Lessons Gleaned from Sandy

Why do we waste our time with charity when we could be doing justice? 
by Sarah Seltzer


During the bitter cold weeks that came in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the stark income divide in New York City was held to the light of media scrutiny as it hadn’t been for years. Certainly, nature didn’t discriminate at first: wealthy people were temporarily displaced as well as the poor, and the images of half the city in light and the other half in darkness that first appeared were striking. But when the power outages in Manhattan ended and the waters receded, the reality of just how far apart our lives were could be seen clearer than before, even for those New Yorkers who had previously spent time border crossing from one extreme to the other.

After the hurricane hit, I stood in the lobby of churches and synagogues that were entirely given over to the relief effort. Here piles of boxes and bags spoke to what was happening: well-to-do and less well-to-do New Yorkers had rushed to take their “extras,” the ungathered corners of their fields, out to the storm-battered areas.

On one Saturday my family drove through the public housing projects a few blocks back from the beach on Coney Island. Like so many others, we arrived with a trunk and backseat full of blankets and socks, energy bars and bottles of water, that were all gone in minutes once we arrived. We saw that the fences along the lampless, sand-strewn streets were absolutely covered with donated clothes, “gleanings” from the closets of the wealthier.

Another weekend I stood in a church parking lot and unloaded boxes of emergency water until my forearms were purple with bruises. As the day ended a U-Haul pulled up, having been driven for days from somewhere in the drier parts of the US. It was filled with more discarded clothes, toys, and shoes, wrapped in garbage bag after garbage bag. We shook our heads as we piled up the secondhand goods, wondering why such a generous moment felt so inadequate. This—the old sandals and sweatshirts—was not necessarily what the community lining up in the cold for basic food and supplies needed. They needed health care, nutrition, adequate housing, elder care, people to advocate for them politically, a voice, a chance.

So I had to ask whether this whole relief effort was mostly a chance for the more privileged—including me and my fellow volunteers—to clean out our closets and consciences in one fell swoop.  Or would we take this opportunity make meaningful change?

Several articles, including a large piece in the New York Times, showed that the “helping hands” were not necessarily welcome by all:

Ms. Rivera said that she was thankful for the help, but that its face — mostly white, middle- and upper-class people — made her bitter.

“The only time you recognize us is when there’s some disaster,” she said. “Since this happened, it’s: ‘Let’s help the black people. Let’s run to their rescue.’ ”

“Why wait for tragedy?” she added. “People suffer every day with this.”

A woman standing in front of her in line interjected. “To be honest, I pray to God I never see these people again,” the woman said. “The only reason these people would be out here again for us is if something like this happens again, or worse.”

Sandy’s impact on New York made me ponder not just how much we are all obligated to do to help our neighbors, but why such extreme help is necessary. Yes, surely even in the most socialist utopia we will always have aid to offer and ask from our neighbors to make up for whatever one another lacks.  But we should not have to feed our fellow citizens as an act of charity. Instead, our society should be be structured at a fundamental level so that everyone is fed, even and especially when disaster strikes.

Moved as I was to provide muscle and document the forlorn state of the communities I visited, I wished that I didn’t have to be there in that particular way—that I could be teaching writing or art, for instance, or sharing my skills—and that the money and resources to survive Sandy were more equally scattered to all four corners of the field of existence, all five boroughs of my city.

When we read the passage about gleaning at LABA, I had to ask myself if our social interpretation of this command as cultural Jews is good enough. Jews love good deeds, but many everyday definitions of Tzedakah don’t fully live up to its true meaning of justice. It could be that we read the message of the “gleaning passage” as one of willing charity, where we are encouraged to give our extra, instead of mandated wealth redistribution, where the corners of the field are commanded to be left ungathered to provide for those who are without. It’s a very kind and human notion I think, to make sure you give whatever is extra to those who have none, and do it in an unobtrusive way so that you don’t see or know who is taking. But it also accepts that there will always be some with more and some without.

The philosophy of gleaning, meaningful as it is as a metaphor, is not enough if it’s only channeled through voluntary giving. Sandy taught me viscerally  that we need a system that gleans for us.