Raining Tacos in Scrabble Land

CLACKAMAS, OREGON

“Jews don’t eat tacos.”

We were on the way to Oregon for a Labor Day weekend Scrabble tournament and I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse for my wife regarding why I am totally clueless when it comes to taco-eating etiquette. The depths of my ignorance in this particular realm is so deplorable that I can’t even manage to eat a fast food taco out of its wrapper without making an unholy mess all over the place. Shredded lettuce everywhere. Taco meat stains on my pants. Grease running down my chin onto my shirt.

My wife tried to tell me something about holding the taco by the wrapper on one end while taking bites from the other end and pushing the wrapper up as I go. This seems fine in theory, but I always seem to have trouble making allowances for the effects of gravity. And anyway, what am I supposed to do about the avocado shooting out of the top like some sort of perverse green lava while I’m trying to take dainty little nibbles out of the side?

The obvious reason that traditional Jews don’t eat tacos is that tacos have long been an integral part of the cuisine of Latin America, while most American Jews are of eastern European ancestry. I would no more expect tacos on the menu in Poland or Russia than I would expect kreplach, kugel and cholent to show up on the menu in Mexico. In other words, there is a cultural disconnect.

America, of course, is famous the world over for its cultural heterogeneity. While my forebears feared that the ocean crossing to the States would effectively obliterate all traces of our cultural identity in the bubbling American melting pot, the former assumption of assimilation eventually yielded to a celebration of multiculturalism. No one thinks it a bit odd to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or to go out for margaritas and enchiladas on Cinco de Mayo, even if we have lack any Irish or Mexican ancestry. Chinese, Thai and sushi restaurants are everywhere for all to enjoy. And yes, non-observant Jews do eat tacos.

However, I grew up in a kosher household in New York in the 1960s. I never even heard of a taco. There wasn’t a Taco Bell in every neighborhood. Our community had no Mexican restaurants. And who would even think of such a goyishe thing, anyway? Feh!

The result was a bit of culture shock when I transplanted myself to a heavily Mexican-American area of California’s Central Valley in the mid-1990s. Never mind that I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t even understand the minhag ha’makom, the cultural lingua franca. I embarrassed myself well and truly when I sheepishly admitted to not knowing what a tortilla was.

Even if traditional Judaism had not built bulwarks against the multicultural environment so prevalent in the United States, our religious proscriptions could never have tolerated the taco. Meat and cheese together? Hass v’shalom! You should wash your mouth out with soap! Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating meat and dairy products at the same meal, much less in the same tortilla. And who could even find a tortilla not made with lard? Remember, we don’t eat anything that comes from a pig.

Oh, how times have changed. Packaged tortillas bearing kosher certification are now available at your local supermarket. And thanks to the fake meat revolution spearheaded by industry leaders Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and the host of non-dairy cheeses now on grocery store shelves, it’s perfectly easy to prepare a respectable pareve (non-meat and non-dairy) taco that even vegans can enjoy. Inevitably, the fast food industry has begun to get on board this train.

Much has been written about the Beyond Burgers sold by Carls Jr. and the Impossible Burgers on the menu at Burger King. Could the taco be far behind? Not a chance. While Taco Bell seems to be holding out, competitor Del Taco has zoomed forward with its Beyond Meat tacos. The avocado version, which eschews the cheese, even claims to be vegan.

While no Orthodox Jew would be eating fast food of any kind, those of us raised in middle-of-the-road, suburban, Conservative Jewish kosher households now find it possible to join the crowd in indulging in fast food tacos. All of which brings me back to my dilemma: How are you supposed to eat the darned things without making an unholy mess? Put them on a plate and use a knife and fork? I remain clueless.

To make matters worse, I arrived at the Scrabble tournament in Oregon to learn that the entrance fee included lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Guess what was served at the first lunch? Someone was about to make a great big mess in front of his fellow competitors.

The night before the tournament, I had trouble sleeping. Not unusual for me when at out-of-town hotels. In bed, I picked up my phone and began perusing the day’s news. A story that caught my eye described a new tactic employed by the City of West Palm Beach, Florida to discourage homeless persons from sleeping on the lawn of one of the city-owned properties. All night long, the city blares from its speakers an endless music loop consisting of the children’s songs “Baby Shark” (doo doo doo doodoodoodoodoodoo) and “It’s Raining Tacos.” This tactic, known as “the weaponizing of sound,” has been roundly criticized by many.

