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Rabbi Allison RH Conyer RH 2018

"Sheltering the Future"

Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue
Bentleigh, VIC

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New York, New York

When I was three years old, I had imaginary friends that lived in New York, which was impressive, given that I lived in California. I used to fake speaking with a New York accent for as far back as I can remember. I have no idea why, but I was obsessed with New York and convinced that that was where I belonged. I talked fast. I walked fast. And I had wanted to be an actress.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited New York city when I was 12 years old. Talk about the city that never sleeps! The energy… it was like it had a life of its own. The lights, the fashion, the grandeur of the architecture, the graffiti, the theatre, the music, the street performers, the sheer volume of cars on the streets, and the people…I had never seen so many people. I could spend days just people watching.

I watched as people would wander aimlessly talking to themselves; while others would fly by in their Armani suits completely oblivious. I watched as people of all shapes and sizes, colours and ethnic backgrounds crammed into the subway like sardines, equally blind to their differences, eccentricities, or needs.

I watched one man, sitting amongst a pile of coats and a sleeping bag, make the most incredible music from recycled bottles and tins. I watched him for quite some time while most people walked on by; some people dropped some coins in a paper bag in front of his make-shift instruments without making eye contact, almost as if the change just fell out of their pockets; some children smiled and danced before being hurried away by parents too busy to notice what, or who, grabbed their attention. Meanwhile, the man kept on playing and smiling.

After that visit, I became a regular visitor to New York, until I finally moved there for rabbinical school in my early-twenties. The sirens, the honking, the yelling… it was music to my ears. This was real life – not like Hollywood, where I came from! On the way to my classes, I would pass dozens of homeless people.

Some clearly crazy; some just hilarious and enjoying life, making the most of what they had; some destitute and miserable.

I remember once hearing some advice never to give a homeless person money, as we never know if they would spend it on alcohol or drugs instead of food and clothing. So, I used to never give money, but always gave my left-over food and clothing directly to people on the street. Most people said thank you. Some handed the food back and asked if I had anything better!

I remember attending a talk by a former homeless person critiquing people with that attitude, questioning “who were we to judge anyone?” “What gave us the right to determine the best way for them to spend their money?” We could choose to help or not, but had no right to determine how to help or attach strings to our assistance. She believed that to do so, to give conditionally, is patronising and removes any form of respect one human being should give another.

The speaker continued to share her experience of homelessness and how she used money to “self-medicate” at times, which was what she needed to help her get through. Eventually, she stopped using. She asked how that was different from any of us with roofs over our heads, who have a drink or more to “self-medicate” to calm ourselves during a stressful or difficult period. Why are we any better or worse judges of when we go too far just because we have a roof over our heads. Wow!   That got me thinking. Our Jewish tradition teaches: “To one for whom bread is suitable, give bread; to the one who needs dough, give dough; to one for whom money is required, give money; to one for whom it is fitting to put the food in that one’s mouth, put it in” (Sifre on Parshat Re’eh). In other words, give people what they need. Don’t assume we know what they need – better to ask them. So, from then on, I would alternate between giving food, clothes, and money to the homeless.

Five years later, my lifelong plans of living in New York were thwarted by a handsome man with an accent who flew me across the ocean to a land down under. So, I traded tall, majestic buildings for lush rain forests; I traded horns and sirens for chirps of cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets; I traded Rockefeller Center and Central Park for the Sydney Opera House and the Northern Beaches. Call me crazy, but I fell in love with the man and the city. But I couldn’t get over the fact that I never saw any homeless people…EVER, at least when I first arrived in the mid-1990’s.

I felt as if I had walked into Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden, the world that expelled Adam and Eve, the world that we, as humanity have been trying to fix and return to ever since.

Then, I discovered the overt sexism and realised there was still plenty of fixing to be done!

I discovered the prejudice towards Asians and Aborigines and realised there was plenty of fixing to be done.

I discovered the problems with the “boat people,” asylum seekers and the never-ending sentences at Nauru and Christmas Island detention centres and realised there is still a lot of fixing to be done.

Having lived in Australia for the past 20 years, I’ve been in awe at how this country works. I’ve marvelled at the way we, Australians, look after our citizens and truly endeavour to give all people decent health care, living wages, and good education, while supporting the development of small businesses and economic growth.

I have also watched in shock and shame at the treatment of the detainees and refugees and the ever-growing xenophobia… as well as the inexcusable amount of time it took the Australian government to say sorry to the Aborigines for the Stolen Generation,

and the slow pace of progress addressing the growing issues affecting indigenous Australians. I’ve watched housing costs skyrocket and the number of homeless increase by 14% in the past five years alone. Despite the whole mining debacle – coal industry vs. the impact of fossil fuels, I have been incredibly impressed with the level of environmental awareness and education that is seen across the educational system, in popular media, and in government regulations. Although we still have a long, long way to go, we are moving in the right direction.

