The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
As someone on the line between childhood and adulthood, I’m exploring what it means to make choices for myself. During high school, I chose where to apply for a job and where to apply for college. Now, I have chosen to teach religious school and to pursue the rabbinate. I am lucky to be in a position where I can make choices to benefit myself, like choosing to be in Machon Kaplan. I realize that because of who I am as a middle class, white, Jewish woman, I am able to make these choices. However, so many Americans are not able to access as much opportunity as I have, because they do not have the economic or financial security as they ought.
For my Bat Mitzvah, I read from Ki Tavo, where God instructs us to aid the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the Levite: people who are not able to make a living wage for themselves because of circumstance or background. In present day America, we recognize the most vulnerable among us as children who need free/reduced school meals or primary breadwinners trying to support their families on the minimum wage. Because of a broad array of circumstances and policies, these people cannot economically care for themselves; because we are Jews, God instructs us to take action. I am fortunate to be in a position where I can help others and to have learned from people who saw this position as an opportunity. I’m thinking of my father, Rabbi Ron Symons, who was arrested in 2014 after protesting for an increase in minimum wage at Pittsburgh’s largest employer, which pays their CEO millions and their janitors under living wage. No matter the light it casts on us, it is our duty as Jews to fight so everyone can make their own economic choices.
The poverty rate in America has hovered around 15% since 2014. 40% of Americans living in poverty (approximately 36 million people) are lifted out of poverty by federal safety nets: approximately 44 million Americans rely on SNAP every month, and half of households with a working-age, non-disabled adult working while receiving SNAP, and 80% working in the year before receiving SNAP. Though many safety net programs have a work requirement, they are generally unsuccessful for people in poverty because working in minimum wage jobs can be unpredictable and unstable. On top of the low pay, hours may not be reliable; there is rarely paid leave; child care must be arranged. Essentially, choices like where to go to university are taken from these hardworking Americans who must instead decide between paying rent or paying for transportation.
I find it challenging to think about the far too many people who live in poverty today in America. The truth is that raising the federal minimum wage would help a large percent of Americans make ends meet. In April of 2016, the Raise the Wage Act (S. 1150, H.R. 2150) was introduced, a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $12.00 by 2020. Take action today and urge your Member of Congress to support the Raise the Wage Act.
In Ki Tavo, the reasoning for helping others is, “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The reality is that too many Americans live in poverty, and policies such as the Raise the Wage Act would make the path toward opportunity and economic security a reality for so many more Americans.
Ilana Symons is an intern with Machon Kaplan at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Originally from Pittsburgh, she is a rising sophomore at New York University where she is studying philosophy and Judaic Studies.