Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Invocation for Dallas Furniture Bank’s 11th CHAIRity Event

On Wednesday, February 17, 2016, I was honored to offer the invocation at the Dallas Furniture Bank’s CHAIRity Event. The text of the invocation follows:

Thank you for the honor of offering the invocation today. The Dallas Furniture Bank is an essential and vital partner in our homeless response system. Now, you may think that this is because the Dallas Furniture Bank provides furniture for our formerly homeless neighbors. No. It is because they do much much more.  Allow me to explain.

The ancient rabbis of the Talmud tell us that, “a beautiful dwelling… enlarges a person’s spirit.” Before I worked in the homelessness arena, I don’t think I really understood what that meant. Now I do. Just imagine, you wake up not far from here, in the tent city under the I-45 Bridge, and you know that today you are going to be housed. Your case manager picks you up, and with your few belongings you arrive at your new home. With a sense of hope and some trepidation you slowly open the door… to an empty or almost empty, blank looking apartment. You don’t need to be a great scholar to figure out what your feeling would be, but let me quote one anyway. Dr. Iain De Jong, a world renowned expert on homelessness, writes: “If you leave the apartment unit blank looking, it is going to feel more like a prison cell or place where they may have squatted than a place to call home.”
On the other hand, what happens if with the help of the Dallas Furniture Bank, that moment that you open the door is fundamentally different? Listen again to Dr. De Jong. This is more like poetry than research: “A lot can be said for the new tenant having a say in the furniture that goes into their unit, rather than them just being handed furniture that they had no say in… While I have seen many a chronically homeless person be overcome with emotions on the day of move in when they get their keys, I have seen more actually break down and weep with joy when the furniture that they picked out arrives, and they have a say in where it is set up in their place. Powerful.”

I sincerely believe that what Dr. De Jong describes is what the ancient rabbis meant. A beautiful dwelling does not mean that the structure, the four walls, the ceiling, the floor, look beautiful. A beautiful dwelling means a dwelling that you have filled with furniture you picked out, and household items that you have chosen. This is what enlarges the spirit. And do you know what this “enlarging of the spirit” really means? The Soncino Talmud English translation tells us: “Increases self-esteem.” Wow.

That is what the Dallas Furniture Bank really does. The vital homeless response system solution they provide is not merely furniture.  Oh, no. They enlarge the human spirit of our neighbors; they increase their self-esteem above and beyond what might seem possible. That, my friends, is something truly beautiful. And in the Jewish tradition, we have a blessing that we recite, upon observing things of great beauty, like the Dallas Furniture Bank: (Hebrew then English) Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, who has such beautiful things in his world.

Monday, February 8, 2016

10,000 Books

I am more than somewhat partial to United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. I have blogged about the reasons for this in the past. Today I blog not about United Way, in general, but about a specific campaign happening right now, which I was profoundly touched by, Change a Child's Story. The reason I was touched is personal to me, but who knows, it may inspire others, and so I share it. 

Like many great campaigns, the idea of this one is simple. With 38% of children in Dallas living in poverty, most live in homes that don't even have one book. There is clear research on the fact that owning and reading books makes a huge difference in a child's future. Through this campaign, United Way will get 10,000 books into the hands of these children. You give $5, and a child gets her first book; pretty simple. Now, keep that number in mind, 10,000. 

Why did this campaign hit such a personal chord with me? Allow me to explain. I am named for my grandfather, the longest serving rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina, and one of that great city's prominent civic leaders in his day. Though I never met him, I have spoken to some of his congregants, who fondly remember him to this day, as a great scholar and teacher. He was born in the Ukraine, and at the age of two arrived with his parents and older siblings on these shores. They settled in the Boston area, he eventually attended Harvard University, and then became a rabbi. 
Tree of Life Congregation's former building, now a Unitarian Church
When he was hired by Tree of Life in 1950, the congregation's board members were struck by the number of times he stressed how imperative it was that they cover ALL of his moving costs from Virginia, where he had been serving another congregation since 1945. Once they had moved all of the family's belongings, they discovered WHY he had been so insistent. My grandfather owned one of the largest privately held Judaica libraries in the American South. The move put the congregation's bank account, literally, into the red. 

