This sermon was given on Erev Yom Kippur by Rabbis Sunshine, Roffman & Wallach
On Erev Yom Kippur, our prayers begin to slip the earthly bonds of gravity. By the conclusion of this most sacred day, they are propelled straight through the gates of heaven. And what guides their way? A ladder.
Ya’ale tachanuneinu me’erv, v’yavo shavatenu mi’boker, v’yera’eh rinuneinu ad e’rev.
As dusk turns to evening, it seems that our voices will allow our contrite supplications to clear only the ladder’s bottom rungs. But by morning, the urgency of our pleas accelerates their course. Finally, as the sun’s rays fade into the darkness once again, somehow, through the delirium of our hunger and our exhaustion, our prayers emerge atop the apex of the ladder, transformed, as if by an unseen force, from cries of desperation to unadulterated songs of elation.
It was our patriarch Jacob who first discovered this heavenly ladder in the wilderness of the Negev. Fleeing from his father’s house, our exhausted ancestor, with only a rock for his pillow, dreamt of a stairway set upon the ground, whose top reached far into the sky. And on its rungs, angels of God—ascending and descending–the gleam of their wings igniting a pathway through the thickness of night to the loftiest of destinations.
Since that fateful moment, our people have always understood that to walk the path of God requires us not to put one foot in front of the other, but one foot above the other. We seek elevation not just in our spiritual lives, but in our relationships with others. We seek not only to raise ourselves up, but, as a light unto the nations, to raise up every human being on this earth until the prayers of all living souls ascend with ours and join the heavenly chorus.
But the reason we have all gathered here tonight, is that though we may be able to see the ladder’s end, we know it remains an elusive goal, a goal even Jacob himself never achieved. Not long before his death, Jacob appears before Pharaoh, reunited at last with his favorite son Joseph, a son he had long believed to be dead. “The years of my sojourn on Earth are one hundred and thirty, yet few and hard have been the days of my life and my achievements pale in comparison with those of my forebears.”
How strange. How sad. Jacob was witness to, perhaps, the clearest and most vivid pathway to holiness ever revealed to man by God and yet, by the end of his life, his feet had barely left the ground. And though Jacob struggled mightily with family and with himself, what he discovered is that it’s impossible to climb a ladder if it’s not rooted firmly in the earth. It was impossible for Jacob to climb the ladder because he spent most of his life homeless.
Whether it was fleeing from a brother who threatened to kill him, or serving a father-in-law who robbed him of his wages, Jacob never slept as soundly, or woke up as optimistic and energized as he did after his encounter with the ladder. And it has been our fate, as B’nei Yisrael, as a nation who shares the name Jacob was given after wrestling with an angel of God, to reach for the same heights, only to suffer much of the same indignity.
For two millennia, the Jewish people roamed the earth as a homeless nation as we were kicked from one corner of the globe to another, exiled from our promised land. It was our homelessness that disempowered us, that allowed other nations to assign us the lowest stations in life, to deprive us of our dignity so that we could serve as the scapegoat for their inadequacies and self-loathing.
What changed our fate? In 1948, we returned to our land, we returned home. The state of Israel gave Jews the security and stability to climb to the upper echelons of academia and technology, culture and philanthropy, military might and diplomatic influence.
And here in our own native land, it seems that the story of nearly every Jewish family begins with a matriarch and patriarch who arrived on our shores with only their children in tow and the shirts on their back. Through decades of hard work and perseverance, they pulled themselves up the ladder of American opportunity, gifting their children and grandchildren a level of prosperity their own parents and grandparents could never have imagined.
And yet, over these past decades, this same path to financial independence that was so clear for so many, for so long, has become obscured, unpredictable, and for some, downright impassible.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest kept secrets in our city, hidden beneath the veneer of tremendous prosperity, is that the gap between those at the top of the ladder and those who cannot even grasp its bottom rung is wider here than in almost every other major metropolitan area in the country. While the expansion of our economy has increased our city’s population by ten percent over the past two decades, the number of Dallas residents living in poverty has nearly doubled, the second fastest growing poverty rate in the country.
