And The Lord Said, “Let There Be Wise Community Development”

IMG_1064.JPGDoes God care if we shop at chain stores or at local ones? You bet he does. Does the injunction in the 58th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, “Break your bread with the hungry and bring the moaning poor into your home,” suggest that God also may not approve of two-acre zoning or gated communities? Correct again, according to Rabbi Pete Stein, who gave a rousing sermon (genially masquerading as a speech) at a meeting of the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund (GNHCLF), held at the Graduate Club.

Speaking Tuesday morning on “The Moral Implications of Community Development,” Stein addressed a group of New Haven’s financial and spiritual movers and shakers; he sees scant distinction in the capacity for moral action between the two. Stein said that the way he reads the Bible, God is calling on all of us to work, through moments of high spiritual uplift or by resolving to recycle those plastic bags to reduce garbage, to make a world sustainable ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually.

IMG_1067.JPGStein, though not quite 30 years old, knows this territory. Today he is a rabbi, but after graduating from Yale, he lived and worked and did community organizing at the (late) Dixwell Community “Q” House. He has returned to town to work as director of strategic planning for the Regional Growth Partnership, south central Connecticut’s regional economic development corporation. To describe himself, as Pete Stein does, as a man “blazing a new path for a rabbi” is an understatement of Talmudic proportion.

So what are the moral implications of community development? Click here for the full text of Stein’s talk, as rich in allusions to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as to zoning ordinances.

His words sparked a spirited conversation among the gathered financial executives, non-profit leaders, and clergy in the audience. It was well worth being heard all around town as New Haven confronts, according to Rabbi Stein and his interlocutors, serious issues of income disparity, an affordable housing crisis, and a bad habit of ignoring, in its planning, the basic requirements of the working poor and the city’s neediest. Here are some highlights:

IMG_1068.JPGAlderfolks Ina Silverman and Roland Lemar wanted to know what Stein’s suggestions were for political leaders to effect change in people who were quite happy to live behind their gates. Stein answered, “I’m not quite 30 and don’t own a house. You need to educate me, you need to educate people about the implications of such a purchase. The city needs to have an ongoing serious dialogue like what’s happening among us here this morning. And frankly I think ministers and rabbis and religious people must lead the way. When five ministers sit down with the mayor, that makes a difference.”

p(clear). IMG_1070.JPGJack Healey (pictured on the right), the president of the United Way of Greater New Haven, said that one of the greatest challenges is to get people to think beyond the here and the now. “We don’t have a clear picture of the future of the city that we can present. Keeping the oil flowing, the lights, and so forth is as far as we go. The focus on the present is a detriment to getting the changes you’re talking about.”

p(clear). IMG_1072.JPGCarla Weil, the executive director of the GNCLF (which underwrites loans for non-profits, the City of New Haven’s affordable housing initiatives, and much else in the spirit of Stein) said she is encouraged that change is going in the right direction. “Look at the green building taking place. Maybe the sense of emergency from global warning was the trigger, but people are not only talking but doing things that not long ago they didn’t want to hear about.”

p(clear). Stein responded: “Yes, yes, on the global warming and education, but it’s all connected. One of my bugaboos is all the stuff we throw out. I once gave a talk on where our municipal trash goes. I tracked it myself. It ends up 65 miles east of here, in Lisbon, Connecticut, where it is burned and releases toxic fumes over a relatively poor area of the state. The ash that is left then is carted to Putnam, 35 miles away, where it is buried and causes who knows what. So our trash, yours and mine, causes someone else cancer. There’s simply, from a moral point of view, no getting away from that. If we love God, how can we keep doing this? That is the question. Do I need this Saran Wrap, this tin foil? Do they enhance sustainability? Those are moral questions of a high order.”

p(clear). IMG_1071.JPGDeborah Davis, who works at the Wexler-Grant School Family Resource Center, gracefully revealed her age to be 53 and then said her first apartment in New Haven cost $125 a month. “Now the average apartment is above $1,200. You’re right. Who can afford this?” she asked. “You have to earn $45,000 minimum to pay that rent. The economic disparity in this city is far too great, and getting greater. Where are the young people going to live?”

