Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Bricks Of Empowerment

Apr 19, 2014

The Passover ritual of the seder meal helps its participants to relive the Israelites’ terrifying transition from slavery to freedom in ancient Egypt. At the seder, eating the unleavened bread called matzah allows us to literally ingest this transitional experience.  According to the Bible, the Israelites baked matzah because they had no time to bake regular bread as they fled Egypt on their way to freedom.  Yet matzah is also called the bread of affliction and economic poverty that our enslaved ancestors ate in Egypt.  When we Jews eat matzah we are trying to get a taste, actually and symbolically, of what it feels like to live with one foot in slavery and one foot in freedom.  Hopefully, that makes us more appreciative of the meaning of both.

Economic poverty and slavery are often connected to each other.  If I lack sufficient economic resources, I lack a critical tool for empowering myself to escape the forces preventing me from being fully free to express my full human potential.  However, the ancient sages of the Jewish religion recognized a more basic, underlying poverty when they declared that genuine poverty is the poverty of knowledge.  Not having  a quality education is what holds people back from economic opportunity, thus keeping them from being fully free, even in a free society like ours.

One of our Capital District community’s most ambitious endeavors to break the cycle of economic poverty through education is being built in downtown Albany as I speak.  The Capital South Campus Center, whose future home is on Warren Street, stands at the border between the Mansion and South End neighborhoods.  It was spearheaded by Albany’s Trinity Alliance as part of the city’s Capital South Revitalization Plan, also know as Segueway To the Future.  This education center is in great part funded by the federal government. Yet it is also the result of an incredible public-private partnership between Trinity, the city, state and federal governments, the College of Nanosciences, other funders and supporters, and most important, leaders and activists from the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods.  As Harris Oberlander, Trinity’s director, explained to me when I toured the construction site, the center will be a state of the art facility staffed by community college and life skills teachers, social service counselors, other professionals and volunteers whose one major goal will be to educate and empower the residents of these neighborhoods.  GEDs, associate’s degrees and certificate programs will be offered at low cost to people looking to break out of the slavery of economic poverty through knowledge and skill building.  Best of all, students will be able to get a quality education where they live, without the obstacles of far, expensive commutes that are often made onerous or impossible because they do not own cars.  As Trinity’s website succinctly puts it, “The Campus Center will be a hub of activity, hosting training, education and community functions, while incorporating child care and youth programming for the purpose of stabilizing [economically] disadvantaged families today, and positioning them for the employment opportunities of tomorrow.”

Each brick being laid, each beam being fitted, each coat of paint being applied at this new Campus Center is a building block for the betterment of our community.  It is an inspiring example of how government, the private sector, and citizens like you and me can transcend the endless finger pointing about the sources of economic poverty, and come together to actually do something proactive about ending it.  Over time, the center will be training and building a corps of dedicated volunteers who will mentor and tutor students in one-on-one relationships.  I hope to gradually be part of this volunteer partnership and I hope you will consider being part of it.  Together, we can work to help our fellow human beings end their poverty of knowledge through education, thus strengthening the free society that we all love.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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