It’s no surprise then, to learn that the number of people living on the streets in Dallas and Collin County increased by 10% this past year and that, overall, the homeless population jumped by some 23%. What may be surprising to some of us, however, is that the number one cause for homelessness in individuals is not addiction to drugs or alcohol or untreated mental illness, but the combination of the lack of affordable housing and low wages or underemployment.
Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour, peaked fifty years ago in 1968, around the same time many of our parents and grandparents found themselves on a footing that was solidly middle class. That makes these jobs worth about 10 percent less today, while the cost of healthcare, education, and other basic needs have either increased apace or skyrocketed.
And the cost of the most basic need of all, housing, the first expense most of us put into our monthly budgets, the one that determines how much money we have left over to feed ourselves, care for our children, and invest in their future, has become prohibitive. In 2012, there were 10.3 million working poor in America, classified by the department of Housing and Urban Development as extremely low income.
How many rental units were available to those 10 million hard working Americans? 5 million, leaving more than half unable to take care of themselves well enough to raise their station in life, or worse, one crisis away from being out on the street.
Two years ago, after a Friday night service in our main sanctuary with the Dallas Street Choir, we learned from COO Sam Merton, about the incredible work being done at The Bridge, a state-of-the-art institution, built as a public-private partnership, that not only shelters the homeless, but also gives them the treatment, counseling and training necessary to facilitate their transition from dependence to independence. And though, with the leadership of our congregant Laura Miller, we raised $10,000 that evening for the choir, hearing about the difficulties these women and men face in restarting their lives fueled the spark for an even more ambitious campaign to combat homelessness in our city.
This summer, Laura arranged a lunch meeting for members of our staff and lay leadership at The Bridge with several guests who had demonstrated significant progress over a number of months–gaining steady employment or a strong foothold in their struggle to overcome mental illness or addiction, yet, still lacked the resources to find suitable housing. It was at that lunch that we first met David.
David was born at Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff. His father, John, worked at a box factory for 38 years. Though John paid off the home he and his wife Betty owned on Bayview Drive, David’s parents had no money for technical school or college. That led to David bouncing around in low-paying jobs that never lasted long enough to enable him to establish his own home away from his parents.
He reached the high point of his working life when he took a job at a Blockbuster video, eventually becoming store manager at several different locations. But when the chain got a new regional manager, David got into a dispute with him and lost his job. Around the same time, he met a customer named Amy with whom he entered into a tumultuous, 15-year-long, off-and-on again relationship. In 1998, Amy gave birth to David’s son, Jordan, who is now 20 years old. The couple lived in several different places, but each time they broke up David moved back home.
He was living at his parent’s home in February 27, 2011, when their car was T-boned at an intersection in Duncanville. His father was gravely injured, but his mother broke her neck and died within hours. David received a call from the police at 10:10 pm with the news. In the bleak aftermath, he realized he was depressed, perhaps not for the first time: “I didn’t have a lot to hold onto before the accident,” he told us, “but after the accident, my life unraveled. If I didn’t have any faith in God, I would have killed myself that day.”
For the next two years, he became a full-time caretaker for his dad, whose injuries and memory problems left him unable to care for himself. The two lived alone in their longtime family home, subsisting on John’s pension of $600 per month.
Just when it seemed things could not get worse, in November 2013, the police knocked on the door and arrested David for failing to appear in court for a child support case, filed by Jordan’s grandmother. Though David told the police his father would not be able to survive on his own, he was booked into the Lew Sterrett Justice Center in downtown Dallas. With no money and no way to contact his family, David sat in jail for 110 days, alone.
Eventually, he came home to a house that had been broken into and looted; his father nowhere to be found. The $1,100 David had squirreled away in his bedroom was gone; the grass was overgrown, and utility bills piled up.
After his arrest, David’s father sat in their home, unattended, with no fresh food, for 30 days. He was eventually found the week after Christmas by one of David’s cousins, who– professing not to know where David had gone, or if he had abandoned his father – put the family home on the open market, leaving David with no legal rights to the house he had grown up in. When he nonetheless attempted to stay in the house, his cousin called the police, then had him evicted by a judge.
