VaYechi – A Housing Crisis

The stories we tell about our past inform the actions we take to shape our future.

I’d like to tell you about an interesting experience I had this week.

Rabbi Ezray and I both participate in a group of interfaith clergy that meets regularly to support each other in our work.  An email went out to our group, asking us to join with lay leaders and community organizers on a Zoom call with our state senator, Josh Becker. The topic? To ask him to support two bills that would extend protections for tenants through the end of the pandemic.

If you own your own home, If you work in a sector that was not hard-hit during the pandemic, If you have significant savings you can fall back on –   you may not be aware that eviction protections expire on January 31st.  

This pandemic has been hard, but many of us are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Already a number of people in our community have  gotten the vaccine.  Soon, we will all be vaccinated, and life can return to normal.  I can almost taste it.  I entered 2021 feeling hope.

But I know that millions of Californians entered 2021 feeling dread.  And I do mean millions.  The US census asked people if they were likely to “need to leave this house in the next two months due to eviction”. Of those Californians who responded to the census in the late fall, 43% said they were at least somewhat likely to lose their housing, and 7% said very likely.  And by the way, the national numbers are even worse.  Scale those percentages by the total number of renters, and that’s an awful lot of people lying awake at night, worrying about where they will go when protections expire in just one month. 

Some will move in with friends – cramming multiple families into spaces that were already too small.  We know that overcrowding is a major reason why the pandemic has hit poor, urban communities harder than any other group. That means another surge of cases, more deaths – just as the vaccine is becoming available.  How tragic would that be?!  

Others will simply be out on the streets. 

The issue is not simple.  When tenants don’t pay rent, their landlords often can’t meet their mortgage payments. It’s like a game of hot potato. Definitely not fair that the most vulnerable in our community should always be left holding the heat, but it also doesn’t seem right to toss it to the property owners and leave it with them.  And it’s not necessarily just mortgage payments – insurance, utilities, sometimes obligations to contractors, often incurred because of city ordinances requiring upgrades. As one landlady said to me – a member of our CBJ community – “I am suffering along with my tenants.”   We need to figure out a way to share the responsibility more fairly.

Several CBJ members have been working on housing protection.  Pamela Ehrlich has been the most active, and she wrote to CBJs social justice group asking us to join that same call with Josh Becker. The purpose was to support these two bills that would extend rent protection and offer relief to small landlords. The timing is urgent and the issue is critical. Also, I wanted to support Pamela and my fellow clergy, so I joined the call.

Some interesting observations about that call.  There were a lot of Jews on the screen. Our Pamela introduced Faith in Action Bay Area, the community organizing group that had arranged the call. The  Faith in Action rep who had actually scheduled the call – Nani Friedman – is also Jewish, also spoke, but only very, briefly.  In fact, though there were rabbis, pastors, and several lead organizers on the call, except for Pamela and Nani’s brief comments, none of us spoke. 

That’s because the group’s philosophy is that the people closest to the pain need to lead the action. The two people given the most time on this call were tenants fearing eviction. They read statements they had prepared themselves, in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. But as one woman in particular spoke – an older woman – I could see the faces of the Spanish speakers on the screen growing more and more somber.  This included two CBJ members whom I know to be fluent.  One looked as if she was about to cry, and just knowing the subject, and hearing the vulnerability in the speaker’s voice, I started to tear up myself.  

Then came the translation. The woman had shared that she had gotten Covid, and was fired from her job. Then her husband got Covid, and he was fired. They can’t pay their rent and have nowhere to go. “But”, she said, “At least we don’t have small children depending on us.” Many of her neighbors have children, and they are all so afraid.

That’s when a tear escaped my eyes.

You wouldn’t need to hold any particular ideology or religion or background to feel the tug of compassion for this woman’s testimony. It’s just part of being human, to be able to see another person’s pain and want to respond.

But how you respond – whether you shake your head in sympathy and then try to forget about it, or whether the story sits with you and provokes action, and if so, what type of action? That very much depends on who you are.  What your personal story is, and what bigger stories you connect with.

