By Alaina Yoakum, Director of Marketing & Communications, CA Camps & Youth
After serving lunch to 600 homeless people, Rabbi Michael Lezak gave URJ Camp Newman’s Hevrah campers a very odd assignment: Now go to Saks 5th Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
A crazy request at that moment? Not if you’re Rabbi Lezak of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice and trying to make a point. The assignment was part of a day-long volunteer intensive he designed with Camp Newman for these rising 11th graders. Each year, Hevrah takes a hands-on approach to social action and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), picking issues to research, and then lobbying state representatives at the capitol in Sacramento. This year they choose criminal justice reform and immigration justice.
Rabbi Lezak wanted to challenge them to juxtapose being on the homeless-filled poverty-stricken streets of the Tenderloin with being in Sacramento. With this trip to GLIDE, an organization dedicated to serving the impoverished in San Francisco, campers got real insight into why these issues matter.
“You just went to Sacramento to work on big policy issues. Here, you’ll be working face-to-face with people who encounter these challenges on an hourly basis … What’s different? What’s similar?” Lezak asked. They talked about “Two Jerusalems”: one in heaven, and one on the ground, the world as it is, and a world as it could be. “What would it be to imagine the Tenderloin as it could be?”
Seeing the Unique Value in Every Person
Then it was time to serve lunch to the hungry homeless. Rabbi Lezak challenged the campers to see themselves as waiters at the Four Seasons. “You’re now going to give 5-star service to people who don’t usually even get a ‘hello,’” Rabbi Lezak said, relating it to the Jewish values of b’etzelem Elohim, seeing the unique value in every person, and hachnasat or’chim, the mitzvah of welcoming guests.
Campers then donned plastic aprons and hair nets and served, cleared, and cleaned for over 500 people – of all ages and colors – over the span of almost two hours.
“They were rocked. They saw people with mental illness who haven’t showered in a month, and people who were wearing business suits but can’t afford rent. They saw them as human beings who were hungry,” Rabbi Lezak said.
“Us staff were impressed with how quickly our campers internalized the radical love and hospitality of GLIDE,” added Josh Burg, one of the Hevrah unit heads. “You could tell that some teens were really struggling at the beginning of the meal service. By the end, all were confident, comfortable, and most importantly exuding the kindness that GLIDE is known for.”
Next they met with Jason Norelli, “a towering mensch” according to Rabbi Lezak, who runs GLIDE’s alternative to incarceration and harm reduction programs. Norelli used to be an addict himself and was once incarcerated. “I think it was a powerful moment for the Hevrahniks to hear first-hand what the front lines of the battle for a better San Francisco look like,” said Burg. “Jason was able to offer a captivating account of what it’s like to struggle and what it’s like to succeed.”
“It was a really powerful experience to understand who the people we were serving lunch to really are and what their situation is,” said Hevrahnik Audrey Jacobson.
An Odd Request and a $27,000 Purse
After meeting with Jason, Rabbi Lezak gave them the odd request: a “Proximate Justice Scavenger Hunt,” borrowing a term from Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy. As Stevenson wrote, ““Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths … My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” For this hunt, Rabbi Lezak split the campers into two teams and sent half to Saks Fifth Avenue, and half to Neiman Marcus, just four blocks away. Their task? To find the most expensive item in each store. “I wanted them to compare the stories of posh retail in Union Square versus the squalor (and beauty) closer to Glide,” Rabbi Lezak explained.
Exiting GLIDE, the campers walked past people living on the street and their makeshift shelters. Within 10 minutes inside one store, the campers found a $10,000 jacket. Then, a $20,000 rug and finally a $27,000 purse. It was a real study of contrasts – and an eye-opening moment for these teens.
“You could spend the same amount feeding thousands of homeless – right here in this neighborhood,” one camper said.
On the way back, Rabbi Lezak asked them to look down, to see the people who are missing dignity. “Introduce yourself, find out their story, their name, how their struggling.” The campers did just that.
Radical Wealth Versus Radical Poverty
“On that walk back, many campers found their sense of identity rattled, perhaps even altered,” observed Burg. “Many of our teens shared with each other an experience of identity realignment from the scavenger hunt. They expected to feel more comfortable in the luxury of the high-end Union Square stores than in the poverty of the Tenderloin neighborhood. But they found the opposite. Many discovered they had much more in common with the folks on the street than with people who can afford a $27,000 handbag.”
The day was a shocking lesson in the juxtaposition of radical wealth with radical poverty. Rabbi Lezak wanted the teens to ask themselves: How can we in such a wealthy city not feed our people? Or give them bathrooms? Where did we go wrong?
“We designed the GLIDE experience with Rabbi Lezak with an eye towards what comes next for our teens after the session ends. For the teens, it was a reminder that legislative solutions, like the ones they lobbied for in Sacramento, must be rooted in the lived experiences of those in need. There was another goal too: for the Hevrahniks to understand that politics is just one of many ways to make a difference in our communities. While legislation is important, we can help those in in our home communities right now. We are privileged to have access to political power, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the people we pass by on our streets every day. We hope the teens understand that to make a difference, they don’t always need to travel to their representatives’ offices in Sacramento.”
“Who’s Going to Change the World?”
“My experience at GLIDE really opened my eyes and made me realize how much of a crisis homelessness is,” said camper Ellie Shaw. “Being homeless can cause a person to do things that could end them up incarcerated; and then put into a system that is designed to keep people in it. Homelessness is a real problem; we all need to pitch in and help out our communities.”
“We think we’re immune, but this happens right in our own communities,” Rabbi Lezak said. “GLIDE is a teshuva factory. We see people at the margins, who people turn away from – and we say to them, ‘you are a human being and we love you.’”
The day culminated with the Hevrahniks screaming their cheer from the pews of GLIDE’s memorial church: “Who’s going to change the world? Hevrah! Who’s going to change the world? Hevrah.”
We believe they will.