“I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go just get a lawyer because I had no money. I went through the yellow pages and called some lawyers randomly. One attorney wanted $15,000 to work the case. One wanted $5,000 just to look at it. I gave up.”
David’s dad died in a nursing home 1 year and 1 month after his son’s arrest. And David, now homeless, turned to a neighbor down the street and asked if he could sleep on the couch. But it was only a temporary solution. Finally, he borrowed a few dollars from someone he once worked for and bought a bus ticket to The Bridge. That was March 2017.
He has lived there ever since, working hard to re-set his life. He graduated from a mat on the ground, sleeping next to 200 others to living in the 100-bed dormitory, reserved for those who show progress toward independent living.
The most important person in his life is his longtime caseworker at The Bridge, Paige Furst, who believes in him and his potential to succeed. “Get a job,” she told him, “and function as normally as you can in this place.”
“She never told me what to do,” he said “she just let me talk to her and usually I’d find solutions by myself.”
And he did. He began working at a Deep Ellum restaurant washing dishes, then moved, last February, to his current employer, a janitorial service that cleans El Centro College. He is a hard worker and was proud to be promoted recently from the night shift to days – and given a raise from $8.50 to $9 per hour.
Although he has been careful with his money all year, such a low income simply does not allow him to save enough money for a security deposit and basic living necessities so that he can leave The Bridge. Not to mention the fact that the state has been withdrawing up to $600 per month from his paychecks — 45 percent of his income – to pay child support for Jordan, who, at 20 years old, is still living with his maternal grandmother.
David does not resent supporting the only child he is still in touch with, but the Bridge has pushed him as far up the ladder toward the goal of living in his own apartment that his own financial circumstances will allow.
But over the summer, two things happened that began to change that reality.
First, his court-appointed lawyer obtained a reduction in his monthly child support payments, down to $275 per month.
Second, he met a determined group of Jews from Congregation Shearith Israel who were moved by his story, by the conviction of his faith, and by the imperatives of their own.
“Tell me, David,” Laura asked him, “when you dream of a better life, what does it look like?”
“When I lay my head down on the pillow at night, I see myself waking up in the morning in my own bed, in my own home, showering and dressing in my own bathroom, walking into my own kitchen, making myself a cup of coffee, and going to work.”
Together, we are going to make David’s dream come true. And here’s why:
Our faith began when God charged Abraham with bringing tzedek and mishpat, justice and fairness to a world sorely lacking both. We practice tzedakah, not out of pity or mercy, but because we believe that when a person is denied access to those basic needs required to maintain his dignity–food, shelter, love, companionship–because of circumstances beyond his control or a cycle of poverty he was born into but did not create—that is an injustice.
It is our responsibility as Jews to level the playing field, to help bring the ladder of opportunity within the grasp of every soul who finds the strength and the determination to climb it.
And yes, it is also our obligation to take care of our own before we see to the needs of others. We do that very well–the contributions of our own members to Jewish causes easily clears seven figures. Surely, together, we can muster a small percentage of that sum to change the life of one man, forever. As we learn in the Talmud in tractate Gittin:
M’farnesin aniyei nochrim im aniyei yisrael, u’mvakrin cholei nochrim im cholei yisrael, v’kovrin me’tei nochrim im mitei yisrael, mipnei darchei shalom.
Jews are obligated to sustain the Gentile poor along with the Jewish poor, to attend the sick and to provide for the burial of the dead of non-Jews along with those of our own people, all on account of peace.
Our dedication to tikkun olam, to the repair of this precious earth in which we all share, does not come from any ulterior motive. We do not do this to proselytize, to curry favor with those in power, or to win sympathy for our own causes. We do this for one reason and one reason alone: because it is the right thing to do, because that is who we are, and because we believe that our actions can inspire others to follow our example, paving the surest path we know to an enduring peace.
