Flip the script on DFW poverty

By Ben Tinsley

Photo: Winn Fuqua Rabbi Stefan Weinberg, of Congregation Anshai Torah, urged participants to put themselves in the shoes of those suffering from poverty.

PLANO — A traditional Passover Seder presents the differing narratives of “four children.”
Each child’s point of view entails a different reaction to the Passover story: One child is generally wise. Another is wicked. One is simple. A fourth child doesn’t really know what to ask.
But during a special Interfaith Seder ceremony held last week, that particular script was flipped.
The narratives of the four children were replaced with the stories of four characters not reacting to the Passover story at all — but to living in poverty.
Rabbi Stefan Weinberg — who led the March 23 Seder at his Plano synagogue — urged the participants to put themselves in the shoes of those suffering from poverty.
“Today is a day to stand in the shoes of others to remember that everyone should be free from poverty and to acknowledge it is our collective obligation to provide a solution to ensure the security and success of our community,” the rabbi said, reading from the Haggadah that was specially designed for the Confronting Poverty theme.
During the Confronting Poverty Seder, the rabbi and other speakers read aloud various statistics about poverty recently echoed by area media.
The Jewish, Christian and Muslim members of the interfaith gathering listened intently as the narratives of the four poverty-stricken characters were read aloud.
The characters were:

  • “The Child” — a 10-year-old East Plano fourth-grader growing up with his jobless mother and two younger sisters. His family can no longer afford to buy groceries every weekend so the young boy forgoes eating supper so his siblings can have more.
  • “The Single Mother” — a widow who works two jobs, lives in a one-bedroom apartment and can’t make enough money to move. She desperately needs to get a college education to further her job skills and earn more money.
  • “The New American” — who immigrated to America from a dangerous, unspecified country, and moved to North Texas nine months ago to get a job — of which he was told there were plenty available. But so far, no employment.
  • “The Senior Citizen” — who has lived in Oak Cliff all her life and her family goes back three generations there. She can’t work because of bad knees. Her emergency money is all used up. She has no idea how she is going to pay her rent — or other bills for the rest of her life.

Keynote speaker Susan Hoff — senior vice president of community impact for the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas — said the only true way to defeat poverty is by accumulating accurate information and dedicating to the task.
Hoff said North Texas has one of the highest growing child populations in the state. But the poverty the children suffer is fast outpacing the growth, she added.
“Dallas has one of the highest rates of child poverty in any urban center in the country,” Hoff said. “This isn’t the kind of ‘No. 1’ I want for my state and my community. We have a lot of work to do.”
Rabbi Weinberg pointed out that the tradition of observing Passover celebrates freedom from all slavery and oppression — even financial oppression — against the backdrop of a world in which both still exist.
Various others read during the event:  A.J. Rosmarin, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas; Anita Zusman Eddy, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council; and event co-chairs Lindsay Feldman, Dafna Rubinstein, Marlene Cohen and Judie Arkow.
This event was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas on the cusp of both Passover and Holy Week to tackle the subject of poverty through the lens of a traditional Passover Seder.
The Seder usually takes place in a family home and retells the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. It marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover in March or April.
But, last week, instead of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the audience was asked to consider sobering statistics:
• One out of every 10 children in Collin County lives beneath the poverty line, according to the program.
• Poverty continues to grow in the Dallas area at an alarming rate, growing by 41 percent from 2000 to 2013 in Collin County, the program shows.
As with the traditional Seder, the story at hand — in this case, the story of poverty and its ill effects on the innocent — was told and discussed.
Participants consumed four cups of wine as part of the ceremony, which traditionally are in honor of the promises God made to the Israelites when he led them out of slavery.

New promises

But during last week’s ceremony, the guests joined together and made new promises to break the bonds of local poverty.
Reading from both the Hebrew and English translations, Rabbi Weinberg and the audience repeated one of the ethical teachings and maxims of the rabbis of the Mishnaic period of Pirke Avot, “You are not obligated to finish the work [of perfecting the world] but neither are you allowed to desist from it.”
At the midpoint of the evening a buffet dinner was served from two tables.
As in all Seders, “the Ten Plagues” were listed aloud. But these plagues were contemporary and economic: Economic inequality, limited resources, a lack of safe housing, hunger, a lack of quality education, the cycle of debt, a lack of employment, the cycle of poverty for children, and a lack of resources leading to discrimination and isolation.
By standing together and calling for a better tomorrow, the goal of the Seder was to help provide health, food education and a good place to live for all, Rabbi Weinberg emphasized.
The specific goals of the poverty Seder were, as read in unison by the audience:

  • “We will recognize those in need around us.”
  • “We will act to support those in need in our community.”
  • “We will strive to create a world in which all people in our community are free from poverty.”
  • “We will use our power to persuade our leaders to act to abolish poverty in our community.”
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