March 30, 2000
The Invisible Population
Shabbat Ha-Chodesh (Numbers 9:1-1:47/ Exodus 12:1-20)
The first time I saw a beggar on the streets of Los Angeles I was shocked. The man, disheveled and filthy, stood on the freeway offramp with a tattered sign: "Will Work for Food." Sure, there are beggars in Calcutta and panhandlers in New York, but not here! I stared at him for a long time until my children began to question: "Why is that man standing there? Why is he so dirty? Why does he look so sad?" That was some years ago. Now, we don't notice. Now, we cruise down the offramp and don't see. The beggars and bag ladies have become part of our urban landscape: There's the tree, the traffic light, the indigent. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the kids don't notice any more. They've grown accustomed to the presence of poverty and degradation in their midst. It no longer shakes them up. And should they notice, they feel no connection, no compassion, no obligation. The poor are another species, citizens of another dimension. They have no claim on us. They are invisible.
This city is filled with the invisible. One in three children in L.A. County lives in poverty. Half the children enrolled in L.A. schools lack health insurance. Twenty-seven percent of adults in Los Angeles lack basic literacy skills. According to the United Way, "Los Angeles is the nation's poverty capital with the largest number of poor of any metropolitan area." Fifteen minutes from our lovely neighborhoods and comfortable homes live families without the most basic necessities.
But we don't see them. They don't disturb our sleep. Few of us will ever find ourselves waiting hours with a whimpering, hurting child in the chaos of a county hospital emergency room. Few will set foot into a dilapidated, overcrowded public school classroom. Fewer still will spend a fearful night amid the sirens and screams of a public housing project. As a consequence of our prosperity, the hopeless and the helpless are out of our view now. Invisible.
We were once invisible. We were the man on the corner with the sign. Worse, we were slaves, society's lowest caste. We were human chattel. But we forget. We have successfully repressed all that. Except once each year when the Jewish tradition brings us back to feel the sting of the lash and the ache of humiliation -- to revisit the stench of the ghetto and the bitterness of exile. "In every generation," instructs the Passover Haggadah, "each must look upon himself/herself as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt." Simply recalling the experience is insufficient. Solemn commemoration is too distant. Each of us must be there personally. For this is the root memory that defines us as Jews. This memory shapes the Jewish heart. "You shall not ignore your needy," teaches Torah, "You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."
The organized Jewish community has focused its attention on Jewish survival, Jewish continuity. The bookshelves of leadership are stuffed with monographs, books, studies charting the "vanishing American Jew." Is it an accident that our own disappearance is coincident with our growing inability to recognize the invisible of the society around us? As the Jewish heart shrinks, so shrinks the Jewish population. The more we've turned inward, to decry our own plight and to obsess on our own politics, the more our children -- the wise, wicked, simple and young -- wonder, "So what?" Or rather, "why bother?"
This week, with the coming of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the Passover season begins in earnest. In just two weeks, we will gather for the Seder feast to partake of matzo and maror, and once again tell our story of slavery and redemption. We will open the door and announce, Kol dich'feen, "Let all who are hungry come and join us! Let all who are in need share our Passover!" We will open the door, but will we look outside? Will we see?
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.