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Yom Kippur 5780

Rabbi Matthew D. Cohen

This past spring our Religious School families participated with Moody Methodist Church in the city-wide community project initiative, Servolution. Erin, Ayden and I signed up to assemble small bags of food to distribute to the homeless citizens of Galveston. The plan was to go to the steps of City Hall where many members of the homeless population typically congregate on Sunday mornings. Unbeknownst to us, there was a parade downtown that morning and the entire area was closed off. Our project was no longer possible. You might think we would have called it a day and headed back to the home-base to find something else to do. Except the leaders of our project were members of a Moody Methodist homeless ministry called, Grace’s Closet. Their mission is to bring food to the homeless on a weekly basis - and they had other plans. They were bound and determined. Over the next two hours our mini-bus wove through the narrow streets and parking lots of downtown Galveston looking for homeless citizens with whom to share the bags of food. As we were driving down Broadway one of the members of our group spotted a man sitting on the front stoop of a corner store. We were already a few blocks away and headed to our next destination when the bus made a U-turn in the middle of Broadway and drove up to the man.

Then, we all watched as Ayden walked up to the disgruntled man, handed him the bag of food and shared the kind words we suggested he say to him. The man accepted the gift with a bright smile. Ayden came back in the bus and started to cry because he was sad that someone didn’t have enough money to buy food and clothing, and worse, had no place to live. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us. During the rest of the ride we explained to Ayden the many reasons why someone ends up poor and living on the streets. Everyone has a story that is unique to his or her life and situation.


I recently read a story about a woman named Emily Zamourka. She came from the former Soviet Union with an incredibly gifted voice and acumen for the violin. Her music career in the United States just began to take off when she fell ill. Because of the cost of her healthcare, she lost her home. Homeless in the streets, someone stole her violin. Sleeping in the subway terminals, people heard her sing. Despite everything, her voice was magnificent and her inner core strength that allowed her to share this gift never waned. The only reason why this story came to light is because Emilie’s life took a fortuitous turn when she was discovered in a video of her singing in a subway that went viral. She was just given an opportunity to record her music with Grammy nominated producer Joel Diamond. It’s a feel-good story that made national headlines. It is a story that is both full of reality and for most, a fantasy. 


People sleep in our streets for a host of reasons. For some the story is of tragic loss, for others, like this woman, healthcare’s focus on profit margins over people took her home. If one works 40 hours a week – full time – at a minimum wage job, he or she still earns a gross wage below the national poverty level. We know there are homeless people who suffer from mental illness, whether because it is a part of their biology or due to circumstance. A lost job, an illness, a divorce, even falling victim to a scam – this is how they lost everything. It could happen to any of us. Tomorrow, which one of us could be next?


As we searched the streets of Galveston, I found myself feeling guilty. How can I live on this Island and not pay attention to something that is right in my front yard? How can I just pass people by every day when my Jewish faith calls me to pay attention and live intentionally? Our great sage, Hillel taught us, “If not now, when.” Now’s the time to start.


Let’s start by acknowledging the problem facing the people in our own front yard. According to a recent study, the poverty rate in Galveston is 22.6%. That means, one out of every 4.4 residents live in poverty. One out of every 4.4. 10,393 of the 45,919 Galveston residents reported income below the poverty line. To give you perspective, the poverty rate across Texas is 16% - we are significantly higher. 23.2% of Adults aged 18-59 live in poverty, 12% for adults aged 60-74, 11% for adults aged 74-84, and 17.7% for adults over the age of 85. Even more sobering are the numbers at the other end of life’s spectrum; the number of children living below the poverty line in Galveston. The poverty rate for children enrolled in school is 35.7% and 17.8% not enrolled in school. These numbers are staggering and they should mean everything to us.


Last night I provided biblical and rabbinic proof texts as to why we should care about the issues of homelessness and poverty as Jews. This morning I want to focus in on why this issue is our problem as members of CBI and as citizens of Galveston. The rabbis teach us in the Talmud, “dina d’malchutah dina,” “the law of the land is the law.” Simply, even though, as Jews, we have our own laws and justice system, we must adhere to the civil laws and justice system of the land in which we live - Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Taken a step further, we must interpret “dina d’malchutah dina” to mean that we are commanded to be good and relevant citizens. I don’t have to tell you that the members of Congregation B’nai Israel have historically done just that. Let’s revisit a part of the sermon I delivered exactly one year ago. 