How many books did my grandfather have?  Well, remember that number I asked you to keep in mind. Strange to relate, but by the time he died in 1970, he had... 10,000 books. Upon his death, my father and my uncle donated 70% to the University of South Carolina, and split the rest. Both men then proceeded to add many more books to their respective collections in the 46 years since. 

I remember growing up in a house full of books, and taking this for granted. I just assumed every house had numerous bookcases in every room, their backs bursting, as they groaned at the weight of the many tomes. I couldn't imagine it otherwise. There were old books and new books, fiction and (mainly) non-fiction. As a child I was most impressed by the old ones. Standing tall were the gigantic musty volumes of the classic 19th Century edition of the Talmud. Beside the TV, was an English Bible from 1712. Behind other books, safely tucked away and carefully wrapped in brown paper, was a Latin book on grammar from 1676 or 1616. (The third digit was unclear.)
My grandfather's plaque at Tree of Life
Though this book collection featured primarily books related to biblical and rabbinic scholarship, and research of the Ancient Near East, there were other books too. There was an ornate collection of the full works of Shakespeare. There was the World Book Encyclopedia. (Now I am showing my age!) There was even an "illegal" English edition of Mein Kampf. This book, purchased by my grandfather, was published before WWII and in purposeful violation of copyright law, in a failed attempt to warn Americans of the designs of the German chancellor. 

It was clear, without being ever said so explicitly, that books were the lifeblood of our family and our people. Books were the vehicle, through which of all the peoples of antiquity in the West, we alone had survived. Wherever we went we took them with us, from the Promised Land to the diaspora, through all of our travels, and eventually to this land of promise, which Eastern European Jews, like many other immigrants, believed had streets paved with gold. My grandfather carried on this heritage, wherever life took him, as did his sons. We were the People of the Book. He was a man of 10,000 books. How could it be any other way?

This is why I have given to this campaign. This is why I take this campaign personally. I am named for a man I never knew, who carried our heritage to these shores, and became a man of 10,000 books. The least I can do is put what might be the first book, hopefully of many, in the small hands of one of 10,000. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What Cool Cottages!

On Thursday afternoon, January 28, 2016, our good friend and favorite Dallas Morning News reporter, Tasha Tsiaperas, and I were treated to a guided tour of The Cottages at Hickory Crossing. The Cottages are an innovative permanent supportive housing project of CitySquare. Our tour guide was the man with the plan himself, Keith Ackerman, the project's Executive Director. 
The amount of thought that went into each and every aspect of planning, design, and construction of this project is so impressive. The fifty tiny homes are built in clusters to create a true sense of community. All of the clusters are centered around a common courtyard to further build on that. 

Each tiny home is identical on the inside, and will be furnished with the same brand new furnishings and appliances to maintain a sense of equality. At the same time, residents will be able to choose some household items, differentiated by color and style. On his last training visit, Dr. Iain De Jong pointed out this idea as a Housing First best practice, as it fosters a sense of belonging and connection to one's domicile. 
The skyline view from the community is one you would pay a pretty penny for, and the number of ongoing activities planned for residents is one that would rival any luxury rental community. The community will also be run with an empowering ambiance of self-governance, and true to the philosophy of Housing First, residents will enjoy autonomy within their homes. 

Of course, Housing First is not Housing Only. Keith and his staff will be there to support residents moving in, who might need some time to adjust to living inside. As, this project is intended for homeless neighbors dealing with multiple challenges, the common area next to the club house includes a plethora of facilities to support folks in their journeys. These include a nurse's office, that will be operated by Baylor Hospital (two student nurses joined Tasha and me for the tour), a psychiatric office, that will be operated by Metrocare Services, and a meeting room for twelve step program meetings. 
Left to right - Tasha Tsiaperas, David Gruber and two Baylor nursing students
As Keith walked us through the community, and explained all of the different aspects of this intricate project, I got the sense that with a layperson's eyes I am seeing just the visible part of the "iceberg." There is a clear sense that in addition to all of the thoughtful aspects of this project, that I highlighted above, there is much more below the surface. It is also clear that Keith was the guy to pull this off. A preacher's kid, who worked in halfway houses, is a licensed social worker, with years of therapeutic experience, and was chief operating officer of CitySquare, he has just the type of eclectic skill set to make this community a reality. He is also one of the friendliest guys you will ever meet!

For more information, volunteer opportunities, and to tour the project yourself, check out the project webpage. Fingers crossed, folks will start moving in April.