Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
Tikkun Ha-Ir mulls poverty and a Jewish response
March 10th, 2006
How can it be that Milwaukee has the seventh highest rate of impoverished people of all U.S. major cities, and the fourth highest rate of child poverty?
How can it be that Wisconsin, which is an exporter of food, has a population of people who go to bed hungry every night?
How can it be that these conditions exist when a look at the assets of local charitable foundations contain so much money that not a single need could not be met from them, according to Howard Karsh, community activist and one of the founders of the Jewish Community Pantry?
And how can it be that so many people have contempt for those who suffer poverty?
About 25 people met to ponder these questions and more at the March Brunch n Learn program of Tikkun Ha-Ir (Repair of the City) of Milwaukee, held Sunday morning at Congregation Beth Israel.
After a brief introduction by Tikkun Ha-Ir executive director Judy Baruch, who served as moderator, Jody Hirsh, Judaic educator of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, led the group in a guided chevruta study session.
The most important thing a religion can explain, or attempt to explain, he said, is why we live in a world in which the righteous suffer, and evil flourishes. Every religion has something to say about that.
He presented to the group several excerpts from Jewish literature about issues related to poverty; and provided questions for them to discuss covering such topics as To what extent do you consider people to be at fault for their poverty or other problems?
To what extent do you hold society (the system) responsible for poverty and other problems?
In response to an observation from a participant that sometimes poor people are at fault for their poverty, Hirsh said, There definitely are people who make mistakes, some constantly. But that does not mean that we cant be compassionate to their suffering, he said.
No simple answers
Karsh, the second featured speaker on the program, shared what he called impressions from his 35 years in the volunteering business.
That included his work for the Jewish Community Pantry, presently located at 34th and Villard, which serves more than 100 families a week, but which still needs a permanent site on a bus line and in an area that is volunteer-friendly, he said.
It is difficult for me to tell you that there is a simple answer to the problem of hunger, Karsh said. The problem is complex, and the people who are hungry are complex.
He said peoples attitudes to impoverished and hungry people may be determined by classifications of the cause of their conditions, including:
Victims of natural disasters, who are the easiest for us to deal with.
Victims of human-made conditions or actions, like war or crime. We can be sympathetic, but its easier the further away they are.
People who are disabled in some way, the walking wounded, who constitute some 90 percent of homeless people, according to Karsh. Weve learned to tolerate that, he said.
People who are underemployed.
The real poor.
Members of each of these groups demand different things from us, Karsh said. We are challenged by our own circumstances and we are challenged by their challenges.
But, he said, he has run into many instances of contempt for the poor that have interfered with efforts to give help. There is an element in each of us that looks at [impoverished people] as we look at ourselves, Karsh said.
If people who live reasonably well think they themselves are totally or mostly responsible for their relative prosperity, they may respond with contempt, while those who think it is up to God who has and who doesnt are likely to have different attitudes, Karsh said.
In addition, Kevin Ronnie, an organizer for the Hunger Task Force, spoke about his organizations work to help people experiencing crisis today and to eliminate hunger tomorrow.
Among other efforts, he said the HTF has worked with the Milwaukee Public Schools to offer a free meal program there. This is needed because some 82 percent of the students there are eligible for free or reduced cost lunch, he said.
But the organization cant create such efforts or persuade government officials by itself, Ronnie said, but must work in concert with people like you.
Baruch announced that the next Brunch n Learn program will take place on Sunday, June 4, at Congregation Emanu-El Bne Jeshurun, and its topic will be Strangers at Our Gates. For more information, call 414-444-3750.