April 29, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, including our Ladder Project families. Here is an update about them, and how we are helping during this stressful time.
David Corn was let go from his job at Studio Movie Grill in early March after the virus forced the closure of movie theaters nationwide. David and his fellow employees were encouraged to apply for unemployment from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), but the process was confusing and customer service help was non-existent. Ladder Project Executive Committee member Jeff Hoppenstein helped David file his application, and David received his first check on April 11.
In the meantime, the Ladder Project Executive Committee put out feelers for jobs, and on April 14, David began a new, full-time position at Tom Thumb Preston Forest. David is a member of the Drive Up and Go team, filling online orders and delivering them to customers curbside. Although David is wearing a mask, please say hello to him if you see him. He very much enjoys the job, most especially spotting our congregants shopping in the store -- most recently Cantor Zhrebker!
To help David through this period, we spent $250 in Ladder Project donations toward his April rent; we also purchased new work pants for him. But he will pay all his own bills in May. (After almost a year of financial self-sufficiency, David had also requested help from us in February, due to an unprecedented six days of missing work at SMG.) As always, your donations go directly to our families and serve as the ultimate safety net for them in times of emergency. This is a great comfort to our families, and a satisfying mitzvah for us.
Petrina Johnson also lost her job due to the virus. Petrina and her 13-year-old daughter Jacelyn had moved in February from a downtown homeless shelter to an apartment in Mesquite. They were sleeping on the floor in an empty apartment until our congregants filled it with furniture and purchased all 28 household items on an Amazon registry we created for them. The Ladder Project also paid for Petrina and Jacelyn to take the bus to Houston to empty a $83/month storage unit and bring their belongings back to Dallas in a UHaul. We also paid off a $60/month liability for a saxophone Petrina had purchased for her daughter several years ago. Petrina, who has a BA in journalism from Georgia State University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix, had aggressively applied for jobs and was delighted to start a $13/hour job at the Dallas Housing Authority in February, doing telephone screening of new clients, but she was almost immediately let go when the virus hit.
Since Jacelyn's middle school is closed, Petrina is looking for a job that she can do remotely. She is an excellent writer (she worked three years as a reporter at a suburban Houston newspaper), owns a laptop, and has wi-fi in her apartment. If any congregants have administrative work that she can do from home please email Laura Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Petrina's rent is covered through August by Shared Housing Center, the homeless shelter where Petrina and her daughter lived, through a Rapid Rehousing Program that pays six months of rent for departing clients. The Ladder Project is giving Petrina cash in increments of $60 for food purchases until she finds a job; Ladder Project Executive Committee member Sally Wolfish stays in regular touch with Petrina to make sure she and Jacelyn are doing well.
Patrice Bryson also lost her job to the virus. She had been working since November as a $17/hour clerk at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courthouse. Her two boys—Chase and Caeden, both 9—are not able to go to school while DISD is closed, so Patrice has not been looking for work. She is helping the boys complete their online school work, and Caeden is receiving extra help via Skype from a DISD dyslexia specialist. Like Petrina, Patrice's rent is being paid through August by Shared Housing Center, but she also had no furniture when she moved into her East Dallas apartment in February. Shearith Israel congregants fully furnished it and purchased 27 items on a Bed, Bath and Beyond registry. Earlier this month, we gave them $200 for food and their monthly phone bill. Ladder Project Executive Committee member Mindy Fagin, who lives just east of Patrice in Lakewood, has been especially involved with the family—last week, for Chase's birthday, she dropped off a homemade birthday cake and Mattel's UNO card game; she gave them face masks for virus protection, and before the pandemic, had taken the boys to Half Price Books, where she gave them each $15 gift cards.
Both women just received their one-time stimulus checks from the federal government, which should tide them over for the time being. (David did not get a check; he presumes it was sent instead to his ex-girlfriend's mother, who gets court-ordered child support from David for his 21-year-old son who still lives with his grandmother.) We will continue to monitor the women's financial situations, but we do not anticipate giving them cash for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, if any congregant has experience helping elementary school children with dyslexia, it would be a great mitzvah to augment what DISD is doing for Caeden. Please email Laura Miller if you can help at email@example.com.
Patrice Mackey is the third single mom the Ladder Project was helping before the virus struck. We had enrolled her in GED classes four days a week and we were paying for after-school care at the South Dallas YMCA for her two children while she attended classes. The plan was for Patrice to get her GED, in preparation for finding a job, and then we would move her and the children into an apartment (which the Ladder Project would pay for initially) as early as May 1. Shared Housing Center had agreed to let the family stay in the homeless shelter in the interim.
