The United States has a homeless crisis. In the year 2000 it was estimated that nearly 3.5 million people were homeless and each year the numbers increase. In order to address this problem the way that non-profit agencies are structured needs to change. States need to decriminalize the state of being homeless as giving tickets and locking people up in jail does not fix the problem and rent control needs to be implemented.
After a long term relationship ended I was living in Denver and found myself in the situation of being homeless after not being able to pay the rent on my apartment. It was the first time I had to use social services and it was an eye opener into the world of poverty and homelessness. I never imagined I would end up in that situation having a master’s degree and a lot of work experience. But there I was and in that experience I learned a lot.
The first service I signed up for was food stamps. I was surprised that when one uses food stamps they are not allowed to purchase hot food. Apparently our government does not feel that the poor should be allowed to eat a warm meal, however one can buy a gallon of icecream. In Denver in order to be on food stamps one has to volunteer at a non-profit agency for a certain number of hours per month. I had no problem with that as I already volunteered at a food bank. However as I learned more about homelessness and the non-profit agencies serving them, the issue of volunteers has a downside which I will discuss later.
I volunteered at a food bank a couple of times a week. I served as a social worker in an office where I would see people before they got their food with any other services they may be in need of. I was in a unique position because I tried a lot of the services before recommending them to others. That is when I learned the horrible truth about non-profits set up to serve the homeless. I went to several agencies that promised help online or a pamphlet I had received. I would make an appointment with the agency and show up to the appointment on time or walk in depending on the agency. A volunteer, many of whom were food stamp recipients, would hand me a sheet of paper with the names, addresses and phone numbers of other agencies that would be able to help me. I would take the piece of paper to other agencies where I was greeted by a volunteer, again a food stamp recipient and handed another sheet of paper with names, addresses and phone numbers of other agencies who would be able to help me.
The only help most of the agencies gave me was to hand me a sheet of paper referring me to another agency, but I never actually received any help. I saw that most of these agencies were staffed with food stamp recipients and not social workers with master’s degrees on that subject. Actually most of the agencies I went to did not do much. I do know however from my master’s degree in management that non-profit agencies receive funding from the United States government and that funding is based upon the number of people served. Each time I went in and was given a sheet of paper with names and numbers of other agencies, that particular agency could mark me down as a person being served. The executives of these agencies were being paid salaries while the agencies themselves were staffed with food stamp recipients. The executives were being paid for doing nothing, and our government was paying them to do nothing. There is no incentive to get people off the street and back on their feet if employees of social service agencies are paid based on the number of people served. If they actually were successful at their job, they would lose their job. The homeless are sent around in circles from agency to agency and receive almost no help.
In Seattle I volunteered at my synagogue’s homeless shelter for women. I would drive a van downtown to pick them up at a shelter there to bring them back to the synagogue where they would spend the night. When I would enter the shelter downtown often the staff would be screaming at the top of their lungs at the homeless women. One time the police were there for some reason and one of them looked at me and said, “Oh my God!” The staff at places that serve the homeless need to be educated and trained and not to view their job as disciplinarians. The homeless are people not animals and should be treated as such. If the police are appalled you know it is bad.
If we restructure the way non-profits are funded there may be more incentive for these non-profits to serve the poor and homeless and help them get back on their feet and into housing. The people who serve the homeless need to be qualified social workers and not food stamp recipients who have no interest in helping the clients at a non-profit. Until this happens the number of homeless in cities all across the United States will continue to grow. We need to hold the agencies helping the homeless accountable for the services they are providing and to make sure their clients are not just given a piece of paper referring them to another agency, but that their agency actually does provide the help and services they advertise themselves as providing.
We as citizens, both wealthy and poor, need to demand from our government that the structure of non-profit organizations be changed. The wealthy do not want to see the homeless living on their streets and the homeless want homes, not pieces of paper referring them to another agency. Let 2018 be the year that the United States tackles its homeless crisis and becomes a model for other countries.
After about 3 months of attending synagogue, Rabbi Telrav left Denver for the East Coast. I stayed at Temple Sinai for a while, but when I got a job as an innkeeper at a bed and breakfast my schedule would make it impossible to attend that synagogue. I decided to attend an Orthodox synagogue as Reform was all I knew.
At the Orthodox synagogue I met with Rabbi Ben Greenberg. He was a wonderful teacher and I was happy to have read To Be a Jew which explains the Orthodox rituals. At this synagogue I attended services with a Mechitza, a wall that separates men and women. During service the rabbi stood in the middle. I learned a great deal about Jewish tradition, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. When my job ended I moved back to the Seattle area.
In Seattle I wasn’t sure where to attend. Luckily the union I belonged to sent me to an event that was held at a synagogue. Rabbi Daniel Weiner spoke at that event and I decided to attend a service. I really felt at home there and began attending. I enjoyed all of the rabbis there and ended up taking the class required for conversion. I worked on my conversion with Rabbi Aaron Meyer. Rabbi Meyer always challenged me to do more. After 5 years of studying Judaism it was time for the mikvah and to make my conversion official.
Going to the mikvah, a ritual bath, was the most spiritual moments of my life. I entered the room with the bath alone and took off the robe I was wearing and entered the bath. Through a screen the rabbis said a prayer and had me repeat it. I then went under the water once. Another prayer was said and I went under again. A third prayer was said and when I went down I knew that when I rose out of the water, after the five years of studying and hard work, I would be a Jew. It was a moment I can not describe in words. I felt that I was becoming the real me.
