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Bamidbar - Housing, and The Responsibility of those who Count

06/08/2022 06:33:36 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

We Jews love to count.

We count time - today is Shabbat, so it's the 7th day of the week. Tonight is Shavuot, so it is the 49th day of counting the Omer, since the start of Passover. Today we are celebrating a Bat-mitzvah, the age of moral responsibility, so it's the 13th year of life.

We count things. Did you know that we have seven aliyah's to the Torah every Shabbat, but five for a holiday service, and three for a weekday service?

And - we also count people.

As you heard for our bat-mitzvah earlier this morning, our Torah portion today is filed with a precise accounting of how many men were in each of the 12 tribes. 3000 yeas later, we're still reading those numbers. And still discussing who was counted and who wasn't, and why - as our bat-mitzvah beautifully described. And lots of discussion goes into who counts in the minyan. And whose vote counts. And how many members does the synagogue have, and what is the maximum capacity of the room, and how many students are in a class, and on, and on... 

Of course, it's not just Jews who like to count. It's part of the glory of being human. Unlike any other species on earth, we human beings can count and we use that ability to give structure to our lives. Especially our social lives. 

As our bat-mitzvah profoundly explained this morning - when we count ourselves, we are drawing a connection among the ones who count. Those we count are in, and those we do not count are out.

If you are counted, you are part of the tribe. You are worthy of human dignity. You deserve the right to care for yourself, and also to know that others in the "tribe of the counted" will care for you at times when you are in need. 

And those who are not counted?

Imagine yourself standing in a dark apartment. There's mold growing on the walls. The mold is visible, and it gives the air a dank smell. Your throat feels a little itchy. You're trying to conduct a conversation with the person who lives there, but you have to suppress a shriek when something scuttles across the floor. You see the long, naked tail of a rat disappear into the wall. Suddenly a brick falls from the ceiling, and nearly hits you on the head.

This sounds like the slums in some poor country far from here - or maybe the tenements of New York a hundred years ago. But it's not. These conditions are not far from us in time or space - This is how many of our neighbors are living, right here, right now, in Redwood City.

How many of our neighbors? We don't know, because no one is counting.

Nani Friedman is a community organizer with a local group called Faith in Action. A number of CBJ members have become very active with Faith in Action. If you are interested, ask me afterward and I'll connect you with them. 

Nani says she and her colleagues have been in hundreds of apartments in Redwood City similar to the one I just described. The brick falling from the ceiling is not an exaggeration, she is aware of it happening multiple times. One of their members got hurt when a brick from his ceiling hit him in the face. One time, Nani was talking to a tenant in his apartment, when an entire kitchen sink fell through from the apartment above.

I asked Nani how many units she thinks are in such gross violation of safety codes. She couldn't give a numeric answer, because no one is keeping records. But she said that just one of the many properties that they are working with has 450 units. And they know that all of them are in really bad shape - because they have successfully organized into a Tenants Association. When tenants are organized, then they count. 450 in this case.

Otherwise, of course, it's not just that no one is counting. No one is doing anything to change the situation, either. Working class tenants have no recourse. There are laws on the books that prohibit those kinds of living conditions, but the tenants have no leverage to get them enforced.

If they ask for even a basic repair, the landlord will use it as an excuse to jack up rent that is already barely affordable. One Faith in Action activist, a man named Carlos, could not get his front door to stay shut. He asked the property manager to fix it and to change a lightbulb. The manager did - the repair took all of two screws- and for that plus the lightbulb he increased the rent bu $400. Carlos no longer requests repairs. Anything that has to be fixed in his apartment he does himself, with his own resources. 

Another activist, Christina, lost her job during the pandemic and fell behind on her rent. The state had passed eviction protections, and also rent relief plans. Christina did everything she was supposed to do, submitting her paperwork which would entitle her landlord to collect 80% of her missing rent from state funds. The landlord started sending regular eviction notices anyway. One day, he knocked on her door, tried to push his way into her apartment, and began shaking his fists at her and yelling at the top of his lungs: "Show me your taxes, I know you are lying." He was yelling so loud, all the neigbors came out of their units to watch the spectacle. Can you imagine the depth of Christina's humiliation?