Rosh Hashanah is the time to take stock of where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go. We welcome and celebrate the New Year by reviewing what brought us to this place. Most of us, and most of our High Holy Day liturgy, focus inward and evaluate our personal lives, individually and in relationship with others.

The Mishna teaches us that we must make tshuvah, repent for the wrongs we’ve committed ben adam l’chavero – between people—and ben adam l’makom—between people and G-d. Although talking about ben adam l’chavero is an easier concept to grasp, as all of us can relate to having been wronged or having wronged another person either by accident or intentionally, today, I’d like us to look outside ourselves for a moment.

I’d like us to recognise that focusing inward is a luxury we have when our outside surroundings are relatively stable and secure. Abraham Maslow, son of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States and well-known psychologist, described what he believed was the human hierarchy of needs; whereby a person could not consider the next stage of development leading towards self-actualisation, or fulfilling our true potential, unless the needs of the previous stage were met. The most basic needs were physiological - food, water, warmth and rest – then safety and security. If these needs are NOT met, according to Maslow, we can’t go on to contemplate our relationship with others or how we feel about ourselves.

So, this Rosh Hashanah, I’d like to bring to the forefront of our consciousness and ensure we do not take for granted our time and ability to contemplate our actions, how we treat ourselves and our relationship with others and with G-d. There are sadly, many others tonight, who do not share that privilege.

According to Homelessness Australia website, tonight 116,427 people in Australia will be homeless (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-14/homelessness-in-australia-jumps-14pc-over-five-year-period/9547786). What does it mean to be homeless?

To answer that question, we must first ask: What does it mean to have a home? For most of us, our home is our safe place, a place we can go to escape the worries of the world and feel comfortable to be completely ourselves. Our home is always there. We know what to expect and where things are. Our home, for many of us, is a place filled with good memories and people who love us. Our home protects us from the harshness and uncertainty of the Melbourne weather. Our home generally contains our comfort foods and daily nourishment. Our home provides a place to sleep, rest, regenerate to give us the energy to face the day ahead.

Homelessness is an absence of those elements that create a home – the safety and security, the warmth and sustenance, the love and protection that provide our shelter. Homelessness is not only defined by the people on the streets who we can see, but also those living out of their cars, or couch surfing, while waiting for affordable housing.

According to the 2016 census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed an 11% increase in homelessness in Victoria, totalling 24,817 Victorians, and a 14% increase nationwide. Two of every five Victorians counted as homeless are under 25 years old. (https://www.melbournecitymission.org.au/get-involved/end-youth-homelessness-project?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI9YeL5fKU3QIVSa6WCh1OlgFqEAAYASAAEgKmtPD_BwE)

Every day, 250 people are turned away from crisis centres across the country (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-14/homelessness-in-australia-jumps-14pc-over-five-year-period/9547786).

In 2016, the Australian Council of Social Service revealed that poverty is on the rise in Australia, with an estimated 2.9 million people, or 13.3% of all people living below the internationally accepted poverty line, including ONE in SIX children living in poverty in Australia (https://www.acoss.org.au/poverty/)

Poverty is only one of the many causes of homelessness. I listened to an interview on the radio recently with a middle to upper middle-class woman talking about her son, educated at private schools, decorated sport hero in high school, who became involved in drugs while at uni. He is now one of Melbourne’s homeless statistics, living on the streets in the city.

His mother spoke about the horrors of watching her son fall and feeling helpless. They tried to get him help which backfired. His parents brought him home and he became incredibly violent to the point they not only kicked him out, but had to take out a restraining order against their son.

Drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, gambling, family disputes, domestic abuse, physical and mental health issues are among the many other causes for homelessness, contributing to the complexity of the issue. 

Homelessness Australia released a nationwide study connecting homelessness with mental health issues, finding that people exposed to severe abuse or trauma are more likely to be homeless and suffer from mental health issues. With insufficient mental health care facilities, more people with mental health issues are living on the streets. 

The reverse was also found: People WITHOUT mental health issues who become homeless due to family breakdowns, loss of employment, or domestic abuse are more likely to develop mental health issues. Children who become homeless often change schools and don’t have enough food, leading to poor concentration, social issues and isolation. Homelessness could also lead to drug addiction and a life of crime. It is a vicious cycle. (https://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/sites/homelessnessaus/files/2017-07/ States_of_being_evidence_based_policy_paper_mental_illness_and_homelessness.pdf).

I recently spoke to a member in the Jewish community who revealed to me her incredible story of riches to rags – a top executive working at a bank, relocated, lost her job, had a breakdown in her relationship, and ended up living out of her car. She went into a shelter to shower. No one ever knew.

