) effort. (You may have seen him speak eloquently at the Mark Bittman event.) Our congregation will travel to Phil’s farm in Lancaster County, and literally harvest the gleanings of his field and deliver the food to the hungry and the poor.  I hope you will join us.
Let us heed the ancient Jewish obligation to help the poor.  Let us work together to alleviate hunger.  Let this be our theme for the year, and let this be at the very heart of who we are as a congregation.
These are the corners of our fields.  These are our gleanings.
Bill Kuhn