Landlords are under enormous stress, too. Even when their tenants were responsible, like Christina, and completed their paperwork, in order to accept the government's offer of 80% of the rent the landlord had to forgo 20%. And it took time and effort to get the payments, and there were bills to keep up with. Despite this stress, I hope and believe that the vast majority of landlords and property managers treat their tenants with human dignity, and professional courtesy. But the landlord-tenants relationship has an inherent power imbalance, because the tenant has so much more at stake. It's their home. And Redwood City has 31,000 rental units. So even if only, say, 10% of owners and managers behave badly, that would be a lot of people living with harassment. 

And for those people, they endure it because there is no recourse, and because always, looming in the background, is the fear of homelessness.

Of being shoved out of these units that are barely fit to live in, and having no place to live at all.

There are now 1808 homeless people living in San Mateo county. When you are homeless, you do not get counted. But as a statistic, a thing to be solved - rarely as a human being.

As our bat-mitzvah shared with us, the command in today's Torah portion to census is expressed through the idiom שאו את ראש - lift up the heads of al the Israelites. To be counted is to be lifted up, to be seen as a full member of the community. 

One 17th century commentator, Rabbi Yeshayahu HaLevi Horovitz, focused on the word "head" in that expression. It doesn't say lift up all the Israelites, it says lift up the heads of the Israelites. From this he learns: "Every person is a head, an important personage.."

It can't be easy to experience yourself as "an important personage", if you are living with the kind of fear and abuse endured by Carlos, and Christina, and hundred - perhaps thousands - of vulnerable tenants in Redwood City. 

But Horovitz's commentary doesn't leave it there. "Nobility brings obligation. Every person of Israel must feel a sense of extra responsibility for their actions, for we each have influence, whether for good or bad."

Nani has been doing this work for five years, first as a volunteer and now two years on staff. I asked her how she has the emotional strength to keep it up. She said her work is uplifting, because she is helping people find their own power.

Rabbi Horovitz would say that we , who already know we count, have an extra obligation to use our influence for good. 

Nani is suggesting something even more profound. Those who are excluded from the count, can band together, create their own influence, and use it to make sure that in the future they do count. 

During my studies with our bat-mitzvah, we kept returning to appreciate the importance of seeing multiple sides of any issue. That is certainly true of an issue as complicated as housing. I can not claim to understand all the economic pushes-and-pulls to say with confidence that I would support all of Faith in Action's platforms - now, or ever. Faith in Action's leaders themselves are willing to shift their stance, as situations change and their understanding deepens

But I do know a few things for certain. I believe Nani when she says that too many tenants in Redwood City suffer harassment. Substandard living conditions, by the way, are a form of harassment, because they create an atmosphere of intimidation. It's against the law, and that means our government has a responsibility to figure out how to make sure the law is enforced. 

I also know that it is not ok that in a place as wealthy as this, so many people have no home. Thank God for Lifemoves and a few other organizations, well over half have the temporary protection of shelters. Much, much better than living on the streets. But let's not pretend that being driven from your home and to the instability of a shelter does not cause deep trauma, regardless. Linda Leeb, a lay leader here at CBJ, pointed out that we need preventive care - solutions that will keep families in their homes, so they do not become homeless in the first place.

And finally, Pamela Ehrlich, another CBJ lay leader, pointed out that our voices count the most when we act on local issues. When you show up for a federal election, you are one in over 20 million Californian votes. When you show up for a City Council, your voice is one of just tens in the room.

Pamela and Linda asked me to tell you that housing issues are on the agenda for the Redwood City council on June 13th and June 27th. I urge anyone who lives or works in Redwood City to participate. If you don't live in Redwood City itself, there's also a lot that is being done at the county level. Find out what's going on. Think about the issues from multiple sides. Make your voice heard.

We are among the tribe of the counted. That means we have influence, and a responsibility to use that influence for the good.

Thu, September 29 2022 4 Tishrei 5783