A panel of three current and former Jewish Metro Council members told an audience of more than 40 people at the first Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable membership meeting on July 21 how their Jewish upbringing and values have affected their decisions as public servants.
From left: Jim Shulman, Sheri Weiner and Ronnie Steine with Irwin Venick, moderator, also gave suggestions about how to be advocates with public officials on NJSJR issues and positions. Their advice: learn the issues that are before the council; attend public meetings; be a resource for council members; and get appointed to city boards and commissions. The meeting took place at West End Synagogue. Anyone in the Jewish community interested in NJSJR can go to JSJRnashville.org to read the current position statements and join the group.
The Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is proud to stand for the equality and full inclusion into American society of all individuals within our community. Jewish tradition tells us that to save a life is to save the world. Yet, over the past year, we have watched the destruction of many worlds by anger, hatred, and individuals wielding military-grade hardware.
The recent shooting in Orlando targeted gay people who have experienced hatred, discrimination and exclusion, but have managed, slowly, to become a part of mainstream America. They have fought the plague of HIV/AIDS that nearly killed off a generation. They have fought for acceptance in the job and housing market and still face resistance from individuals, businesses and governments. They have been willing to relinquish family ties to exist with pride in who they are. Their world was destroyed when the bullets came.
Their pain and loss reverberate here, in Nashville. In our sadness, NJSJR offers our support to the survivors of the massacre, family members of those killed, lovers, friends, employers, co-workers and all who knew and cared for these individuals. We also extend compassion and prayers to the family and loved ones of the murderer who, for whatever reason, chose to inflict this devastation.
We at the Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable view the individual as one of G-d’s greatest creations. We honor G-d and we support our Constitution when we respect the right of all people to live and prosper.
We call on everyone to look up from their phones, look out at the world and make decisions that lead to a safer, more loving environment for all of G-d’s children.
“All the words have being given by a single Shepherd, one God created them, one Provider gave them, the Lord of all deeds, blessed be He, has spoken them. So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare [certain things to be] unclean and the words of those who declare [those same things to be] clean.” (Tosefta, Sotah 7:12)
Nashville has long been a warm and welcoming community. Some trace its history of hospitality back to Civil War times. Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable supports diversity in Nashville. Judaism teaches us to welcome the stranger. The commandment to love and protect the stranger is repeated 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment. Additionally, stories in the Torah give us guiding examples. The commitment to diversity is especially meaningful today in Nashville because it defines the character of the city. Community leaders embrace the commitment. They make a point of appearing everywhere without regard to race or religion of the constituency. NJSJR applauds this on-the-ground commitment. People who follow this precept get elected. Conversely, NJSJR condemns racism and bigotry as antithetical to Jewish values and dominant Nashville values. We pledge to back efforts supporting diversity and oppose discrimination of any kind.
“The more sitting [and studying], the more wisdom.” (Mishna Avot 2:7)
For decades, every major city has attempted to reduce the disparity in educational achievement between those in poverty and the more affluent. Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is eager to support efforts by Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and others in the community to address the issues. School districts have been trying, but progress has been limited. A well-educated population would be a boon to every community. With the number of technical job openings in Nashville increasing, education must be a high priority. Those without a good education will remain mired in poverty which often leads to trouble in school, drug involvement and other crimes.
Several programs are in place to address challenges and opportunities. Academies of Nashville completely overhauled the programs and the curriculum of every comprehensive high school to offer learning addressed to career paths as well as to college preparation. MNPS is collaborating with Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in an extraordinary Pre-K program with learning centers at Ross, Bordeaux and Casa Azafran. Community Achieves brings wraparound services to schools, which serve as a hub for the community the school serves. In 2014-15, 14 schools served 11,865 students. Five more were to be added this year. Mayor Barry has committed to tripling the number of Community Achieves schools. PASSAGE, Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity, addresses the disparity in discipline between white and minority children in schools. NJSJR encourages the continuation and expansion of forward-looking initiatives that strengthen public education in Nashville.
“Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, it is destined to endure.” (Mishna Avot 5:17)
NJSJR agrees with the Tennessee Department of Education that objective discussions of world religions are essential components of the world history curriculum for Tennessee students. An understanding of history and culture helps students make sense of their world. It would be impossible to separate studies of the major religions from meaningful studies of history, government, literature or current events.
It is not the role of public schools to promote or proselytize any religion. It is our belief that curriculum guidelines as proposed by the Tennessee Department of Education can be effectively implemented without compromising the belief systems of individual students and families.
“You shall not stand forth against the life of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 16:16)
There are approximately 280,000 Tennesseans without access to health care coverage. They do not qualify for TennCare/Medicaid or Medicare and do not earn enough to qualify for income tax credit subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Therefore, they cannot afford insurance through that program. With no access to health insurance, people go without other necessities to afford care or wait until their situation becomes catastrophic. Medical debt is the most common cause of bankruptcy in the U.S.
NJSJR supports Insure Tennessee, the plan crafted by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Under Insure Tennessee, people aged 19 through 64 who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid and have family incomes that do not exceed 138 percent of the federal poverty level, could qualify for assistance that would enable them to obtain health insurance. This plan would be paid for through the federal match under the Affordable Care Act. Should federal contribution be reduced below 100 percent, the gap would be covered by the Tennessee Hospital Association. Thus the state would pay nothing for this assistance. Since Jan. 1, 2014, Tennessee has forfeited over two billion dollars in federal assistance and continues to forfeit $2,700,000 per day. NJSJR considers it to be unconscionable that Tennesseans continue to suffer, when our legislature will not pursue a remedy at hand.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
The Jewish experience as immigrants spans the history of civilization. Many of us are only two or three generations removed from the arrival of our own families in the United States. NJSJR believes that only bipartisan cooperation can ground and sustain our country’s core values of economic opportunity, refugee protection and family unification. For this to happen we must fix the broken and confusing American immigration system that adversely affects immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
As do virtually all Americans, NJSJR believes that we must safeguard our borders to protect the security of our nation, maintain the rule of law and create equitable entry opportunities into our country. But this is not enough. We need to create a streamlined legal immigration system that respects human dignity and human rights while responding to the economic needs of our country. We also need a pathway to legal status for the 11 million undocumented residents who, daily, fear separation from their families through deportation. Until such time as Congress moves to fix our broken system, we support President Obama’s relief efforts, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents).
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:7)
Population growth, higher land costs and the gentrification of core neighborhoods have combined to raise the cost of housing in Nashville to an unfordable level for the average family. More than 54,000 Davidson County households earning less than $40,000 per year are paying more than 30 percent of household income for housing expenses, as are half of all renters and homeowners in Davidson County. Our current housing inventory shortage requires an immediate addition of 20,000 affordable units and another 20,000 workforce units.
Nashville needs to address this shortage through intentional housing and land use policies that will increase our housing supply and create reasonable affordable options. NJSJR believes that inclusionary zoning best practices will result in socio-economically diverse neighborhoods. Our city must significantly increase our investment in the Barnes Housing Trust Fund, which provides monies to build affordable housing for those who earn 60 percent or less of the average median income. The fund should be brought to the level of other proactive intermediate-sized cities which will result in the creation of affordable housing for the least among us.
“If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
NJSJR believes it is the fundamental responsibility of both our federal and local governments, supported by the private sector and our citizens, to fund social programs that will result in a significant reduction in poverty.
Locally, poverty is at a critical stage. According to Metro Social Services, we reached an all-time high last year with one in five Davidson County residents (approximately 130,000) living in poverty. Davidson County’s poverty rate of 19.9 percent was higher than that for Tennessee and the United States. Local requests for food assistance increase every year. There is a long wait for placement in Section 8 Housing (federal rent subsidized private housing units) (14,491) with an additional 3,189 on the waiting list for government-built public housing (for very low income and disabled individuals).
We believe poverty must be addressed and reduced nationally and locally through a broad range of policies and programs that focus on:
• The availability of reasonably affordable housing
• Food insecurity and availability,
• Workforce development and opportunity
• Criminal justice disparities
• Education improvement and opportunity
• Fair wages, and
• Access to healthcare.