For me, this woman’s story connected with my family’s story, one that many Jews share. Like her, he made a difficult journey to come to America, escaping poverty and hardship in hopes for a better future.  Like her, he worked hard and often could not make ends meet. He lived in small rental units, did not speak English at first, and spoke with a foreign accent – in his case, Yiddish – until the day he died.  And his story connects with the much bigger Jewish story – one that, Alek, you, too, are a part of. For centuries our people were tossed from one country to the next. We were landless and unwanted. That is the Jewish story – right from the very beginnings, when Jacob and his sons fled from Mesopotamia, to Israel, to Egypt – Jews have been refugees and immigrants.

And so for me, when I hear an immigrant woman tell me she fears she will be tossed from her home, my Jewish story is activated and I want to ACT!  

But instead, at least on that call, I had to sit and listen.  And, honestly, it was a little frustrating. Even though that one woman’s testimony was powerful, for the most part the call was awkward. We had only 30 minutes with the senator, and everything had to be translated – so that meant really only 15 minutes worth of content. The senator was ready to engage with us, and I would have loved to be part of a discussion with him about the pro’s and con’s of the various proposed bills, and balancing tenants’ needs with landlords’ needs and how we can do this without setting the two groups against each other.  None of that back-and-forth could happen. In addition to the language barrier, the speakers were nervous. After their prepared statements, they read prepared questions, missing the fact that Josh had already answered those exact questions.

Afterward, most of the CBJ folk who had been on that call met on a different Zoom link to discuss. We were all motivated to help, and others felt as I did that we wanted to tell the organizers how to do things better for the next call with our assemblyman.  But Pamela explained that we are essential as support, but not the main actors. She said the people who are living the reality of poverty are running a marathon. They are incredibly strong and resilient. And we are driving along beside them in our cars.  Some day, I have no doubt, they or their children will be driving, too.  But for now, it’s on us to slow down, get to know them, ask what they need and go get it for them if we can – but not to offer them the passenger seat while we remain at the wheel.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Jacob looked back on the days of his immigrant life and described them as short and bad – מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י. 

In this week’s portion, Jacob gathered his children around his deathbed and tried to tell them their family story.  He wanted to tie it all together – to bring the story of the past into the future.  Because that’s what we do. The way we tell the stories of our past shapes how we make our future. 

But Jacob was too ambitious.  He wanted to predict the story all the way to its end. To see this, we have to look carefully at his opening words:

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃

And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” (Gen. 49:1)

The translation “in the days to come” is a gloss here.  The Hebrew is אַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים, which literally means “after the days”.  It’s a common phrase in the books of the prophets, and there it is usually translated as “the end of days”.  אַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים is generally understood to refer to the days of the Messiah – an imagined, idealized future, in which human beings have resolved all the complexities of sharing the resources of our messy, beautiful planet, and we are all able to live together in peace. 

Most of the commentators on this verse agree: Jacob wanted to describe for his children a Messianic future, and he failed. I’d like to share with you my favorite comment on this verse, from the 19th century Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk – with thanks to Rabbi Barry Katz who found the Kotsker’s commentary.  The Kotsker said:

Why does he not reveal what will happen at the end of days? The answer is that Jacob himself did not know the secret.

Based on Rashi’s interpretation, “The Divine Presence departed from him.” God hints to him from the heavens that Jacob did not really want to know. Better that he not know the end or the beginning of redemption but that (his children should) yearn for this knowledge with a great longing.

We do yearn for a better world, with a great longing. The goal of mitzvah is to fix our world, and bring that redemption. But the world is complex and it’s not always clear how to get there.

A lot of people are hurting right now really bad. And in one months time, a lot of people may be hurting a lot worse.  We are commanded to act, now!  Mitzvah literally means commandment.

 But what exactly the action is, is not 100% clear. But that doesn’t mean we sit back and wait. It means we must stay involved.  Donate to LifeMoves homeless shelters.  Step forward to help us plan more actions to support them.  And join CBJs social justice group, or if you are already in the group, take some of the actions that are sent around. Be part of the discussion. 

Because we must not let go of that yearning to see an end to the pain. We must engage with an open heart, we must be ready to listen and then act and then listen again.