My curiosity got the better of me. A song about tacos? This I had to hear. I pressed “play.”

Um, bad move.

Take my advice: Don’t do it. If you’re not familiar with this Parry Gripp ditty, you are better off remaining in blissful ignorance.

Okay, don’t listen to me. But don’t blame me when you can’t get this catchy tune out of your head for days. (Shell! Meat! Lettuce! Cheese! Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese!)

And whatever you do, try not to think of this song while you’re making an unholy mess eating tacos with several dozen fellow Scrabble fanatics. If you bob your head and start humming while you’re spewing shredded lettuce everywhere, someone is going to wonder what’s really in that water bottle.

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Sanctuary

I’ve been reading lately that President Trump has been considering transporting Central American immigrants from our southern border to so-called sanctuary cities and dropping them off there.  “They should be very happy,” Trump allegedly said, referring to those of us who believe that we should welcome those who seek refuge in our country.

Here in California, we appear to be at ground zero for this proposal.  Not only do we have plenty of asylum-seekers showing up at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, but former Governor Jerry Brown declared California to be a “sanctuary state.”  Furthermore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, my own home in Sacramento County, and ten other counties have declared themselves to be sanctuaries.  I am quite pleased with this.

My understanding of a sanctuary state, county or city is one that refuses to summarily turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds for deportation.  This humane treatment of immigrants who are already here is vastly different than opening the door to those who have not yet entered the United States.  I believe that our president is an intelligent man who understands the difference between the two, yet chooses to pretend otherwise for the purpose of creating maximum drama while seeking to emphasize his prejudice toward Latin American immigration.

Still, I say bring it on, Mr. President.

Those who belittle the fact that we care about our fellow man say that sanctuary cities should not expect any assistance from the federal government as we help our newest neighbors to establish a new life in our communities.  Fine.  All we ask is that you grant asylum to our brethren from the south so that they can lawfully obtain employment in the United States.  We’ll take it from there.

Some have suggested that our fellow Californians Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom should take in several immigrants to their gated mansions.  Ignoring the implicit sarcasm in such remarks, I actually think it’s a fine idea.  Let our leaders lead by example.  But if our elected officials choose to pass up this opportunity to show their mettle, no worries.  The rest of us will step up and set the example for them.

It’s no secret that we have plenty of jobs in California that are going unfilled.  It is difficult not to notice the “help wanted” signs in nearly every retail establishment.  There are so many physically taxing jobs, dirty jobs, low-paid jobs that American citizens don’t want to do.  Those who have walked more than a thousand miles to reach our borders, those who have spent their life savings to be transported here, those who have risked their health and their lives to make it to the United States, these are the immigrants seeking entry whose valiant efforts should be rewarded by a welcome with open arms and an opportunity to fill our vacancies and to become productive, tax-paying Americans.  As for those immigrants who become unable to work due to age or disability, we have state income maintenance benefits available to provide them with the basics of shelter and food.

Turning away those born elsewhere who are desperate to join us is un-American. How can our president say “turn around, America is full?”  We are not full!  To many throughout the world, the Statue of Liberty is a welcoming symbol of the United States.  The famous Emma Lazarus poem at its base says it all:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

So once again I say, bring it on, Mr. President.  You claim to be a Christian, so surely you can understand our welcoming position.  You know, that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself?

The Easter and Passover season has arrived, reminding us that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land, relying on the kindness and humanity of others.  Remember, faith without works is dead.  This is our chance to step up and show what we’re made of.  So let us swing open wide the doors of our churches, our synagogues, and our homes.

We’ve got you covered, Mr. President.  And you can count on us to do you proud.

 

 

We Are Squirrel Hill

I feel the need to say something about the horrific mass murder at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh that occurred during Shabbat services yesterday.  Unfortunately, anything I could possibly say will necessarily be inconsequential and, quite possibly, both insipid and stupid.  I simply don’t have the words to make it better.  All over the world, our hearts go out to the families left behind, to the congregants and to the community at large.  But thoughts and prayers, lovely as they are, don’t seem nearly enough.  Neither does the condemnation of the accused and his actions, as voiced by President Trump.

