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Restoring a Moral Agenda to America: The Poor People’s Campaign

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

“G-d said to Job, ‘Which would you prefer—poverty or suffering?’ Job responded, ‘Master of the Universe! I will take all of the sufferings in the world as long as I don’t become poor, for if I go to the marketplace and don’t have any money to buy food, what will I eat?’ This shows that poverty is worse than all of the other sufferings in the world.”

(Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12)

Our beloved country once epitomized freedoms and possibilities which almost all the world sought to emulate. Now we are suffering a moral breakdown. Because of what passes for “breaking news”, 11-year olds can tell you the names of porn stars and what “NDA” means, while PhD’s are ignorant about the conditions of fellow citizens living in misery just a neighborhood or two away.

According to US Census data, almost half of our population is poor or low income, and 15 percent (45 million people) live below the poverty line. With one-in-five American children living below that line, we have the highest child poverty rate in the developed world. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number one reason for personal bankruptcy in the US is not self-indulgence, but medical debt.

In this assault on human dignity, economic injustice is joined by racism and militarism. Hugely disproportionate percentages of those who are poor, near poor, “nutritionally-deprived”, medically uninsured, homeless, victims of voter suppression, and incarcerated are people of color. Meanwhile, 53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to military spending while 15 cents are spent on anti-poverty programs. In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex”. Today, military spending continues to benefit private corporations more than the troops. In 2016, CEOs of the top five military contractors earned almost 100 times the pay of a US General with twenty years of experience.

In 1968, in his final and most radical mass mobilization, Dr. Martin Luther King, Zecher Tzadik Livracha, called for a Poor People’s Campaign on Washington to bring together Americans to call for a return to morality in public life and in government spending. Dr. King was assassinated shortly before the Campaign, but that summer poor people from across our country set up “tent cities” on the National Mall in Washington to demand life, dignity and opportunity for all Americans.

This year, from May 14 to June 23, clergy and people of faith from across our country will revive Dr. King’s agenda in a second Poor People’s Campaign (PPC)

The “Fundamental Principles” of the PPC include:

  • “We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion and deep inequality…
  • We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists in the nation from issues like prayer in school, abortion and gun rights to one that is concerned with how our society treats the poor (and) those on the margins…”

American Jews have contributed heroically to promote equality, civil rights, and social justice in the United States. We are moved by the deepest values of our Torah and of the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution. So, mainstream American Jewish organizations, including the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Jewish Council for Public Affairs have endorsed the current Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Campaign is nonpartisan and nonviolent. Its launch period is organized especially around six days, mostly Mondays–May 14, 21, and 29 (Tuesday after Memorial Day) and June 4, 11, and 18–in which people will join together in public actions in Washington DC and in 39 state capitals. On each day there will be public rallies and programs of support, as well as (optional) actions of civil disobedience for those who wish to protest that way. There will also be a culminating event in Washington on June 23. Of course, follow up activities will press for social equality after June 23.

I am involved with the Washington mobilization. At the five Monday and one Tuesday actions there, you may join other Jews by showing support in one of three ways:

  • You may arrive at 1:30pm at the bottom of the steps of the Supreme Court, join other Jews, and walk together to the rally at the US Capitol. That rally will be around 3:00pm and end late afternoon.
  • If you wish to support those who ae committing civil disobedience, but not risk arrest yourself (for example, by serving as a marshal), you should arrive at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 301 A Street SE, at 10:00am for training.
  • If you wish to participate in the civil disobedience (occurring at roughly 3:00pm), come to St. Marks Church at 10:00am for training.

Feel free to contact me directly with questions or comments. If you choose to participate, please register beforehand through the Religious Action Center at rac.org/poorpeoplescampaign. That site also has an informative and concise FAQ. Also, if you choose to participate, register as well with the national PPC, at poorpeoplescampaign.org. Both sign-ups are very quick.

I will be participating in the June 4 action, again in Washington, and would love to be joined by other members of our community.

May this Campaign bring all Americans together in moral purpose, and mark the beginning of, as we read last Shabbat in Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:10),“d’ror ba’Aretz l’chol yosh’veha, freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” Amen!

Rabbi Weintraub

May 2018

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