Home June 2012 Seeing Beyond the Palm Trees

Seeing Beyond the Palm Trees

The Talmud states that the highest form of wisdom is kindness.  How fitting that University of California, Irvine (UCI), one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Orange County had its first Hunger Banquet.  Armaan Ahmed Rowther, UCI’s XIV Dalai Lama Scholar for 2011-2012, and his co-chair Briana Booth, UCI Hillel’s president, gathered approximately 180 UCI students to engage in an interfaith initiative, discussing the humanitarian concept of hunger on a local and global level.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Richard Matthew – a professor in the Schools of Social Ecology and Social Science at UCI and the founding director of the Center for Unconventional Security Affairs – moved the audience with his description of hunger and the lives it affects.  The event continued with a panel of four: Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, representing the Muslim community; Venerable Tenzin Kacho, representing the Buddhist community; Jon Roper, representing the Christian community; and me for the Jewish community.
When asked to speak at this event, I chuckled, then quickly realized why it is imperative.  I teach 11th grade at a public school where approximately 43 percent of my students qualify for free lunch.  They are English language learners and understand the phrase “hand-me-down” as an opportunity instead of used goods.
According to the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, 44 percent of Orange County children receive free or reduced-cost lunch at schools because of socioeconomic issues.  This may be their only full meal of the day.  One in six children lives under the poverty line, and every two hours another child is born under the poverty line.  Lastly, 13 percent of OC residents have food insecurity.  Of that 13 percent, 40 percent do not qualify for government aid.
These are just a few statistics about our home.  Most of us are lucky, knowing our next meal will come when our stomachs let us know it’s time.  So, how can we understand this hunger?  The Hunger Banquet illustrated the world’s socioeconomic distribution by allowing one-fourth of the room to sit at tables and be served dinner after the panelists.  One- fourth of the room sat in chairs and only received half of the meal.  For the other half of the room, there was rice and beans… you were able to sit anywhere you’d like as long as it was on the floor. This provided a visceral image for the participants.
The concern for others comes from a Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam, to literally repair the world.  So, where do we start?  I believe Orange County palm trees and sunshine have disguised our community from the statistics.  Being a Jewish leader in our community, or any leader for that matter, means we must see things as they are, before the community is tailored and beautified.  Active philanthropy, actual giving of one’s resources, is beneficial for the giver and the receiver.  Giving resources to those in need alleviates hardship and provides the necessities to improve their mental and physical health and to contribute to the community in the future.  Our abundance can make an extraordinary difference to the lives of others, improving their quality of life and improving our surrounding community.
Humanitarian aid has to start with our own giving.  We cannot ask others to take on the task of feeding the hungry or healing the world as we take for ourselves.  It is essential that we identify ways to help and empower others.  Our communities only function when individuals take accountability for one another.  We must start by giving things of monetary value, such as food, clothing and water.  The Hunger Banquet is just one step in a line of many – a call for action.
Orange County is paradise, with palm trees and sunshine, but true paradise is without suffering.  That is something we can overcome when Tikkun Olam resonates as an individual responsibility.

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