November 19, 2018

Channeling the spirit of Heschel to combat homelessness

If you go to synagogue around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you will hear about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

It was Heschel who walked with King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to demonstrate his solidarity with the civil rights movement. It was Heschel who said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

If there were awards given for the most overused phrases at Jewish banquets, the top three would have to be 1. “tikkun olam”; 2. “If you’ve saved one, life you’ve saved the world”; and 3. Heschel’s “praying feet.” I suspect fundraisers have gotten more mileage out of those feet than Heschel ever did.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A culture could turn worse things into cliches than the imperative to repair the world, or save a life, or stand for justice. But I wonder whether we’re running the grave risk of turning Heschel into an American-Jewish idol, someone who we put so high up on a pedestal we don’t even bother to try to emulate him. Instead, we become self-satisfied, as if the miles Heschel walked with King count on our own Fitbits. They don’t. In congratulating ourselves on our past, we neglect the work that must be done in the present. 

I am thinking not in terms of civil rights, but of the cause that engaged King in the last two years of his life: inequality.

This country has made great strides in civil rights since Selma, and while such progress isn’t inevitable, it has been steady. Meanwhile, America has grown more unequal. In his final speeches and last days before he was murdered in 1968, King pointed precisely to income inequality as an issue even more intractable than race. 

“The emergency we now face is economic, and it is a desperate and worsening situation,” King wrote in “The Trumpet of Conscience,” a collection of his speeches published in 1968.

“For the 35 million poor people in America … there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. … Now, millions of people are being strangled in that way. … And it is getting worse, as the gap between the poor and the ‘affluent society’ increases.”

Thirty-five million, Rev. King? Today it is 50 million.

I know there are Jewish organizations, including local groups such as Jewish Family Service of L.A. and Jewish Vocational Services, to national groups such as Bend the Arc and Mazon, that work daily to alleviate the symptoms of inequality or address the issue at a policy level, such as fighting to increase the minimum wage or preserve funding for food stamps.

I am not saying we aren’t doing anything. Synagogues such as Valley Beth Shalom, B’nai David-Judea and Leo Baeck Temple work hard on this issue. I’m saying we can do much, much more.

Think about it: We American Jews have a degree of wealth and freedom unprecedented in Jewish history. We have the means to make big social changes and the power to implement them. Our actions don’t even come close to our potential.

Take Los Angeles. The most obvious symptom of inequality here is homelessness. It has increased 12 percent in just the last two years. The number of “homeless homes” — tents, makeshift encampments and vehicles — has gone up 85 percent, to 9,535, according to biennial figures from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. L.A. leads the nation in homelessness.

This week, one of those homeless, Barbara Brown, died rain-soaked and wrapped in a wet blanket on a piece of plastic on Skid Row. She was 60. The cause of death was exposure. Brown was so far gone that she refused to care. But most homeless people, like the one my colleague David Suissa visited (see page 8), just need solid help through a hard time.

The Jewish community bears no special blame in creating the homeless problem, but it does have a special responsibility to address it. Why? Because that’s why we exist. We aren’t Jews just to maintain Jewish life. We aren’t Jews just to celebrate Passover. We aren’t Jews just to defend Israel, or to throw cool parties so we can meet other Jews. We are Jews in order to stop a 60-year-old woman from dying because it rains.

So it’s time to think big. This week, a report from the city administrative officer said it will cost $1.85 billion over the next 10 years to end homelessness in Los Angeles. We can help marshal and unlock those resources. As Jared Sichel points out in our cover story, 23 people on the L.A. Business Journal’s list of the 50 wealthiest  Angelenos are Jewish, with a combined worth of $65 billion. Never let anyone tell you our problem is a lack of resources. I’m talking about focusing our considerable resources, influence and energies on one big thing — homelessness — and fixing it. 

You want to inspire the next generation of Jews? You want to combat anti-Semitism? You want to attract the unaffiliated? Demonstrate what the power of ethics, faith and community can do.

What Heschel did with King was inspirational. What we can do, here and now, could be transformational.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.