The virus changed everything: Patrice's GED classes were cancelled, and the children stopped going to school due to DISD 's closure. With no job lined up, no full-time child care available, and no way for our congregants to donate their furniture for an apartment during the stay-at-home order, we told Patrice it would be some months before we could move her from the shelter into an apartment. Again, Shared Housing Center was willing to allow the Mackey's to continue to stay with them until we were able to act.
Unfortunately, Patrice was not willing to wait. She decided to move back to an Oak Cliff apartment complex where she had been evicted for non-payment of rent last year and that we believe she cannot afford without income from a job. We again asked her to wait in place until stay-at-home orders expire. She was not willing to do that. We have told Shared Housing Center that we are interested in helping another of their families when it is safe to do so.
What we have learned over the past 18 months is that for the Ladder Project to be successful, we must strictly adhere to our mission: help the people who are also motivated to help themselves, through employment and a sense (even if it is newly acquired) of fiscal responsibility. We cannot be all things to all people. We don't have the resources or experience to become permanent lifelines for people. Instead, we seek to be that firm, critical lift that people need to get out of homelessness to be able to return to financial and emotional self-sufficiency.
Shearith Israel has largely fulfilled that goal in its work with David Corn, although we have come to learn that self-sufficiency can be a long process, as opposed to a quick fix, and that disaster is often one paycheck away for the people we help. We wanted the challenge of working with a family before publicly introducing our model to the local faith community, and we look forward to doing that later this year. In the meantime, please know that all of you who have contributed to the Ladder Project in any way over these past 19 months have performed the ultimate mitzvah in Judaism of saving a life.
If you'd like to support the work of The Ladder Project, you can make a donation HERE
To mark the year anniversary of The Ladder Project our first participant, David Corn, joined us for Rosh Hashanah services, which he greatly enjoyed.
David has reached many milestones this year. He moved out of The Bridge homeless shelter to his own studio apartment, which our congregation furnished, outfitted and subsidized for several months. He got a job at Studio Movie Grill, thanks to congregant Joe Harberg. He's now certified as a tactical team leader, overseeing theater prep operations and training new employees. Since April, he's been totally financially self-sufficient—paying all his bills, including food, phone, DART passes, rent, renter's insurance, and utilities. (The recent tornado hit David's apartment complex, and the Ladder Project paid for David to go to a motel near his job for several nights until power could be restored; we also replaced the food that was spoiled in David's refrigerator and freezer.) David also became noticeably more handsome this year—thanks to Dr. Rowan Buskin, who volunteered his labor to give David dentures (the Ladder Project paid the out-of-pocket expenses). David is also extremely fortunate to have CSI congregant, Dr. Lawrie Friedman, serving as his pro bono general practitioner.
"I don't have words to express how grateful I am for all of the support," David said recently. "I'm growing up again in a way—by rebuilding my life, reconnecting with family, and gaining new family. It's my honor to know you all. Thank you. I couldn't have done it without your support. We continue with the journey."
As David's self-esteem and self-confidence grew this year, he reached out to his 35-year-old son, who he hadn't communicated with in years. He also went to Houston for a poignant reunion with his sister, who he'd been estranged from during his homeless years.
David reunited with his sister, Patricia Gonzalez.
We are now ready to help David get to a new level of independence. Although David enjoys his job, he only makes $12 an hour, the top of the pay scale. David struggles to cover his bills. When emergencies happen—like the tornado—David can't make ends meet without help. And, unfortunately when the theater is slow, David is sometimes let off work early, without pay. AND a significant portion of David's wages are deducted by the state for court-ordered child support for a 20-year-old son, who was raised by his grandmother.
We are actively looking for a job for David that pays at least $15 per hour. Our rabbis made this appeal to the congregation on Yom Kippur Day, but we have yet to be contacted by anyone with a job offer. However, one congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to pay David the difference between his current wage and his dream wage (a difference of $3 per hour) until he finds a new job. David will use this money for emergencies, and will also put it aside for future expenses, particularly car insurance, gas and repairs.
Used Car so David can get to a better paying job
Which brings us to the second ask the rabbis made on Yom Kippur: we are looking for a used car for David so that he can stop relying solely on public transportation. The flexibility that comes with a car will create more opportunities for a better job. David turned down one good job last year that would have required a 2-hour trip on three different DART buses. David just signed a new, year lease at his apartment, which is owned by congregant Michael Ochstein, who made a $5,000 donation to the Ladder Project. We prefer the car be donated to the synagogue but have some Ladder Project funds that could be allocated for this. thanks in large part to David's personal commitment to his job, and the many in-kind donations of furniture, household items and medical care.
