Needful Things

In a country as diverse as ours, Thanksgiving is the secular Genesis. It is our common creation myth whose themes of sacrifice, freedom and gratitude resonate among us all.

Thanksgiving even manages to unite the disparate members of the Jewish tribe. Orthodox or secular, eating soy Tofurkey or kosher birds, we almost all mark the most spiritual of our American holidays. (By the way, Cooks Illustrated held a blind tasting for the best turkey and the winner was … Empire Kosher).

The historical Thanksgiving is — thankfully — far less controversial than the debate over the Bible’s historicity. We have some record of that festive first meal. We know they ate venison and cod — credit the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims with inventing the Surf ‘n Turf platter — and we have list after list of the items the English Separatists used in their daily lives on the shores of Eel Creek. They called these inventories "A Few Things Needful."

This is an especially tough Thanksgiving. Most of us are still in shock from Sept. 11, waiting for the other shoe, or plane, or spore, to drop.

It’s easy to forget that even in the best of times, there are 31,300 Jewish households in the Greater Los Angeles area that live in poverty. This year, as a recession looms, that means about 50,000 Jews are entering the economic bust never having enjoyed the boom.

Recession reaches up from below the poverty line to grab the middle class. Employees at hi-tech and Internet companies, in the travel industry, in retail and restaurant sales, are also facing job loss. As we report in this issue, so too are perhaps dozens of employees at Jewish organizations throughout the county. These are men and women who chose a career in service to their community, but whose community can no longer sustain their careers.

Fortunately, we are remark-ably well-equipped to help those in need. Generations of Los Angeles Jews have contributed their time and money to developing a web of social services that are the envy of other minority groups here. There are defense organizations like the ADL, AJC and the Wiesenthal Center, which serve as watchdogs against hate at a time when people are most likely to look for scapegoats. There are service organizations like Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Free Loan, which are on the front lines, serving the impoverished as well as the newly stricken. There are synagogues where people seek comfort; treatment centers like Bet Teshuva and Chabad, service centers like Vista Del Mar Children and Family Services and Aviva Center, legal services like Bet Tzedek, hospitals like Cedars Sinai and City of Hope, hunger relief groups like SOVA and MAZON. Many of these serve the larger, non-Jewish community, and many get funding from public sources as well, but all have deep roots, both through service and philanthropy, in this community. They and many like them will be greatly pressed.

But donations to these groups are often among the first casualties of hard times. One organization is seeking lines of credit to meet its payroll. Elsewhere, at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, whose 18 local and international beneficiary agencies include JVS, JFC, the struggling Jewish Community Centers, the annual campaign is down $5 million dollars from last year.

The easiest way for us to make sure the people who need help in this community and abroad get it is, of course, to write checks. Despite these hard times, there is untapped generosity in this town. Witness a Friday evening service last August at Sinai Temple. Rabbi David Wolpe rose and made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the Israeli victims of terror. Within minutes — minutes — congregants pledged more than $175,000 to buy two ambulances for Magen David Adom.

Wolpe explained the need; his congregants did the rest. (They’ve since raised an additional $75,000.) It is not always so simple, but it needn’t be that much more complicated. Jewish organizations need to very clearly make their case for donations by explaining how their dollars are going to help those in need. They need to explain their priorities clearly — even when those priorities involve painful layoffs — and make certain they keep operating costs as low as possible.

These are sound guidelines for organizations even in good times, even more so now. The threat of recession brings us face to face with those few needful things that many of us take for granted: jobs, shelter, food, medical care. Those of us a bit more fortunate should not just be giving more thanks, but more money too.