Maybe you’re like me and you’ve tended to see economic justice in terms of fair labor practices, access to good health care, fresh produce in urban food deserts, affordable housing. Big goals with big consequences. Beyond carrying bills in a pocket to give tzedakah graciously or nervously on the street, what small (or larger) potential acts of the pocketbook have escaped our notice?
Well, you’ve heard the chatter about doing good while buying more stuff. The manufacturer who promises to give a new pair of shoes to a poor child for every pair of its brand you purchase. The company that pledges to donate to breast cancer research an undisclosed portion of its profits from the pink item you’ve just acquired.
Like the rest of us, I figure that I make choices every day—every waking hour, practically—that reflect my values. A lot of these choices are made reflexively, because I’ve practiced them so many times that they’re inadvertent habits. The food I eat—or avoid. Whether I run the water while brushing my teeth or turn off the tap. Which charity solicitations I open and consider vs. which ones I put immediately into the recycling bin. You too?
But there’s another order of choices that feel new to me, a fresh kind of economic consciousness I’ve been thinking about thanks to two women whose actions are worth emulating—and expanding on. These two rabbis have recently been modeling, through their own actions, a different tzedakah. They’re good at remembering that tzedakah comes not out of the idea of charity—giving alms to the poor—but from the root tzedek, righteousness.
This righteousness takes a slightly different approach to economic justice, one that involves putting our bodies where our dollars go.
Rabbi Susan Talve, whom you’ll meet in this issue, decided with her St. Louis congregants in August to go into the nearby suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. First they went to support the protests that closed streets after a black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer. And then, some of them decided to patronize the businesses hurting from the protests. Lunch in a Ferguson coffee shop. An appointment at a Ferguson hair salon. Via what I’ve been naming to myself a tzedakah of intent, Susan Talve and the people she leads are doing what they’d do anyway—having a meal, getting a haircut—but are deciding very consciously where they’re going to purchase these services, the same way we consciously decide what impact we want when we allocate our charity dollars. Doing good not just by spending money loosely connected to a good cause (that pink-ribbon purchase) but by thinking about what ancillary good can come of the purchase—including the benefits of being geographically selective and alert.
Rabbi Rachel Isaacs is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, and Jewish chaplain of Colby College. Waterville is a town where the main street has been suffering the etiolating effects of cheap-goods big box stores on its outskirts, with a concomitant shrinking customer base for local goods and services, and this means the quality of life is likely to diminish for all the residents. No one loves a sad and empty main street, not the hurting merchants and not the populace when they realize that their town square is empty. (Remember the Lorax; timing is all, in these matters.)
After she delivered a High Holiday sermon a few years ago about the benefits of local shopping, Rachel Isaacs’ congregants noticed that she practiced what she preached. First, it was Talmud study group in a local coffee house, since “everybody wants coffee anyway,” which was followed by regular meetings of Thai and Torah, and then Torah on Tap. Now when Isaacs meets with her congregants for study groups, she schedules her adult-education classes over a meal in one of the local restaurants. “Everyone needs to eat,” she told me (over breakfast is a non-chain Manhattan diner), “and we want to get together to learn, so why not build in this added support for a local place that really benefits from our presence?”
Of course there will be those who argue that economic determinism is what shapes how a once-flourishing village can devolve into a dusty downtown. If the small local stores would only carry better goods at cheaper prices, if the café served tastier food, customers would come, so goes this argument. But Isaacs is making sure, in a small and significant way—a way many of us can pretty easily emulate—that Waterville’s spine doesn’t crumble in the meantime.
Teach a woman to fish. Then go to her local restaurant and order the fish.