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Neither Meat Nor Milk: The Hungry of Jerusalem (Israel 2009 – Day 4)

October 24, 2009

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest.  And you shall not glean your vineyard, neither should you gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger. – Leviticus 19:9-10

Jerusalem is a city with a richness that is unfolding everywhere you look.  From the dusty corners of the Old City to the noisy kaleidoscope of the Shuk, there is a place and an opportunity in Jerusalem to experience every emotion and sensation imaginable.  A beautiful city and a complex one as well, walking its streets one can almost feel physically weighed down by the heaviness of its history, even as its sheer beauty and energy sweep you off your feet.  And anyone having spent some time walking the streets of Jerusalem has felt the sensation of wanting to capture every moment, to gather every experience available – to take as much of Jerusalem home with them as possible.  If the city is a vineyard of sweet grapes of Jewish experience, many of us want to harvest as much of the vineyard as possible and drink our own sweet wine of our memories of Jerusalem.

But it is hard not to notice one aspect of Jerusalem that has been overwhelmingly apparent to me – the hungry and the homelessness that pervade its streets. In the Jerusalem of Gold, the divide between the wealthy and the poor is apparent just on a short walk.  On one hand you can walk through the streets around the various hotels frequented by wealthy visitors and be overwhelmed by the gilded developments that continue to be built (even in this economy). Nothing exemplifies this better than the Mamilla Alrov Mall that has been developed and opened since my last visit to the city. A designer mall in the shadows of the Old City just opposite Jaffa Gate, Mamilla is a testament to the modern luxury consumer experience.  Just in case you have not filled up with memories of the Western Wall, while walking back o your hotel you can also fill up with Louis Vuitton handbags and Rolexes. In the vineyard of Jerusalem’s experiences, you can gather both vintage and designer grapes.

But in most parts of the city, one can encounter an almost overwhelming sense of poverty. The beggars are everywhere and the sense of hunger is palpable. Information released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has noted that in recent years more than one in five Israeli’s have, at some point, went without food for economic reasons. And as recent reporting by the Jewish Daily Forward indicates, there is ample evidence that in 2009 demand for food assistance has grown substantially. Certainly there are several government programs and other NGO efforts to combat the issue, but nevertheless it is clear to recognize that in a city that nourishes the Jewish soul in almost every conceivable way there are also substantial numbers of people who are physically undernourished and underfed. There is not question that the city and a state have a responsibility to combat the scourge of hunger and the sense of desperation of often creates; but the more complex question is what is the responsibility of the visitors to Jerusalem in combating hunger in the Jewish state?

Of course tourists help fuel an economy as well as tax coffers, so economic support occurs simply through tourism; but is that enough? The shekels that are tossed in cups of panhandlers may seem like help, but is that tzedakah truly combating hunger?  Tourists shop in the stalls of Ben Yehuda and the galleries of Mamilla, but as they glean the emotional and consumer vineyards of Jerusalem, are they leaving enough behind? Are they truly leaving the corners of their fields, or are they clearing the field and leaving nothing to nourish those who are left behind by the economy, society or both? These questions are not pleasant to think about, especially for vacationers and visitors who are overwhelmed by the religious and historical experience of Jerusalem. But in the great social experiment that is Israel, what does it mean for so many to still be hungry when so many are full?

One of the most common questions you hear from visitors to Jerusalem is the frequent dinner debate – meat or milk?   Perhaps the debate should be meat, milk or hungry?  My guess is that few would pick the third option, and neither should Israelis.  So with that in mind let us all take responsibility to make sure that the values that have us hungering for Israel also inspire us to take care of the hungry in Israel – the vineyard is as much theirs as it is ours.

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