On November 28, the first day of the special session of the Washington State legislature, I had the honor of delivering the invocation in the House. This special session is called to deal specifically with the budget issues facing the state. I took my position at the rostrum and delivered some words of reflection in advance of the difficult job our leaders are called upon to do. I then went outside and took a different position, on the steps of the capitol with the throngs of protesters demanding a fair and just budget.
It was an interesting day of protests. Many different groups were represented, and several different rallies were held. Teachers unions, health care worker unions, those opposed to cuts for higher education, those advancing the needs of the disabled, and more, were present and raising their voices. And bringing it all together was the Occupy movement, which made its presence strongly felt.
The coming of the special session provided an outlet and unique opportunity for the Occupy movement in our state that is not necessarily replicated elsewhere. While originally established to provide support to the Occupy Wall Street protests happening in New York, which brings the general message of uneven distribution of wealth, income inequality and overall issues of poverty, the Occupy movements in Washington now have a particular direction to face that argument: Toward the legislature, which is convening to find a way to balance the state budget. The Occupy movements across the state came together in an “Occupy the capitol” action, with the Occupy Olympia protest serving as host. (The Occupy Olympia “chapter” itself has been camped out in Heritage Park here, in the shadow of the capitol building.)
The message is timely and appropriate, for many of the budget cuts on the table are geared toward those most vulnerable in our midst. Thousands may be cut from Basic Health and left without health insurance. Cuts to education of our youth and the disabled are proposed. A member of my congregation who runs a local social service agency for youth was quoted in our local newspaper as potentially having to cut a program which provides outreach and services for homeless teens, since the program relies on state funding for support.
One proposed “solution” thrown about is that non-profits in general and faith communities in specific fill the gap. But faith communities, synagogues included, can only do so much — we do not have the skills or the resources to provide the social services necessary to support people. In Olympia, our local interfaith organization has used a city grant to open an intake center for homeless adults — an important and powerful development. As an individual congregation, my synagogue hosts a temporary shelter, volunteers at the food bank, and other such actions, but we are not capable of, for example, providing health insurance for one who is too poor to afford any.
This issue, I believe, is beyond politics. I am not saying it is Jewish to support the Occupy movement, or Jewish to support any one party or policy over another. What is Jewish is recognizing that we have obligations to others. We make our own choices, have our own individual responsibility in this world (as I remind our B’nai Mitzvah students about the meaning behind the ceremony, that becoming an adult means personal responsibility).
Yet our Torah teaches that we are responsible for one another as well, protecting the “widows and orphans,” the poor and vulnerable in our midst. Wealth in and of itself is not the issue. We learn in the stories of Genesis that our spiritual forefathers and foremothers were wealthy people. What one does with that wealth is the issue.
This, to me, is the message that Occupy brings. Some sour notes hit us at the protest: Calls to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were out of place at a rally for the state’s issues and seemed like an unnecessary and unfocused tangent. Swearing during chants and stump speeches only serves to alienate and undercut the message. But these glitches should not dismiss the message as a whole. Occupy is important because it is changing the national conversation on who we are as a nation, and what individual citizens could and should expect of its institutions and each other.
As Jews we know we do not live solely for ourselves. Our lives are, by definition, tied in with one another — from the partnerships and families we create to the communities we build. We cannot pray outside of a community, we cannot mourn outside of a community — our spiritual well-being rests with others. And while we may argue as to how to do it, we cannot deny the fact that our physical and economic well-being rests with others as well.
Very soon we will gather around the Hanukkah lights. In light of these challenging times, perhaps we can look upon the miracle of Hanukkah as this: Faced with a projected [oil] shortfall, a group was able to have faith and spend those resources anyway [by lighting the menorah]. The result was growth and increased light for all.