Parashat B’midbar – Being Counted

There’s an old expression from the great city of Chicago – vote early and vote often.   The first part of the saying is good advice.  We actually have a similar idea in Judaism.  We should be so excited to do a mitzvah that we do it first thing – early in the day; this is why brises are often done in the morning.  The second part of this saying is obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to the corrupt practice of voter fraud, for as we know so well, every person is entitled to one vote and one vote only.

On Tuesday, many of us went to the polls to vote for elected officials and to have our voice heard.  Voting, the lynch pin of the democratic process, allows all of us, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or anything to else, to be counted.   Each one of us counts equally; one person, one vote; no more, no less.

In this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, we learn about the census taken of the Israelites.  Each Israelite, regardless of tribe or station was counted.  According to tradition in order to be counted, each person contributed one half shekel (the smallest unit of currency); no more, no less; one person, one half-shekel.

Sadly, we find in today’s world, not everyone is counted equally.  We see this inequality especially in our public schools.  In a recent study commissioned by P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), our multi-faith community organizing group, we found a shocking disparity in funding between predominately African-American school districts and predominantly White school districts of similar socio-economic level.  Just to be clear here, school districts across the state that are mostly made up of African-American students almost always receive less state funding than similarly wealthy school districts where most of the children are white.

As we of course know, correlation does not equal causation and I am not saying that there is some sort of evil plan by our great commonwealth to underfund African-American school districts.  What I am saying is that we have a serious school funding crisis that goes against our very moral backbone as Jews.  The census from this week’s portion reminds us that all were counted equally.

Going back a little farther, we are told in Genesis that all people were created “b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God,” in order that we remember that we are all equal and we all have God’s holiness inside of us.

There is some good news, though.  In this most recent election cycle, many pro-education voices were elected.  This is not by accident.  P.O.W.E.R., along with our allies, has been working to make education the foremost issue of the past two election cycles.  Members from this congregation and others across the state made over 180,000 phone calls and door knocks.  However, this is not the time to rest on our laurels.

I recently read a post on Facebook, from one of the parents in our synagogue who is an active supporter of education funding in Pennsylvania.  She wrote, “Hoping that everyone realizes that electing strong education voices doesn’t give us a pass to sit on the couch for the next four years. They will need our help!”

In our democratic system, it is not enough to simple vote.  If we truly want to be counted, we have to amplify our voices.  We have to hold our elected officials accountable.

On Saturday June 20th, I will be leading a group from Rodeph Shalom to Harrisburg to pray outside the state capitol as part of a large action coordinated by P.O.W.E.R.  June 20th will mark the beginning of a 10 day fast leading up to the state budget deadline of June 30th.  For 10 days, members of P.O.W.E.R., parents, students and teachers will camp outside the capital building fasting for a full fair funding formula.

You all remember the Purim story from the Book of Esther.  The people were facing certain death at the hand of the evil Haman (boooo!) and Esther was asked by her uncle Mordechai to go before the king to plead on behalf of her people.  She was in a very difficult situation as one doesn’t just go uninvited before the king to make a request.  This type of action could have meant certain death for Esther.  But she was brave and chose to go nonetheless.  However, she did not go alone.  She asked her people to fast and pray on her behalf.  Strengthened by the support of her community, Esther went before the king and pleaded her case.  He listened to her and agreed to give her whatever she wanted.

Like Esther, leaders from our community and others will be meeting with key decision makers in Harrisburg to plead the case for funding our schools.  We can support them.  We have already had 27 unique visits with legislators from the across the state and plan to meet with many more over the coming weeks.  Please consider joining me on June 20th to ensure that your voice and the voice of all our children are heard.  We need to be counted.

In the haftarah to this week’s Torah portion, from the book of Hosea, we read, “the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered.”  This phrase has led to a tradition where we do not count Jews.  When checking if we have enough Jewish adults for a minyan, the 10 people required for a prayer service, rather than count, one, two, three… our tradition teaches that we should instead use a phrase with 10 words like, “ma tovu ohalecha…”

Although this practice may seem a little silly, the idea of “not counting people” has a much deeper meaning.  When we count people, we make them into objects.  We know this all too well from the ways the Nazi’s dehumanized the Jews of Europe by inscribing numbers into their arms and turning them into just a statistic without a name, a family, a story, a life.

The fight for a full fair funding formula is personal. I can stand here and give you statistics like Philadelphia spends less per student than Detroit.  But we are talking about real people here.  Each one of those numbers represents an actual child, a teacher or guidance counselor or nurse or school librarian.  One of our congregants, Arden Kass, created a documentary theatre play called, “School Play.”  She interviewed over 100 citizens in our commonwealth to create a narrative about the state of public education in Pennsylvania and the need to motivate everyone demand a fair and reliable funding formula.

The script is available on-line for free so people can do pop up performances in spaces outside of theaters; in fact on June 11th, there will be a ten-minute pop up readings at City Hall. By humanizing the message and the facts via real peoples’ stories, we make this issue infinitely more relatable and meaningful to audiences who may not have kids in the public school system, or may not understand why and how a dysfunctional education system affects every person living in our state.

“School Play” is the story of people like Marlene Goebich, a high school drama teacher, who works multiple jobs to make ends meet and uses her own money to make sure her students have the materials they need:
Do I feel appreciated, by the kids, yes. By the larger district, not at all, no.  I’m a cog in the machine. If I fell over then some other cog would replace me.  Like I can’t imagine that the Superintendent wakes up at night and worries that I have paper or I have to run off a test. I’m sure he doesn’t worry.

Or he doesn’t worry like Like – we’re in a costume room, I could walk around the costume room, and what I’ve paid for – most of what is in this room because that’s where it comes from.  And, did we make enough money to reimburse me, well if we do we do, and if we don’t whatever, it’s what it is.

I have 3 jobs.  My other job is I’m a waitress/bartender for private party service and — I’m embarrassed. (laughs) And the other one is I do taxes in the off- season.  And oh, and then my fourth job I guess like – in the summer it depends, some years I’m um a delivery driver for Primo’s Hoagies.  Sometimes I’m a waitress.  Depends.

I have a doctorate In education.  Education and with a specialty in creativity and theatre.  And I have 4 jobs to support my job.  So, I’m single.  I spend five six thousand dollars a year, that’s like cash for supplies.  Yeah.

Can you imagine telling a lawyer bring your own paper?


School play also tells the story of students like Yvonne, who despite all odds find a way to persevere.
The way, I am – I don’t know — I was born an optimist!

So like when people are like – what will you plan on doing in college I’m like

I’m gonna major in theatre. Well theatre won’t make you any money, well I’ll major in theatre, and minor in entrepreneurship, because even if I don’t um – become this famous actress or choreographer, I’ll just probably open up my own business, that has something to do with the arts. So – how I kinda look at it – people like to refer to things as plan a, plan b. And the way my mindset is “If plan a doesn’t work, there are 25 other letters in the alphabet!”

School funding is a moral issue where we must speak up and be counted.  When we vote, and when we are counted for a census, we count only once.  But when we come together, across lines of race, faith, geography and wealth, our single voice is amplified.  Let us pledge to be truly counted.  Let us pledge to have our collective voice heard by our elected officials.  Let us demand a full fair funding formula so that all Yvonne and Marlene and so many others will be more than just another statistic, more than just a number.

Shabbat Shalom