Our president, like many others, says that gun control is not the answer, despite the fact that the same high-powered weapons of war used by our military are readily accessible to anyone with a little cash.  In fact, some believe that more guns is the answer, suggesting that this tragedy could have been avoided by an armed security guard posted at the door to the synagogue.  As it is, the falling rate of participation in organized worship, combined with competition from other synagogues in the area, has necessitated renting space at Etz Chaim to three different congregations (all of which were conducting services at the time of the murders).  Considering what it takes to make operating the building viable in today’s world, where would the money come from to hire an armed guard?  The necessity of that expense may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a financial stress sufficient to close the building entirely, to cause it to be sold to buyers intending to use it for other purposes, leaving three congregations without a place of worship.  Indeed, most small congregations are unable to bear such an expense.  Then there’s the dampening effect on the spirit resulting from our admission that, no, we can no longer fling open the doors of our religious sanctuary to all who wish to worship God, and that, yes, we recognize that we live in a world of such madness that families worshipping together is no longer a safe act, that our Constitution’s first amendment is being held hostage by its second.

What I fear most is complacency, the acceptance born of numbness, the sentiment that “oh, it happened again,” followed by shoulder shrugging amidst the conclusion that the horrors of mass murder, whether motivated by hate or otherwise, are an unavoidable consequence of a free society.  It is out of self-preservation that most of us choose to think of more pleasant things, else how could we go on tending to the needs of our jobs, families and communities?  I know.  I was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook massacre of innocents, and yet here I am still writing, six years later.  Our very sanity would be in peril unless we put such nightmares out of our minds.  And soon enough we forget, at least until the next one occurs, and the next one, and the one after that. Except for the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the family members and friends.  They are the ones who are never able to forget.  The rest of us, however, throw up our hands and move on.  So is it really any wonder that bigots, racists, and assorted demented individuals continue to shoot up synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, workplaces, and music concerts?  There are days when I think that the primary reason they do it is because they can.

The answer, of course, is to make it so that they can’t.  When there are little children present who do not know right from wrong, we remove all dangerous objects from their reach.  The time has come to wake up and acknowledge that we no longer live in a rational society, that there are many children among us who, left to their own folly, will surely hurt themselves and others.  Congress needs to open its eyes and act in loco parentis and remove legal access to guns once and for all.  Otherwise, we can just forget about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a world where printing political cartoons in a newspaper gets your newsroom shot up, where speaking out on the issues leaves you riddled with bullets, and where attending Shabbat services to worship our Creator and fellowship with our communities ends in a bloodbath.  Before you vote in the midterms nine days from now, think about which candidates favor gun control and which candidates support the gun lobby and the prospect of more and more mass murders.

And so today, just as many carried signs and wore buttons announcing “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” three years ago, instead of murmuring thanks that it wasn’t our community that suffered this tragedy, instead of burying our heads in the sand, instead of hoping that we’re not next, we need to loudly announce “We are Squirrel Hill.”

For I am reasonably certain that if I lived in Pittsburgh instead of in California, I would have been present at one of the services at Etz Chaim on Saturday morning.  And I might not be here to write this.

 

 

The Tenth Man

I remember being four and five years old, walking down the hill with my grandfather on a Saturday morning from our Bronx apartment building to the little shtibl (one-room storefront synagogue) where he prayed regularly with a group of retired men.  Many of them would fuss over me, and I knew there’d be sweet treats (honey cake and grape juice) waiting for me if I could only hold out and not fidget too much until the end of the seemingly interminable service.  It was such a relief when I would hear the sweet strains of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu that meant that we were nearly done.

Around the middle of the service, one of the men would solemnly take the Torah out of its ark, raise it up while everyone sang, and then set it down on the podium.  The cloth covering would be removed, the string would be untied, and the Torah would be unrolled to the proper place for reading that week’s portion of the Pentateuch.

What everyone knew is that there’d be no Torah reading unless a minyan, a quorum of ten men, was present.  Being under bar mitzvah age, I didn’t count.  Neither did the few old ladies who would show up and sit behind the mekhitzah (curtain) in the back.  It seemed we always had enough in attendance to do a proper Torah reading.

But that was in New York City, half a century ago.  Today, in northern California, there is no guarantee of a minyan.  In the synagogue that my elderly parents attended for about 20 years (they stopped going about a year ago), whether there would be a minyan or not on Shabbat (or, sad to say, even on a holiday) was a decidedly hit-or-miss affair.  My father, who has a marked antipathy to religion of any type, would chauffeur my mother to synagogue with the intent of heading to the public library for a few hours.  Inevitably, the rabbi’s son would come running out of the sanctuary, tzitzit (prayer fringes) flying, to implore my father to stay and make the tenth man needed for the minyan.

