07 June 2013

No Alternative

Early this morning, a gray and rainy day, I stood in line to get into my synagogue in a traffic jam of kids in strollers, parents and care-givers, umbrellas, jackets and clumsy boots.  One big mess.  A beautiful mess.  The crowd moved throughout the building, some up the stairs to their classroom and past the kitchen where a dozen volunteers quietly made 500 meals for residents of the Gravesend Houses off Neptune Avenue and 33rd Street in Coney Island.  Mayor Bloomberg praised those efforts in a speech he gave to the board of the URJ last week, a source of humility and pride for our community and its ongoing efforts post-Sandy.

Pride for the recognition, of course, but humility when one sees face to face the poverty that torments thousands in our city.  Driving down Neptune Avenue, one could see small pockets of flooding accumulating from the last day of rain, strong gusts of wind from the storm Andrea unburdening herself on the shoreline, and while comfortable and mission-driven in my car with meals for 500, a certain anxiety crept into my consciousness, for the next storm, for the 'fire next time.'

The chronically impoverished took the hardest hit from Sandy and as the car pulled up to the housing project and a few volunteers came to help me unload, I looked to my left and saw a line of others getting groceries from the back of a truck.  Scaffolding shielded them from rain but provided no permanent shelter or work.  After all, scaffolding is usually up to repair facades in this city.  The need for permanent, affordable, livable housing, with jobs and schools to lift these people to a dignified existence--this is the infrastructure we so desperately need.  Driving back I heard the Mayor being interviewed on the radio about this weekend's wet weather.  My car wheels kicked up a small pond in my lane on the Belt Parkway.  Part of the problem is a broken down sewer system that needs replacing; it takes time, he said, but we're making progress.

He's right.  From bridges to highways; from housing to schools; from poverty to homelessness to hunger to gun violence, change is a long, slow road.  But we have to travel down that road together, no matter what distinctions one hides behind.  The rain and wind, as Sandy taught us well, are the great equalizers in this town.  You can run but you can't hide from the next one, just around the corner.

That was the anxiety I was feeling driving in the rain.  There'll be another storm.  It will be just as devastating as the last.  Maybe worse.  And like before, we'll dig ourselves out of it and help each other.  No alternative.  Thank God for today.

Harry the volunteer at Gravesend told me that as I passed to him cartons of apples, egg salad, tuna and turkey sandwiches.  "The synagogue's turkey sandwiches are delicious," he said with a big smile.  "It's Friday, Beth Elohim is coming, and they're bringing us turkey sandwiches!"

I nodded across the way toward people in line.  "Gotta help,"  he said.  "No alternative.  Thank God for today."
Back at the synagogue I met with a mom who is organizing against gun violence.  We made a plan for me to call rabbis next week and get them to sign a national letter encouraging legislators to pass meaningful laws to help prevent gun violence.  It'll be one phone call at a time; not too difficult; necessary.  She made a couple interesting observations in our meeting:  that a number of people want guns to protect themselves against other people in their community who are tormenting their communities with guns.  Case in point:  this past weekend in Brooklyn there were a number of shootings that traumatized the neighborhoods in which they took place and not everyone concluded that fewer guns were necessarily the answer.   Another point, of course, is that while the nation is finally galvanizing around debating meaningful legislation, impoverished and predominantly black and minority neighborhoods, have been plagued by violence that exceed Sandy Hook exponentially.  That the real coming together after Sandy and Sandy Hook will be in recognizing the systemic problems will not be solved until we understand the real connections and responsibilities we have for one another.  After all, the availability of good jobs, decent housing, and good schools are a solid gun prevention program, too.  In other words, everything IS actually connected.  And it's usually happening right where you live.  Solving big problems often comes from seeing them as small problems, relevant to where you are, locally.

When Korach leads a rebellion against Moses in Numbers, claiming "each of us is holy--why do you think you're so special?" he betrays a dangerous construct which leads to his downfall.  The Sages argue that besides being a humble servant--Moses didn't ask to lead, rather circumstances demanded that he lead--Moses understands that holiness only works in community when a community is unified as "one people."  When there is a shared purpose and vision and sense of shared responsibility, of fate.  "Each of us is holy," betrays Korach's mis-reading of history--the dangers, if you will, of an over-abundance of individuality.  Our individual desires and rights, so passionately held up as American ideals, run the risk of threatening the very foundation of our unity as a society.

Sandy's rains washed away those distinctions; diminished the city's divisions; and brought each of us closer to one another--not just to help one another get through the rough times but in order to begin to understand what work there is to be done so that in the end we are "from many, one."  One big mess that we clean up one person at a time, one home at a time, one project at a time, one street at a time, one  city at a time.

No alternative.  Thank God for today.




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