We have been interviewing candidates to be our next participant family, and we will have an update about that in the next issue of The Shofar.
Thank you for all you have done to save a life. David certainly feels we have saved his, and we look forward to celebrating his future successes and enjoying his friendship.
Ladder Project Executive Committee: Chair Laura Miller; Mindy Fagin, Glenn Geller, Jeff Hoppenstein, Larry Krasner, Marsha Lev, Andrea Solka, Sally Wolfish
A sermon by Rabbi Adam Roffman
Among the tales in the Roffman family lore is a story about my brother who, when he was very young, before I was born, went out to eat one night with my parents. It was February and the restaurant had been releasing, a week at a time, commemorative plates featuring the faces of the great American presidents. That week, they honored our 16th president, drawn, as usual, in his impressively tall top hat.
“Do you know who that is?” my parents asked my brother.
“Yes!” he answered. “That’s Abraham Lincoln! He freed the slabes!”
No, that’s not a typo. S-l-a-b-e-s. Slabes.
And then he said: “And that’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving!”
I think of that story often this time of year, as I reflect on the meaning of a holiday that holds great significance for American Jews. After all, we have a lot to be thankful for, living in the greatest diaspora community in the history of our people, afforded the rights and privileges denied to us for so many years.
And yet, because we are taught that expressing our gratitude through prayer and ritual is one of the fundamental tasks of daily Jewish life, it seems a little odd that we should celebrate that gratitude on any one day of the year. Is there something more to the nature of this holiday that might help us understand why this day of thanks is, as we say, different from all other days of thanksgiving? And is that “something” also reflected in our tradition?
Turns out—the answer is yes.
One of the most famous symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. We’ve all seen pictures, no doubt, of the basket with a narrow opening that leads to a widening passage filled with the fruits of the season, gourds and grains that are so abundant they spill out of the end of the horn.
As I reread the account of the story of the first Thanksgiving, I realized why both ends of the horn have something to teach us about why those Pilgrims and Puritans were so grateful in 1621.
In his account of those difficult first few years off of Massachusetts Bay, Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford writes:
“The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God.”
The Englishmen who arrived on these shores were expecting something very different from what they found—a land of plenty, with ample resources to build and sustain a growing colony that would generate wealth and prosperity. Instead, they encountered harsh winters, disease, and famine. It wasn’t until the Native-American Squanto taught them how to grow corn that the land delivered on its promise and devastating hunger was replaced overwhelming gratitude at the abundance that now adorned their very full tables.
Like the horn of plenty, those who experienced that first Thanksgiving had known both a narrow, difficult beginning, and a seemingly infinite and expansive present and future now that the vastness and potential of the American landscape was revealed to them. This potential led them and their descendants to spread out as far as their ambition, hard work, and sacrifice could take them, filling their bellies and their pocketbooks with the rewards of the richness of this country.
And yet, we know that the widening of their enterprise came at a great cost for those who had lived for generations on that same land. Eventually, when you spread out as far as you can go, either you will run out of room or you will have to dispossess others of what they own in order to satisfy your own appetite.
We Jews also know a great deal about the challenges of moving from scarcity to abundance, from the narrowness of the meitzar (the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt), to the blessings of a land filled with milk and honey.
In last week’s parasha, Toldot, our patriarch Isaac also runs into some trouble when he tries to expand his territory. In the unfriendly confines of the territory of the Philistines, the wells which were rightly his, an inheritance from Isaac’s father who dug them, were stopped up. Isaac successfully reopens them, but when he finds new source of mayim hayim, living waters, the locals challenge his right to this most precious resource in the arid land of Canaan.
Eventually, Isaac manages to wrestle away a well of his very own—one he names, appropriately, with gratitude to God, Rehovot, the wide-open spaces.
Still, if our sense of gratitude is dependent on our ability to constantly expand outward, to possess more and more, what happens when that isn’t possible or isn’t ethical? If we are only able to say “thank you” when we have more, how will we maintain our gratitude to God when we, inevitably, have less?
One of the rabbinic teachings frequently mentioned this time of year comes from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion.” Rabbi Jonah Gerundi explains further:
“Anyone who is not happy with his lot and is not satisfied with what God, may He be blessed, gave him is a poor person; as it is explained in the verse (Proverbs 15:15), "All the days of a poor man are bad, but one with a good heart has a constant feast." This teaches that all the days of a 'poor man,’ one who desires only money are bad, for ‘a lover of money never has his fill of money': but all the days of the one with a good heart, who is happy with his lot, are good [as the one] one who makes a constant feast.”