Orthodox Jews tend to take the rule of ten very seriously.  I believe the origin of the tradition is that ten men are considered representative of the community as a whole.  The Jewish jokes about this are legendary.

Of course, it’s not just any ten men who must be present to read from the Torah.  They must be ten Jewish men.  (My personal preference tends toward the modern egalitarian practices of many Conservative congregations, where both women and men count toward the minyan.)  And just what constitutes a Jewish man?  Well, traditionally the answer to this question involves far more than faith and practice.  A man is considered Jewish if his mother was Jewish.  I suppose fathers don’t count because the child develops and comes forth from the womb of the mother.  But what if your mother had a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom?  Then you’re not Jewish, at least according to Orthodox tradition.  So determining whether a minyan is or is not present may involve inquiries into the provenance of the tenth man’s grandparents.

I suppose the emphasis on pedigree arises from our heritage as the “children of Israel.”  Either you’re descended from the tribe or you’re not.  This has caused a lot of trouble for those of us who were born into other faiths, or into no faith, and later convert to Judaism.  It seems to me that those who wholeheartedly embrace our traditions should be counted as full members of our religious community.  In some places they do (many Reformed congregations, for instance), while in others, they don’t.  The disputes about converts that go on in some of the Conservative movement synagogues that I’ve attended remind me of the way many Christian churches tear themselves apart over whether to accept gays as full members of the congregation.

I started thinking about this topic earlier in the week when President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would (eventually) move our embassy there.  My first reaction was “it’s about time.”  But I had to laugh, as Jerusalem has been the capital off Israel for millennia.  Trump deciding that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is a bit like me declaring that Cheerios is a cereal.  It really doesn’t matter what we think.  Some things are just facts.

I’m sorry to see on the news that violence has broken out in Israel over the United States’ recognition of what has always been true.  Perhaps it is just another excuse to demonstrate ancient animosities among religious groups that are neighbors in the Middle East.  Yet I don’t see such garrulousness as an excuse to perpetuate a lie.  Tel-Aviv has never been the capital of Israel.  I heard a comment on TV that Tel-Aviv is “a lot more fun” than Jerusalem.  Perhaps Tel-Aviv is the industrial and technological hub of Israel, and perhaps its nightlife is better than Jerusalem’s.  But that doesn’t make Tel-Aviv any more the capital of Israel than it makes Portland the capital of Oregon or of Maine.

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins this week.  Just as recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has touched off partisan bickering in the Holy Land, so has it been in our own capital of Washington.  President Trump was in attendance at the annual White House Hanukkah party this week, to which Democrats and others opposing his policies were not invited.  Latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes) were served, of course, along with kosher lamb chops (apparently an annual White House tradition since 1996).  The party was held the day after Trump’s proclamation regarding Jerusalem.  There was an after-party at the Trump International Hotel (more latkes, more Republicans, salmon, caviar), at which the president received even more congratulations.

I had a good smirk when the New York Times article about Trump’s Hanukkah celebrations mentioned that the president’s grandchildren are Jewish.  Oh, really?  Not by Orthodox standards, certainly.  True, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is Jewish.  But Trump himself is Christian, and his daughter was raised as a Presbyterian.  Although Ivanka has converted to Orthodox Judaism and is far more observant than I, that won’t be enough for many congregations to recognize her kids as genuine members of the clan.

When it comes time to read the Torah, either son of Jared and Ivanka shouldn’t be too surprised if name dropping “my grandpa, the president” isn’t enough to make him the tenth man.  And that sort of clannish, non-inclusiveness seems rather sad to me.

We need to find more reasons to bring us together, not more reasons to drive artificial wedges between us.  I pray at this Hanukkah season that the people of Israel, and those who profess to be Jewish around the world, will find it in their hearts to renounce the evils of divisiveness and embrace the spirit of acceptance and love.

 

Not My Idea of Religion

Church Demonstration

The scene outside Victory Baptist in Sacramento last night

The Sacramento Kings basketball team has unveiled its new purple jerseys, featuring the logo “Sacramento Proud.”  Today, however, I am not proud to be a Sacramentan.

Right on our doorstep, the minister of a purportedly Christian church delivered a mean-spirited, hate-filled sermon on Sunday, in which he insisted that we should not be “sad or upset” about the mass murder at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  In his depraved mind, this horror was very much in line with Old and New Testament verses that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals.  When the Sacramento Bee interviewed Verity Baptist Church Pastor Roger Jimenez at home, he confirmed his pulpit remarks stating “all I’m saying is that when people die who deserve to die, it’s not a tragedy.”  He cited passages in Leviticus and Romans to back up his claims.