Another young Jewish person I knew, bright, sociable, from a good Jewish home, developed schizophrenia in his early 20’s. He started having difficulties in his relationships and couldn’t hold down a job. Roommates always presented a problem and he didn’t have enough money to live on his own. So, he couch-surfed for years, never fully settling, never having a secure place to call home. He rejected his parents support and denied having any problem.

Homelessness is a serious problem in our world, in Australia, in Melbourne, and even in our Jewish community. There is no simple solution. More affordable housing, providing adequate and accessible care for people with mental health issues, addressing domestic and child abuse, dealing with gambling, drugs and alcohol addictions are all key steps in helping to solve this multifaceted homeless problem.

I remind us that the process of tshuvah extends beyond ourselves and our personal relationships, but also extends to our relationship with G-d and all people. In the Talmud, when discussing Rosh Hashanah, our rabbis teach “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh la’zeh (Rosh Hashanah 29a)” – We are all responsible for one another.

Rabbi Shimon interprets this to mean that each of us as individuals are responsible to unify and care for the needs and wellbeing of each person in our world.

So, I ask us all this morning to open our eyes and look beyond ourselves, embrace our responsibility to care for those in need. Just because we are Jewish, and many of us living comfortable lives, does not make us immune to the throes of homelessness. As our children and grandchildren grow up, this problem will continue to increase and impact the world in which they live unless we recognise the problem and do something NOW!

So, what can WE do?

First of all, it’s an election year. Politicians have their work cut out for them with policy initiatives and reform. Our job, as voters, is to ensure the politicians hear our voices and create achievable policies to address our concerns. The government will not act if the people do not speak up.

Public policy is only part of the puzzle. The hard work is often done at ground level. And, as we’ve just heard, there are so many diverse avenues at ground level, sometimes, it is difficult to know which way to go.

We know that what has been done to fight the problem of homelessness thus far has not been working. In fact, it’s been getting worse. No ONE organisation nor ONE person can do this single-handedly. So, I ask us this morning to join hands together to find the way forward.

Every year, Etz Chayim collects food between Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah as part of our Mazon campaign, the Jewish response to hunger. This year, we are supporting the efforts of the Rotary Club who has partnered with the Community Information Glen Eira Center in Glen Huntley Road to provide food and staples for people experiencing difficulties. By donating food or toiletries, we can do our part to assist those in need.

The Rotary Club is also able and willing to come and collect our donated food on a weekly basis (or however often we are able to provide) and deliver it to the Glen Eira Centre. For those who are able, more volunteer drivers might also be welcome.

In addition to our Etz Chayim Mazon drive, Temple Beth Israel runs a weekly program, Nourish, at Alma Park every Monday night from 6-8pm serving the homeless in St. Kilda.

For those who are unable to help serve the homeless, they seek volunteers to prepare casseroles and cakes ahead of time or to prepare salads on the day.

Another organisation, Grameen Australia is designed to help people help themselves by providing funding and education to the world’s poorest people, especially women, to create unique business opportunities, creating a sustainable solution to the problem. Over Sukkot, Etz Chayim will be involving our youth to participate in a bake drive to raise money for Grameen Australia. We hope you’ll help us support them. 

For those who have the time and inclination, there is also an opportunity to train to be a volunteer counsellor for the homeless, assessing their needs and directing them to the appropriate service or professional.

If you are interested in helping in any of these ways, or if you have other connections and ways to help the hungry and homeless, please contact the Etz Chayim office. It would be wonderful not only to have individuals making a difference, but also to have a united Etz Chayim presence doing our part to help those in need.

FINALLY, another small, yet incredibly significant action we can take is when we walk past a homeless person on the street, look them in the eyes and smile or say “hello.” 

The gift of compassion, humanity, and respect is worth more than we think, bringing warmth to an often hardened heart. Likewise, walking past a homeless person, avoiding eye contact, as if they are invisible or that their homelessness is contagious, does more than we think, chilling or hardening an already damaged heart.

What better example can we set for our children and grandchildren than to take responsibility for fixing the problems in our world, by first and foremost seeing the humanity in every person and working towards a better tomorrow, where each person’s physical and safety needs are met, allowing the possibility for love, belonging, and a place to call home.

What better wish could we ask for on this birthday of the world than for all of G-d’s children to have a safe, healthy, and happy home?

The process of tshuvah calls upon us to change our ways now to create a better tomorrow for our children, and our children’s children. The world is still imperfect; people are still suffering and in need. We still have work to do. Each one of us is tasked to make the world a better place than the way we found it.

As our great first century sage, Hillel, once said: Im ein ani li mi li. U’chshe’ani l’atzmi ma ani? Im lo achshav eimatai? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

So, this Rosh Hashanah, I’m asking all of us to start now - to reach outside of ourselves and take on the responsibility of caring for those whose most basic needs are not being met. Let’s do it together and watch this city transform and model the world we want to create for the next generation.

Ken y’hi ratzon – May this be G-d’s will.

 

 

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