Finally, we will do this because we believe in second chances, in the power of teshuva to reform and transform us. And friends, when you meet David in the coming weeks, and we will all have the opportunity to do so next Wednesday evening at a dessert reception here at Shearith Israel at the conclusion of our Sukkah Hop, you will learn very quickly, that he shares in that conviction. “I know I shouldn’t still be here,” David told us, “but if I am, that means that God has kept me alive for a purpose I haven’t yet achieved, to become the better person I know I can be.”
Yes, David has made mistakes. But each of us, over the course of the next 24 hours, will beat our breast time and time again in regret and contrition. Our families and our friends and our God stand ready to forgive us. Doesn’t David, who for too long has languished alone with only God to hear his cries, deserve the same?
Maimonides, in his code of law, the Mishneh Torah, lists eight levels of tzedakah, eight ways of sustaining the poor, each one more meritorious than the next. The highest level of that 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.
This evening, we launch the Ladder Project—an ambitious congregational initiative to lift up the life of one homeless person, in accordance with the teaching in our mishnah that whoever saves one life saves the universe that life can create. This pilot program, conceived by Laura and our klei kodesh, and already supported both practically and financially by a terrific executive committee and a 30-member advisory committee, is based on a simple, yet profound premise: transition one homeless person from the streets to self-sufficiency. As Laura has said, “If our 1,000 Shearith Israel families can’t lift one person out of homelessness, who can?”
The early stages of the project are already underway. We are enormously indebted to our member Michael Ochstein who has already allowed David to sign a lease for a studio apartment in a building he owns for $705 per month, despite David having no credit rating and no money for a security deposit, surely something few other landlords in our city would do. He will move in in just a week and a half to an apartment we will subsidize and stock with the basics—simple furniture, kitchen and sanitary supplies. To support these efforts, we ask for a minimum donation of $36 per member family, 100% participation from every person in this generous and open-hearted community. In addition, you can help with the purchase or donation of items from a registry created especially for David’s new home. Funds raised will go towards David’s annual DART pass, and to supplement his rental and utility expenses until his credit has improved and his income has increased. And when David is self-sufficient, we will use that money to help another person. And another. And another.
We also need volunteers—to deliver these supplies in the coming days and weeks, and more importantly, to provide David the companionship and support he needs over the coming months so that he does not face this transition alone. Shira and I have already taken David to dinner, and the Executive Committee drove David to see his apartment this past weekend, and to help him sign his lease. You will like him.
Finally, we need your help in finding David a job that will pay him a living wage of at least $12-15 an hour, so that by the end of this year we will have put him on a sustainable path to self-sufficiency. By the end of this week, you will be receiving a congregation-wide email providing more details on the help we need and how you can sign up.
We can do this. And together, we will have merited the fulfillment of the highest level of kindness one person, one community, can do for another. In return, David has pledged to do all he can to ensure his success—to hold down a job, to enroll in a financial management workshop, to be transparent with us about his income and his expenses and to contribute fully to the goal of his financial independence with the continued help of his case worker at The Bridge.
And though our primary goal this year is to boost David up the ladder of economic opportunity and stability, we are launching this project not just to contribute to the effort to eradicate homelessness in our city, but to shine the spotlight on an innovative new model that will provide a blueprint to faith communities throughout the city and throughout the country so that, if we are successful, they can follow our lead.
Roughly 4,000 homeless people live in our area, one that has nearly 3,000 religious institutions.
Which means that if each church or synagogue or mosque committed to take one homeless person, or family, off the streets, the number of homeless would drop 70 percent by next year’s census.
As the ladder to heaven faded from Jacob’s view and the earthly world around him came slowly back into focus, these words from God echoed in his mind, words that would remain with him forever:
“Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back home to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.”
We are the children of Jacob, the sons and daughters of Israel. This ladder, this precious access to the most sacred of places, is now our legacy and our responsibility. May God give us the wings of angels to usher the needy, the penitent, and those who believe in the saving power of His grace and His goodness, from its lowest rung to its highest.
So that next year, when the gates lock before our eyes, we will each be able hear the sweet song of redemption, knowing that just as God has fulfilled his promise to us, so too have we fulfilled our promise to Him by giving one more of his creations the most precious gift of all: home.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share