I looked up the address of the church on our way home from work this evening so that we could drive by.  (I was horrified to discover that some miscreant who apparently believes that two eir wrongs make a right had changed the Google label to read “Verity Satan Church.”)  It was located in a boring, cookie-cutter industrial park, where we saw close to 100 protesters demonstrating in front of the church with rainbow and American flags.  News crews and sheriff’s deputies were on the scene.  While I do hope that the church’s service was not disrupted this evening, I was pleased to see that more than a few local residents took time out of their busy schedules to register their disapproval in a public manner.

While I remain incredulous that anyone characterizing himself as a man of God could suggest that we not mourn the loss of our fellow man, I am heartened by the fact that his warped dogma is a very minority view.  I simply cannot allow myself to believe that many others surreptitiously subscribe to this brand of hate.  I always thought that God = Love.  God approving of murder?  That’s certainly not my idea of religion.

 

 

Eliminating Homelessness is Possible

I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank Shannon of Dirt ‘N Kids and Janon for their kind and insightful comments on last week’s post about paths toward ending homelessness and Utah’s successes in this regard.

I can summarize my thoughts on your responses in three general statements:

  • Yes, it’s all about money.
  • It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.
  • You have to start somewhere.

Yes, it’s all about money.

Some say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I would add “poverty” to that short list.  As a man who unabashedly worships God, I think of the following Bible verse:  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”  Deut. 15:11 (JPS)  The dual lessons here are:

  1. There is no such thing as “eliminating homelessness,” despite the appeal of the phrase as a sound bite. Even if it is possible to assure that those who are taken off the streets are provided with homes for the remainder of their lives, there will always be more individuals and families who will fall into homelessness due to the effects of the economy, mental illness and substance abuse.
  2. As homelessness is an ongoing issue, beating it back will require ongoing infusions of money. Even if we were collectively committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over his or her head, that commitment must continue among those who come after us or we will quickly find ourselves right back where we started.  The Biblical command to “open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” is an edict for all time.

Shannon, you are right to be concerned about taxes and utilities.  These are part and parcel of the costs of housing and must be covered by the public-private partnership that secured the house, apartment or single occupancy unit in the first place, as was done in Utah.  In terms of taxes, essentially the municipality must be willing to forgo the income that could otherwise have been collected on these units.  The loss of revenue is but a tiny fraction of the public funds that would have been expended on the individuals involved had they remained homeless.

You also ask about rules for sharing with others, medical requirements, hygiene and general cleanliness.  While all of these concerns make perfect sense to me, in the big picture none of them matter.  The philosophy in Utah is that when the keys are handed over, the newly homed individual essentially has free reign.  The home is treated as a gift of unconditional love, no strings attached.  The result of this is that there were a few cases in which the residence was totally destroyed and/or the beneficiary violated the law and ended up in custody.  This is why, in Salt Lake City, some of the homeless who were unlikely to be able to live successfully in an unsupervised environment were sheltered in single occupancy rooms in a location where they can be checked up on daily and where critical mental health and substance abuse prevention services are available on site.  As to the extremely rare cases in which the residence was trashed, I read that the individual was provided needed services and then given yet another home.  While the agape love nature of such actions is delightful to see, those are the situations that make everyone nervous due to the very real potential for negative press and public backlash that could bring the entire endeavor tumbling down like a house of cards.  Each time something like that comes up is a moment of collective breath holding accompanied by hope that the public realizes that, as the Jackson 5 sang back in the days of my youth, “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole wide world.”

Finally, Shannon, you asked about food.  This was handled in a number of different ways, and I regret that your wonderful idea of a community garden was never mentioned in the articles I read (I am definitely a fan of your “lasagna” worm fertilization technique).  Some of the newly homed are receiving job training and job search assistance in an effort to get them back onto their feet financially.  Many others were helped to apply for Food Stamps.  Finally, in some locations, such as the single room occupancy facilities, the local food bank made regular deliveries to the residents.