In the 1950’s CBI and community individuals established the Temple Academy so younger Black children could attend classes who were not allowed in the Galveston Independent School District. And after Hurricane Ike, we operated an unofficial job list for community folk seeking jobs. CBI participated in marching in the halls of Ball High to let the kids know they were safe from gangs threatening to enter the Island. CBI congregants who were school board members were instrumental in integrating GISD. CBI helped establish St. Vincent’s House for the working poor. Members of CBI were instrumental in single-handedly creating Universal Access at Galveston College so every Galveston child graduating from high school here could go to the first two years of college free. CBI created an annual clothing drive for the opening of school for kids in need; eventually taken over by GISD. As I stated last year, this is the Judaism Rabbi Henry Cohen would recognize. This is the Judaism that would make him smile and say, “My career was worth it.”

As we just read in our Torah portion this morning from Deuteronomy 30, “Lo nifleit hi mimcha v’lo r’choka hi. Lo bashamaiyim hi, v’lo me’ever hayam,” “It is not too baffling nor too far away. It is not in the heavens nor beyond the sea.” “Ki karov eilecha hadaver m’od b’picha u’vilvavcha,” “The [Torah] is close to us, it is in our mouths and in our hearts.” My friends our legacy is our proof text and we need not look far.

Last year I spoke in platitudes - I had a vision of social justice for CBI but I had no idea where to start nor did I have an actual game plan. Looking back, I was too new to the island to understand the issues facing so many citizens on the Island. I gained more insight while Erin was working for Comp-U-dopt, a non-profit organization that provides after school programs and access to technology to economically underserved youth throughout Galveston. We both realized how blessed Ayden and we are when she saw the reality so many of our island school kids face. Perhaps I didn’t understand the depth of the issue until we drove around the island looking for homeless people during Servolution. Perhaps it hit me the hardest when we saw Ayden crying on the bus because it made him sad to know that there are people living on the streets. Like the distance between the trapeze bars, we can’t avoid it. At this point, we all must have some idea of the critical issue facing nearly a quarter of the Galveston population and now I am asking us to commit ourselves to this cause.

We have already taken a good first step by bringing bags of new underwear and socks that will be used as soon as next week to help clothe our GISD families. The next step is to engage in opportunities, to get proximate and interact with the poor and homeless people of Galveston. We need to understand the true struggles of poverty.

Every Thursday morning from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m., Holy Family Catholic Church sponsors a Galveston Food Bank food distribution. I am asking us to partner with Holy Family Church and commit to sponsor and participate in the food distribution one time a month. It costs $200 and takes only a few hours of our time. “Lo niflet hi,” “It is not too baffling,” and we have to start somewhere.


Next, I want us to engage in a year of learning about poverty and its many surrounding issues. Many of us may not know the nuts and bolts of this issue nor do we know the real needs of our community. I would like us to bring in speakers from our community and beyond who will help educate us on the issue. Our friends from First Lutheran Church have invited us to join them in a faith-based learning initiative and I would love to bring back my friend and colleague, Rabbi Marc Kline who has been instrumental in the fight against homelessness and poverty in his New Jersey community. As members of the Reform movement and as signers of the Brit Olam we can bring in a Religious Action Center representative to guide us in ways to get involved on a local, state, and national level.


Our Torah portion opened up with the words, “Atem Nitzvaim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai,” “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God - the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, everyone in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water - to enter into the sworn covenant which the Eternal your God makes with you this day. And it is not with you alone. I make it with those who are standing here with us today and equally with all of you who are not here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14). My fellow CBI family, we learn from the words of our Torah that we are all equally responsible to uphold the terms of the brit. The brit to which we are recommitting ourselves to today requires all of us – to volunteer our time, reach out to folks in the community who can give us guidance, help mobilize our fellow CBI members for projects around town, and to continue to brainstorm ideas as we move forward creating more justice in the world. Every one of us has unique gifts, resources, connections, talents, and blessings to share with each other and our community and I am certain we can continue to carry the legacy that has been handed down to us from the previous generations of our Congregation B’nai Israel.


Tonight, at the end of N’ilah, we will dance out of the sanctuary with our hopes and plans for a prosperous and blessed New Year for ourselves and our CBI family. May this be the year that we dance out of our beautifully remodeled sacred home in a way that helps make the new year of 5780 a prosperous and blessed one for our whole community.

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