Sermon given June 5, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Each year, at this time, I think a great deal about age . . . my age. You see, my birthday falls in June, and this year I’ll be 35 . . . old. My hairline is receding. I’m not as young as I used to be. My wife tells me not to worry, though. Toni professes that men, unlike women, continue to be childish well into senior adulthood. In my head, she claims, and often in my behavior, I’m just a boy.
Perhaps attachment to my own youth explains my eagerness to accept Rabbi Stahl’s challenge to stand before our congregation tonight and speak about children. This weekend, our Temple is participating in the “Children’s Faith Initiative,” together with religious institutions throughout San Antonio. Rabbi Stahl and the leaders of every religious faith in our city have called upon us all to do more for our community’s children in the year ahead.
These religious leaders have endorsed the “Covenant for Children, 1998.” The full text appears on the Bulletin Board in our Temple’s Katz Foyer. These ministers, priests, and Rabbi Stahl emphatically remind us “that the measure of [any society’s] greatness is how its least powerful and most fragile members are cared for. In all religions, the key to faith, hope and love rests in our promises to our children.”
Sadly, in our very own San Antonio community and throughout our great land, the United States of America, in this land of plenty, children too often go without. In this land of great scientific and cultural advances, poor children remain ignorant. In this land of increasing medical triumph over illness, many children lack health care coverage. In this land of America, in an age of unprecedented economic prosperity, we are failing our children, we are failing our future.
What would we wish for our children? Judaism’s greatest hope, our choicest blessing, is found in this week’s Torah portion, in the Priestly Benediction. Those are the words that I read from the Torah a few moments ago, and which Rabbi Jacobson offered so touchingly to Shirley-Ruth and Ken Meyerson, as they celebrate fifty years of marriage. Those same words are offered each time that a baby is named, a young person is called to the Torah as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and on each occasion when a man and woman become husband and wife.
We ask this blessing from God, a blessing for protection, for grace, for peace. God works in heavenly spheres, and we work in ours. Our prayerbook teaches that we must “pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on us.” Tonight, we ask God’s choicest blessing on the children of San Antonio, on young people throughout America. We are faithful that God will be our heavenly Partner. We commit ourselves to making God’s blessing real here on Earth.
Yivarechecha Adonai veyishmerecha, “May God bless the children, and guard them from harm.”
Children are vulnerable. They can not shield themselves from violence or from disease. Most children, thank God, are fortunate to be able to depend on their parents to protect them, to take them to the doctor, to care for their needs. Sadly, though, over 100,000 Bexar County children have no health care coverage. Most of them are not the victims of their parents’ sloth: almost nine out of ten of these uninsured children have at least one working parent. Also in our own County, nine children are victims of child abuse and neglect each day. One out of every five of our youth is lost to drugs, crime and/or teen pregnancy.
Unless our own children are among these statistics, we may wish to wash our hands of this problem. In our land of individual responsibility, the parents are said to be solely liable for the care of these kids. But the children are our future . . . all children. Our own well-cared-for kids, as well as sick kids and troubled youths, all are part and parcel of the future of our community and our country. If these children are debilitated by disease, by violence and neglect, then our own future is at risk.
We, then, must insist that our elected officials provide access to health care for all children, just as a prior generation assured older adults’ medical care.
We must dig deeper when asked for help by United Way and other agencies that care for children. Jewish Family Service, Child Guidance Center, and Any Baby Can are just a few of those groups, struggling to fill in society’s gaps, to protect the children from harm. May our actions join theirs, as we strive to be God’s partners, to bless the children, by guarding them from harm.
Ya’eir Adonai panav eleicha vihuneka, “May God’s light spread over the children, bringing grace to them.”
Light is the symbol of knowledge, of wisdom, of learning. We in the Jewish community do understand the importance of shedding God’s light upon our own children, as we stress both Jewish and secular educator.
Last fall, on Yom Kippur, I spoke of the gross inequities that plague public education in San Antonio. I urged us never to be silent, until each and every child in our community is offered a clear vision of God’s light of knowledge. As I said then, we must not rest until the child in South San is offered the educational opportunities available to the child in Northside, until the child in Edgewood is taught with the same commitment as the child in Northeast, unto the day when the educational dollar committed to the children of the San Antonio Independent School District is equal to the resources committed to the children of the Alamo Heights Independent School District. All of these children represent our very own future. We must show God’s light to each one in equal measure.
Yissa Adonai panav eleicha veyasem lecha shalom, May God’s Presence spread over the children, bringing them peace.”
We have faith that God is the ultimate home and shelter of every child, that no child is alone in this world, because God is with each one. At the same time, though, we have a this-worldly responsibility. Each child needs a house in this world, as well as an eternal home.
Let us call on our public officials to see that housing is provided to those who need it. Of the 17,000-plus homeless in San Antonio, over half are families with children. These children are more likely than others to witness violence or to fail in school. Fewer than one in twenty of those who qualify for public housing in our city actually receive it. Currently, a family may languish on the public housing waiting list for over five years, together with a list of 7,000 other families. God is providing eternal shelter. We are not providing homes.
Let us also dig deeper to help San Antonio Metropolitan Ministry (SAMM) and others who give hope to the homeless. In the months ahead, SAMM will be asking for our help to build a large transitional housing facility for homeless families. May the members our Jewish community be known among the most generous supporters of this project. Even as we provide for our own children, may we be God’s partners in spreading shelter over the least fortunate young people of our city. Then, together, may we all enjoy God’s blessing of peace.
Tomorrow morning, as we observe Shabbat here at the Temple, others will gather in Milam Park to “Stand for Children.” Though our religious practice prevents us from being there in person, may we be there in word and in deed in the days and the months ahead. May we all commit ourselves to giving more time, more resources, more energy, more of ourselves to the children of San Antonio, to build a better future for them, to create a bright tomorrow for us all.
Our holy Bible teaches us in the Proverbs, “Speak up [for those unable to speak], for the rights of all the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.” On this Shabbat, as we participate in the Children’s Faith Initiative, let this be our sacred calling. For as long as children are in harm’s way, for each one who is hidden from the light of knowledge by the inequities of public education, for all those who have no place to come home, there can be no shalom, no peace, no quiet. Let us speak up loudly, and join in the work of God, for our children are our future.