Janon, you incisively point out that “a Housing First program in a large city would require a large line item in the city’s budget directly associated with the program, and it will always be a target for cuts.”  As I mentioned above, the difference between a temporary fix and a permanent solution will be whether those who come after us remain committed to the same goals and are willing to fund them.  Ironically, when times are bad and programs are slashed to accommodate the shrinking public fisc, that is exactly when an increasing number of people are in danger of becoming homeless if homes are not provided.  This is why layers upon layers of protection are needed, not unlike Shannon’s worm composting program.  Housing First must be a joint effort of federal, state and municipal governments, religious organizations (like Loaves and Fishes here in Sacramento) and private philanthropy.  Like an extended family in which various members step in to help in different roles depending on what is required at the moment, each of these parts must be willing to step up when another falters.

It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.

Last week, I wrote about Henry and a few of the other homeless people with whom we have recently had contact in this area.  They all have stories to tell, although not all of them are willing (or able) to tell those stories.  They all had mothers and fathers once; few were born homeless.  Homelessness, like so many things, exists at the intersection of chance and choice.  Many homeless individuals never really had a chance, having suffered through horrible childhoods and turbulent adolescences that saw them tossed out to the vagaries of the four winds at an early age.  I am fond of noting that mental illness seems inevitable among the homeless, including those who weren’t mentally ill when they first hit the streets.  A few years of being assaulted, arrested, robbed, starved, exposed to the elements and subject to the disdain of nearly everyone would be enough to catapult nearly anyone into abyss of mental illness.

As I pointed out in my post about Henry, rapidly gobbling down any food that comes your way is a common behavioral pattern among the homeless.  If you haven’t eaten in a while, I can’t reasonably expect you to observe Emily Post table manners and to say grace before chowing down.  If you don’t eat it all immediately, it will likely be stolen from you.  And, as if that weren’t enough, competing with you in your panhandling endeavors are those who are no more homeless than I am, but choose to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a bit of fakery to see whether they can get something for nothing.  For those of us who would help the homeless, we are left with the difficulty of distinguishing between the truly homeless and the charlatans.  If we don’t want to “go there,” we can simply help anyone who asks (within the extent of our resources) without making judgment, or, more commonly, can resort to averting our eyes and helping no one.

The latter option is perennially tempting to government, as the cost of social services staff and programs to determine who is “deserving” of assistance can run nearly as much as providing that assistance does.  And when it comes to local governments, state legislatures and, yes, Congress, deciding whom to help, there are always Tea Party Republicans and naysayers back home in the district to provide ample chastisement about the waste of public funds.  After all, how appealing is it to spend money on an intractable problem?  Tomorrow, there will be more people who need to be helped, even apart from those “just looking for a handout.”

This is why it is imperative that those whom we elect to serve us remember that it is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.  Those of us who care need to write and call our legislators and testify before legislative and Congressional committees to let our representatives know that we are not blind to the suffering that is occurring all around us.  While we are limited as to what we can do as individuals, together we can move mountains.  Ending homelessness is not an election campaign issue or a line item in a budget.  It is forging a path through the rhetoric to put roofs over the heads of our neighbors who freeze, burn and are soaked from sleeping outdoors and show up at hospitals with hypothermia and pneumonia.  These are the people who are routinely abused, assaulted and killed as if they were some kind of trash rather than someone’s son, daughter, mother, father.

The biggest mistake of all is thinking that it can’t happen to you.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

You have to start somewhere.

The jaded among us say that every public program, every act of generosity done by a church or an individual, is flawed (and likely motivated by some hidden agenda, as well).  Some of the “undeserving” will be the beneficiaries of our largesse along with those who are “truly deserving.”  This line of thinking is rather sad.  Those of us who attempt to walk in the path of God know that every act of kindness is perfect.  As your mother told you when you were little, it truly is the thought that counts.

While we’re on mothers, another thing that they like to say is “little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems.”  As Janon astutely points out, the same is true of municipalities.  It is a lot easier for a state with a relatively small population, such as Utah, to erase homelessness than it is for a more a populous place to do so.  I was recently pleased to read that Medicine Hat, Alberta is the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness.  Then again, Wikipedia tells me that Medicine Hat has a population of just 61,180.  This is a far cry from such populous places as Los Angeles and California.  (On a side note, one might think that Canada, with its socialist-oriented policies, would not have much homelessness.  Anyone who reads Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, on a regular basis knows that this is anything but true.)

One thing to consider is economies of scale.  First, large scale operations cost considerably less to operate on a per capita basis than smaller operations do.  Second, populous cities and states have larger tax bases than less populous places do.  There are more businesses and more people paying property and income taxes.  Generally, there are more churches and other charitable organizations in the area.  And hopefully, there are more philanthropic minded individuals available to assist than there would be in a more rural or remote area.