Becoming a Jew has been the most life changing experience I have had. It has been a positive force in my life and has changed the direction I was going for the better. I have never worked on something so continuously and with so much enthusiasm. Allowing faith to enter my life has made me a strong, more thoughtful person. I thank all who guided me along the journey.
When I arrived at the synagogue the doors were locked. At first I thought I must have had the time or date of our appointment wrong. Then I noticed a call box and pressed the button. A woman asked me why I was there and after telling her I had an appointment with rabbi Telrav she buzzed me in.
Rabbi Telrav greeted me in the lobby and we both walked to his office nearby. In his office was a book shelf along one side of the wall completely full of books. A guitar sat on a stand in the corner. I immediately felt at ease. I sat in a chair and we began discussing how I came to Judaism and what I was looking for from him. I asked about conversion and he told me the process. He would not be the rabbi to handle my conversion as he was moving to the east coast in a few months. I told him I would be happy if he would get me started and I left feeling hopeful. One of the first things he had me do was to eat Kosher. By eating Kosher one is reminded of his beliefs every time he or she eats. I was already eating Kosher by then so that was easy.
I began attending Saturday morning services. These services were held in a small room at the front of the synagogue. Chairs were arranged in a circle with a table holding the Torah scroll in the middle. Most of the prayers were said or sung in Hebrew. I had no idea how to pronounce the words in front of me, so for the first few weeks I listened and read along in the sidir. After a few weeks of just listening I began to participate in the prayers. What fascinated me about the service on Saturday was that sometimes the rabbis led the service and sometimes a congregant was the one to lead.
I continued to meet with Rabbi Telrav every couple of weeks or so. I had to take the lightrail to the edge of Denver and then walk up a huge hill. One day when I was to meet with the rabbi I did not have money for the light rail. In Denver one can board the light rail without a ticket, but if the transit workers check for tickets and one does not have one, they issue a ticket for a larger sum of money. If that ticket is not paid in the correct amount of time, one goes to jail. I decided to risk it as I really needed to be doing what I was doing at that point in my life. Everything was going well and I was almost at my stop. I was the only one left in my rail car when a transit worker came aboard to check for tickets. I stayed calm and kept knitting with the needles that were in my hand. For some reason he never approached me and I got off at my stop. I felt very lucky as I had no means to pay for a ticket had I been issued one.
Rabbi Telrav introduced me to the Talmud and it changed everything. The Talmud is a collection of volumes of commentary by ancient sages and rabbis on the laws in the Torah. The reason this was so life changing for me is that in Seattle my last landlord there made up a huge amount of lies and twisted almost everything that happened while I lived there and somehow got a large number of people to believe her. Never in my life had someone gone to such great lengths to destroy me. However in the Talmud there were many things she did to me and the ancient sages and rabbis agreed with me. While that did not have an immediate affect on my life, just knowing that i was not the bad person she kept trying to make me out to be, gave me hope and peace. It gave me mental strength that had deteriorated with all of the hate going on around me.
The question I am asked most often is why I converted to Judaism. It is not an easy question to answer other than to say that I have always felt Jewish. Since I can remember I have been drawn to Jewish people, entertainers and practices. I began exploring Judaism further when I moved to Denver, Colorado and lived in a Jewish neighborhood. In the neighborhood was a Judaica store and one day I went in and asked the woman behind the counter for a good book to read if one wanted to know more about Judaism. She suggested the book To Be a Jew by Hayim Donin.
I began reading the book and learning about Jewish rituals and practices. I began implementing some of the practices in my life. In order to read the Torah I had to walk five miles to the library downtown, which I began doing several days a week. Besides reading the Torah I also began losing weight from the miles I was walking everyday culminating in my losing 100 pounds. Although I was reading about Judaism I had not yet been to a synagogue or talked with a rabbi.
One of the practices I implemented in my life was to make sure everyone was fed. I volunteered a couple of days a week at a food bank as a social worker who provided clients with local resources for all of their needs. One day I woke up to find it had snowed heavily the night before. I left early to walk the 7 miles to the foodbank, a distance at the time I was use to traveling by foot. The food bank closed at 5PM and when I left it was dark. Dressed in a wool sweater and coat I began the 7 mile walk back home.
As I walked along the bicycle path the temperature began to drop. That night it was around zero degrees. I had just moved to a part of town I still was not real familiar with. After walking for quite a while I realized there were no longer streetlights in view. I was lost. The cold began to make me shiver uncontrollably. In the snow and the dark the local terrain looked much different than it did during the day light. I turned around and began retracing my steps to see if I could figure out where I had gone wrong on my journey home. As I walked along the path my shivering got worse. I did not have a phone, there were still no street lights and I had not seen anyone else along the path. My teeth were chattering and my entire body was shaking. I thought I might freeze to death if I did not find the way home soon. Finally I saw lights and a path that led to a street. It happened to be my street and I made it home alright.
When I got home I got in the shower and stood under the warm water until it ran cold. I got into bed with warm blankets and covers but I was not able to truly feel warm for a few days afterwards. The near death experience motivated me to seek out a synagogue. There was one not too far away and the following day I called a rabbi to schedule a meeting with him.