2008 I Feel Your Pain
Chananya Weissman
2008, The Jewish Star

An article in the May 17-23 issue of the Queens Tribune about a local politician serves as a stark commentary on much of what is wrong with the government of Israel. Moreover, it should serve as a dose of reality for the vast majority of us, who complain about the leadership, yet implicitly espouse a paradigm of leadership that perpetually disappoints us.

The article noted that the average New Yorker on Food Stamps is allotted $28.25 to spend on food per week. Eric Gioia, a councilman from Woodside, took the “Food Stamp Challenge” and put himself in the shoes of such an individual for one week. He allotted himself the same $28.25 as those far less fortunate and did not permit himself any outside meals or for others to prepare his meals for him.

Mr. Gioia had to literally count pennies as he shopped for his week’s provisions, and subsisted mostly on pasta, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a small number of fruits and vegetables. At the end of one meal he felt compelled to scoop excess tomato sauce back into the jar, and refrained from exercising that week to keep from getting hungry. He also availed himself of a food pantry to help fill in the blanks and some of the emptiness in his stomach.

The councilman observed that he was forced to choose what he ate based entirely on price, not nutrition or personal preference. At the end of the week he declared that he was excited just to eat warm vegetables. No doubt Mr. Gioia’s first-hand experience with some of the difficulties of those who live in poverty provided a perspective that will aid him in serving these people from his office.

Mr. Gioia’s example is one that puts just about all politicians and authority figures to shame, but we should note in particular the great disconnect between Israel’s leaders and those they are empowered to serve.

[Note: I will not apologize for having never served in the Israeli army and being sent on pointless missions, risking my life unnecessarily to preserve the lives of Arab “civilians”, taken hostage for nothing, or killed so world opinion would pretend to be on Israel’s side for five minutes before the next concession.

I will also not admit to being less enlightened than leaders who have eyes but cannot see merely because I live on the other side of the Atlantic and am not privy to their classified information. My perspective from the arguably safer environs of New York may even be less distorted than theirs, as I have no bodyguards, do not drive in an armored cavalcade, and do not sleep in a gated fortress. Their decisions that affect the safety of Jews worldwide have more of a direct impact on me and my family and friends in Israel and abroad — all private citizens — than on their own selves. But more on this some other time.]

The much-ballyhooed “democratically elected” government of Israel would do well to consider moving its headquarters to Sderot for a week so they too can personally duck the constant barrage of rockets. It would be easier to refrain from condemning those responsible for the multi-layered and ongoing tragedy of the Gaza self-destruction if they too moved out of their lavish and secure dwellings and lived side by side with those who had everything taken away from them by the false god of peace. Should not the leaders be willing to make the same painful sacrifices they demand of their citizens?

We are taught that those in even minor positions of authority receive their true appointments from heaven. It is also true that leaders are almost invariably reflections of the people they represent. In other words, we get the leaders we want and deserve whether we vote for them or not. The leadership of Israel has been a steady stream of godless pushovers because even we “religious” folk are content — and, I believe, more comfortable — with a leadership that does not make religious demands of us or place God at the forefront of the conversation. The leadership of our organizations and institutions too are mostly well-dressed figureheads because we prefer an unspoken relationship whereby we demand little of them, they demand little of us, and no one rocks the boat.

The pundits create conventions and wonder where the next leaders will come from and how to train our young people to become those leaders. I wonder only when our people will desire true leaders and empower them to truly lead.

Our leaders must never lose sight of where they come from and the realities that those under their charge must live with as a direct consequence of their decisions. A councilman from Queens felt obliged to step into the world of the needy for a week and was indelibly changed by the experience. We must expect nothing less from our leaders.

Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org). His collection of original divrei Torah, "Sefer Keser Chananya," can be obtained by contacting him at admin@endthemadness.org.