In places like California, where there are so many in need, the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable.  Providing housing for all of our homeless may seem an impossible dream.  Fortunately, Housing First is a big dream that is turning into reality.  However, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment.  It can’t be done alone or by just a few, and it can’t be done in a day.  It takes the collective will.

We will never be able to convince all the naysayers that housing the homeless is a just cause, and we will always contend with competing priorities for limited resources.  But that doesn’t give us license to sit on our rears, turn the other way and do nothing.  We have to start somewhere.

As the Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

My Nephew, the Atheist

Apparently, my nephew is an atheist.

My sister informed me of this on the phone this evening, by way of explanation of why her adult son doesn’t want to attend a Passover Seder with her.  She says he doesn’t believe in God because he was “raised in science.”  I suppose this has something to do with having a father who is a computer engineer and a mother who was a biology major in college and now works in health care.  Still, he attended Hebrew school and had one of the coolest bar mitzvahs I have ever attended.  When my niece and nephew were kids, I spent countless Passovers and Rosh Hashannahs with them, attending synagogue and eating festive meals.

Regardless of how you were raised, I suppose you come to a time in your life when you have to decide matters of conscience for yourself.

My mother says my father is an atheist, but Dad denies it.  He says he doesn’t believe in an old man with a long white beard throwing down lightning bolts upon sinners, but that he does believe there must be some type of higher power.  He just has no idea what that might be.  Still, one would be excused for thinking him an atheist, as he claims to loathe religion, which he cites as the cause of most of the world’s problems.

One of these days, I’ll have to make a point of asking my nephew whether he’s really an atheist.  While having no need to follow the tenets of any faith may seem nominally liberating, I think it must be rather difficult explaining to others the absence of God in one’s life.  It’s one thing to have members of other faiths thinking that you’re going to hell for your beliefs.  That’s par for the course.  When you’re an atheist, however, I would assume that every faith would think you’re a sinner and a lost cause.

Of course, there is no need to explain one’s beliefs to anyone.  Many people of a variety of faiths or of no faith choose to keep their beliefs to themselves.  After all, it’s really no one else’s business.

While it is not necessary to believe in God to have your heart in the right place, to do things like helping the less fortunate and being active in one’s community, I find that it does help.  Although we all manage to justify whatever it is that we want to do, I suspect that it’s a little harder to stray off the straight and narrow when you know you’re being judged by the Divine and will have to answer to Him.  Personally, I find God to be a centering experience in my life, a means of reminding myself of what it’s all about.  And while I’ve known too many people without God in their lives who engage in repetitive destructive behaviors, there are plenty of believers who do this as well.

At least if I go wrong, I know that I’ll be able to ask God for forgiveness.  Real contrition, at least to me, doesn’t happen in a confessional.  It happens when you recognize the error of your ways, vow to take a different path, and follow it up with action toward living a more upright life.

Praying is great, and I do it daily, but I believe that it has limited value if you don’t “put feet on your prayers.”  It’s not enough to talk the talk; you also have to walk the walk.  We’ve all known those whose credo seems to be “church on Sunday, business as usual on Monday.”

Among my saddest experiences was the time I encouraged a coworker to attend religious services with me, but he refused due to his believe that God hates gays.  He obviously didn’t know God very well.  God doesn’t trade in hate, only in love.  If a particular house of worship doesn’t want your presence due to your sexual orientation, that means that the hearts of those involved are in the wrong place.  It has nothing to do with God.

But I can certainly see how those who feel rejected by churchgoers, or who feel that they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal all their lives or who feel that their prayers were never answered might deny the existence of God and consider themselves atheists.

Some atheists might believe that I am indulging in self-delusion by placing my faith in God.  They may find that believing in God is illogical and fails the test of science.  I wonder whether my nephew truly feels this way, or whether he is confusing God with religion.  Every religion has certain precepts that might be difficult for the modern man or woman to believe.  The faithful have all types of explanations for such things, but I fail to see why one must equate the rejection of dogma with the rejection of God Himself.

Ultimately, people come to God (or not) on their own terms.  Finding faith often requires just the right combination of life experiences.  I hope that, as my nephew makes his way through his young adulthood, he eventually finds his way back to the joy that I associate with faith in God.

I’d hate for him to miss out on that.