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Rabbi Steve Gutow Headshot

Detroit as the Cure - Not the Problem

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Poor people rarely make headlines. In fact, the poor are seldom the topic of public discourse. For all the talk about pressing issues of the day from politicians and religious leaders, the poor are practically an invisible demographic, relegated to a line in a speech or a rallying cry in a fundraising letter. But the paltry attention given to America's poor belies the urgency of their numbers and their condition.

In 2009, 43.6 million people were living in poverty in America; and just off the presses, the June employment numbers revealed that 9.2 percent of Americans are facing unemployment -- that is more than 14 million people. According to a recent New York Times report, it will take an average of nine months for most of these people to find a job. Add to that the many people who are not among the 9.2 percent -- those who have just given up. They are in such hopeless straits that they are not even seeking jobs. But what are we talking about here in America? What are American politicians focusing on? The debt -- just the debt.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs just completed its 4th annual African American / Jewish Community Leaders Mission to change that discussion; to focus instead on the poor ignored by debt talks. This year, we went to Detroit where the unemployment rate is at 28.9 percent and large stretches of the city lie barren. More than half of Detroit's population and nearly 40 percent of the tri-county area live in hailing distance of the federal poverty level.

The usual prognosis, given by the pundits, is not optimistic, at least not in the short term. The streets are loaded with people looking for 'what to eat' and where to seek a job. We can look the other way and treat Detroit as another world, but so many of our communities are headed in that direction.

The mission was organized around the idea that if we bring a black and Jewish leader together from specific cities, they will return home inspired by both the great challenges and innovative partnerships encountered together in Detroit and collaborate to address poverty in their home communities. We brought leaders from Nashville, Providence, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Denver, San Jose, and Detroit itself and each set of partners left committed to deepen the partnerships between their communities and invest in efforts to confront poverty at home. I have been on three of these missions and have never seen the level of purpose and commitment that I saw on the faces of the participants this year after seeing some of the stories in Detroit.

In Detroit I think many of us were brought to near-tears, first by the poverty we saw and felt and then even more powerfully by something else. Young people and older people were everywhere saying "We are not going to take it anymore." They were challenging the "usual prognosis" I mentioned above. New projects to house homeless veterans, programs to train new people who needed work, organizations to fund incipient entrepreneurial efforts, and in the barren deserts of Detroit that once were land occupied by buildings, there are over 800 new community gardens to grow and bring healthy nurturing food to those who receive so little of it. The two representatives on the JCPA mission from Detroit were both under thirty, with Ben Falik serving as a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Detroit and founder of Summer in the City, an organization celebrating 10 years of bringing together suburban and urban youth to do community service work in Detroit on urban gardens and painting murals; and QuanTez Pressley, who works for Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, so full of hope and optimism that when in his presence, if you even thought about believing that Detroit could not change, everything inside would suddenly order you to find a sense of mission and belief and dedicate yourself to doing what you can. For these dreamers, the landscape of Detroit is not burdened by obstacles of ideology and racism; rather, they are committed to finding solutions. They are doing the work.

The months ahead belong to us. Those of us who hear G-d's calling know that our hearts need to be focused on those who are struggling. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran are all clear in their mandates about the poor. We need to make sure that educational opportunities, healthcare essentials such as Medicaid, WIC, and Medicare are not lessened as a way to balance the budget, that food programs such as SNAP are not diminished at a time of great need. We need to be dreamers, not purveyors of tragedy. We must ask our preachers to address the pain of poverty; we must ask our politicians to use the words "the poor" and to make sure that they do something about their plight. We need to find the spirit of what we see in Detroit and bring that home to our communities. If we do not, G-d will be watching.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit jewishpublicaffairs.org and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.