Gerundi ingeniously understands the terms “rich” and “poor” to be not indicative of the balance of one’s bank account, or the size of one’s home, or the breadth of one’s holdings, but of the condition of one’s spirit.
If all we desire is to “widen” what we already have, if that is the only thing that gives us satisfaction, then we do not understand the meaning of the word gratitude. If, on the other hand, we can learn to temper our desire to constantly expand, or use that desire to do good for others, those whose lot is still narrow, then we will truly be able to share in a Thanksgiving that is both authentically American and unmistakably Jewish.
by Sarah Lipinsky
Nonstop laughter as we rode the bus, the constant reminders to lower the intense volume from chatty voices, and the endless question-asking of twelve eighth graders, made for four amazing, 16-hour days—and I would do it all again in an instant.
This past weekend the 8th graders from DeReKH visited New Orleans for a social action trip. Our main focuses were on gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness) and successfully integrating our Shearith teens with their new friends from DeReKH.
On day one, we volunteered at Lower 9th Resilient. That afternoon everything the DeReKH leadership team had hoped for fell in place. Naturally. All the teens bonded, talked, and helped one another as we gardened together in the Lower 9th Ward.
Spending Shabbat together in New Orleans was incredibly memorable. The teens led Shabbat services, and two of the teens, one from Anshai and one from Shearith, led Shabbat shacharit in unison.
We studied tzedakah versus gemilut hasadim and learned why acts of kindness are greater than giving tzedakah money. We learned about diversity, economic disadvantages, and poverty in New Orleans where the division of rich and poor is uncomfortably clear. Then we discussed the realities of Dallas’ financial divide. Most of us spend our time between the tollway and Coit Rd, but on the outskirts of this bubble almost 25% of Dallas residents live below the poverty line.
Studying and working together blended and strengthened our DeReKH students. Getting to witness this was the highlight of the trip. I learned how bringing together Shearith, Anshai, and Beth Torah for a joint high school program made DeReKH a truly great program. We not only provide the teens of these three communities with the best religious school education in town, but we create an ideal, holistic experience for all conservative teens across DFW.
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
One of the most oft-cited passages from the Talmud is the text from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 which focuses on the significance of God creating all humanity from Adam, a single human being. According to the text, this teaches us that all people have a common ancestor, that no one can claim “my ancestor was greater than yours,” and that destroying a single life is akin to destroying the entire world, while saving even one single life is as if we have saved a whole world. This profound message, that every person matters equally, is one that, even today, close to 2000 years after the Mishnah was compiled, we still often struggle with putting into practice.
This past Sunday, I joined a dozen of our community members outside Literacy Achieves in West Dallas for the dedication of a Little Free Library, constructed by our social action committee. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept (and before they began this project, I wasn’t either!) a Little Free Library is a 6-foot, public space bookshelf. It’s placed outside, in residential neighborhoods, where residents can freely borrow from and continue to stock a collection of books for all ages. Our member, Mindy Fagin, who volunteers at Literacy Achieves, helped oversee the project from start to finish—building, painting, and installing the library in front of Literacy Achieves—as well as the collection of more than 200 books (so many, they couldn’t all fit!)
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
You’re probably being bombarded with messages from TV, social media, friends, and random strangers to make sure you have a voting plan. I’m here to provide one more, as voting is a Jewish imperative.
Pirkei Avot 3:2 teaches us that we must “pray for the government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive.”
The highest level of the ladder of charity is to provide an individual with the means to support himself, to become self-sufficient, so that never again will he need to rely on the generosity of others to maintain his independence.
Three ways you can help
$36 from every Shearith family
1. Our goal is to have 100% of all Shearith Israel families make a donation of $36 or more to a Housing/Transportation Fund set up specifically for The Ladder Project. This money will go to help David and other homeless people who we will help in the future. All donations are charitable and tax-exempt. You can donate HERE or mail a personal check to the synagogue, 9401 Douglas Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75225 and write The Ladder Project on the memo line.
David, 58, was a resident of The Bridge, Dallas’ 24-hour, downtown homeless facility for 17 months, until he moved into his own studio apartment, thanks to you – the members of Congregation Shearith Israel.
David was born in Oak Cliff. His father worked at the local box factory for thirty-eight years. His mother, a homemaker, was the only true constant in David’s life, supporting him with unconditional love
by Sarah Lipinsky
The Torah teaches us that caring for animals is very important in Judaism. In fact, we are commanded to feed our pets before we feed ourselves. Our youth group, Shorashim, took part in a mitzvah project for Operation Kindness. Operation Kindness cares for homeless cats and dogs in a no-kill environment until
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share