By Daniel Heinrich
“The essence of Judaism […] is the passion to overcome separatism: the severance of human from God, of human from human, of human from nature. It is the passion to perfect the world through humanity’s awareness of its links to all else in existence.” (Ben-Zion Bokser summarizing the message of Rav Kook – edited for gender neutrality)
It’s an odd time to be a masters student. Last year, I joined the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership because I have a passion for the cause of the Jewish people and a desire to work for the nonprofit organizations that represent them. Having left the workforce in favor of a graduate education, my plan was to take these new learned skills and embark on a career in Jewish communal service. But Covid-19 has made the outlook on my career much hazier than it was before. Layoffs have torn through Jewish communal organizations and prospects for employment in the coming year are looking bleak.
So what does it mean to work for the Jewish community when the world is cracking around us? What does it mean to be a future or current nonprofit professional in the Jewish community during a global pandemic and a social reckoning? As I think about my time at Hornstein, my remote fieldwork with Hazon Detroit, my future, and my potential career, these questions keep coming up.
I want to offer some reflections on what I’ve learned so far. I will be the first to admit that I am neither an expert nor a well-read scholar. My only aim is to engage in this conversation as a student and future member of the Jewish professional community.
Working, even from afar, with Hazon Detroit, I’ve learned so much about what is happening in my hometown. More so than ever, Detroiters are struggling. At every level, Detroiters have been failed by systems that should support them but in actuality were never designed to do so. If you’re not familiar with what is happening in Detroit right now, I recommend you look into it. I could attempt to educate on the history of Detroit and how we got to where we are but I’m not the right person to do that. My lived experiences do not reflect the majority of Detroiters. I have not experienced the food deserts, or the redlining, or the systemic divestments, or the institutional racism, or the constant injustices perpetrated on the people of one of America’s greatest cities. Detroit represents only one example of many communities with similar stories. If you are not familiar with that history, I hope that you will join me in studying it.
What I can say with certainty is that the disproportionate suffering of Detroiters during this global pandemic (and all the time) is the end result of a series of failings by an entire system that is, by its nature, incapable of actually serving justice to its populace. We often blame this “system” as an easy scapegoat; a boogie man we can blame for our own failings. But the truth is that we are the system. Or at least, we are pieces of it. And though we might not like to admit it, we, as Jews, have failed. We are failing. And not just in Detroit.
Matt Fieldman put it succinctly in his recent eJewishPhilanthropy post, “we have done an amazing job of living the Jewish value, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh” (all Jews are responsible one for the other). It has served us well to this point, but it’s time to move on. It’s time to stand with the Black community in dismantling unjust systems.” He’s right. It’s time. Right now.
Which is why I feel honored to be a part of the Hazon Detroit staff. In response to the pandemic, Hazon’s Detroit-based office fundamentally altered its entire programmatic mandate to address the needs of its neighbors. In this change, we attempted to embody the essence of Judaism by being responsible not just for one another but for all else in existence; to be a part of the solution; even if it is in small ways.
Back in March, we found that food pantries were already bare of food across the city and suburbs. Some pantries reported that their daily clientele increased 10 fold almost overnight. A study at the outset of the pandemic found that 1 in 4 people in the state of Michigan were scared that they wouldn’t be able to put food on the table. Of the city’s 670,000 people (80% of whom are Black) about 350,000 people were worried about the source of their next meal during the pandemic. The statistics go on and are staggering. And now, the pandemic is showing signs that the worst is yet to come.
By the end of March we started a new program, Hazon’s Relief Garden Initiative. For everyone that signed up, we delivered seed packets and two five-gallon buckets of compost, free of charge, enabling individuals and families to start or expand their home gardens. If the recipient is struggling with food insecurity, they are encouraged to keep the food for themselves. If not, they are encouraged to donate their harvest to the nearest pantry or directly to hungry neighbors. In the first pilot season, we delivered relief garden kits to over 300 families throughout the city, more than half of whom are BIPOC in Detroit growing for themselves.
It seems we’ve struck a chord that is resonating throughout the city. Pantries in our network are asking us to provide relief garden kits directly to their clientele so that people can achieve some level of self-sufficiency in their food sources (we just secured funding to furnish another 600 kits). Assisted living homes are building Hazon relief gardens as socially distant projects for their residents. With Hazon Detroit’s help, Big Green’s school-based garden education programs are planting relief gardens in 15 of their locations across Detroit to feed hungry students in their districts. All over Metro Detroit, people are growing food for each other.
However, the growing season in Detroit is short, and hunger will not end when the first frost comes. So, we’ve established a secondary food rescue program that collects and redistributes donated food from pantry to pantry across the city. Metric tons of donated food regularly pour into pantries throughout the area but sadly, much of it goes to waste when it cannot be stored or distributed by the overburdened pantry systems. In our effort to eliminate that waste, our staff and volunteers regularly traverse Metro Detroit (an area almost 5 times larger than all 5 boroughs of New York City) helping get every ounce of food into the hands of hungry Detroiters and out of landfills. So far, we’ve rescued over ten tons of food and we’re growing our capacity every day.
But hunger is only one of the many endemic problems built into the system of oppression in America; only one failure of the American promise that will not truly be solved until the entire system is rethought and reconfigured. Until that time, there are ways for Jewish communal organizations to shift their operations that are both mission-aligned and centered on addressing the failings of the system that we, as Jews, have benefitted from. We just have to find them.
I do not mean to imply that the work of Hazon Detroit is without flaw or that it is the most effective tool for justice. Nor do I mean to imply that Hazon Detroit is the only organization stepping up in this way. I only mean that I feel inspired by our work – a feeling I find increasingly rare in a time when so much suffering is the center of our attention.
Hazon Detroit’s food relief programs are small examples of how a Jewish organization can leverage its resources to help address the needs of our neighbors in a time of crisis. Yet, unlike Covid-19, the many crises that plague the vulnerable populations of America cannot be solved by a vaccine. Among them are the impacts of climate change that disproportionately affect people of color around the world; and the environmental and economic effects of an inefficient food system; and the economic divestment that entrenches poverty; and the mass incarceration and police brutality that ends lives and destroys families. The crises are endless. The fundamental changes necessary to repair the world can only take hold when everyone in the country steps up to fix them. And that includes the Jewish community and the nonprofit organizations that represent us.
As a concerned student looking down the barrel of a fully online semester and an uncertain job market, I’m worried that, in general, we’re not doing enough as a Jewish organizational community; that we’re not actively fixing the unjust American system. Or worse, I’m worried that our general focus on our own interests have made us complicit in the systemic oppression of our fellow humans.
Trapped at home during my Covid summer “vacation,” I’ve been trying to do the work and educate myself, to learn as much as I can. I still have a lot more learning to do. So as I contemplate the message of Rav Kook – that the essence of Judaism is the passion to overcome separatism and the passion to perfect the world through humanity’s awareness of its links to all else in existence – I hope that we take a moment to reevaluate what we’re doing and think about how we can find our passion. Moving forward, I’ll be taking a hard look at our communal paradigm and thinking about how we can do more to overcome separatism and find the links that bind us to all else in existence. I urge everyone to do the same.
Daniel Heinrich is a second-year student at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership on the Social Impact MBA track. Originally from Huntington Woods, MI, he now lives with his wife and their two cats in Waltham, MA.