p(clear). Stein responded, as he is a young person, by broadening the question. He said that often people who might even afford such rents have no sense of place. “My generation,” he said, “was raised on the idea that the most important thing is career. You can move from place to place, use computers, and you are not attached to a location, a neighborhood, a city. You don’t get out. You see virtual, not real. Excessive electronic dependence is not good for community development.”

p(clear). IMG_1069.JPGRuth Henderson, on the right in the photo with Rev. Bonita Grubbs, reminded Rabbi Stein that she remembered him from when he worked in Dixwell. Today she is, among her many affiliations, a member of the Dixwell Management team, and spoke in enthusiastic agreement with much of Stein’s message. “I myself, ” she said, with a candor and forthrightness that characterized the whole conversation, “am guilty of looking at the person in trouble, homeless, without comfort and blaming them. This is not good. We have to be thinking about our youth, not being afraid of them. Development that is all about money is about greed, and slavery was about greed too. We all need to do better.”

p(clear). “That’s what social change is,” responded Stein, “one person stepping up, one at a time.”

p(clear). “The fact,” said Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action, “that you are standing up there, under 30 years old and still have this vision, that gives me real hope. The prophets had a great vision and could push people beyond their comfort limits. That’s what you’re doing. Because there is no point in saving the city just for people who we value because they have more money than other people. Valuing people that way profoundly troubles me. It goes against all the values I have. I have hope people like you will replace us if, when we grow tired!”

p(clear). Amen.

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posted by: charlie on March 14, 2007  12:56pm

This is a great piece and we definitely need more people who have this perspective on life.  Too bad the vast majority of Americans are basically greedy and self-obsessed (even if they are “nice people”).

posted by: Ned on March 14, 2007  1:13pm

Though I agree with much of what the Rabbi has to say, I’m deeply troubled by the reliance on religious dogma, superstition and fairytales to set public policy.

posted by: ROBN on March 14, 2007  2:12pm

Rabbi Steins criticism of the younger generation having no sense of place may be correct, but it isn’t simply product of age. Placelessness is built into our economic system. (and by system, I’m not talking about the internet) Take, for instance, the current problem with New Haven property tax re-evaluations. Everyone is mad about tax increases, but what most people don’t realized is that the majority of homeowners’ tax increase is not from an increased budget, but from a “shifting” of the tax burden from commercial property to residential property. Even though commerical properties and residential properties are completely different types of property serving completely different purposes, the state mandates a uniform mill rate. Ignoring for a moment that interest rates have been artificially suppressed by the Bush administration in order to create the appearance of economic prosperity (creating unsustainable national debt instead) residential property paper values have skyrocketed…way past the relatively calm commerical property values. Becuase of this, the city is forced by the state to shift the tax burden from commercial property owners to residential property owners. My point being; until we stop treating homes as a monetary assest to be liquidated every 5-7 years, and start treating them as the physical fabric of our community, there will be a built in penalty for those who seek long term roots in their community and a built in benefit for those who are transient moving from house to house, in and out of communities.
If the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund wants to make a direct, monumental change that would benefit the community, they should immediately aggressively lobby the CT legislature to de-link commercial and residential property mill rates.

posted by: Shai on March 14, 2007  2:25pm

Rabbi Stein should be lauded for using the “soapbox” that comes naturally to clergy not for grandstanding or ego-tripping. Instead, he fulfilled a clergyman’s responsibility to the community. One of the main tenets in Judaism is “Tikkun Olam,” or the responsibility for all to help make the world a better place. Rabbi Stein seems to be well on his way to doing his part, I hope we all will have the strength and will to do our part as well.

posted by: nfjanette on March 15, 2007  1:29am

Rabbi Stein understands that Torah is a lens through which we see the world from an ethical and a legal perspective.  Such a vision is filled with imperatives of carefully considered action, which would include attempting to influence the government to support the needs of all citizens for housing and safe communities in which to live, rather than merely those that can offer large campaign contributions.  While I don’t share Rabbi Stein’s refined view of the impact of every tiny consumer item, I certainly share that vision on a larger scale, and encourage others to consider the impact of consumer decisions more carefully.  Well done, Rabbi.

posted by: Harvey L. Koizim on March 18, 2007  3:55pm

It took three generations but finally young people have begun to speak up.  Restrictive zoning promoting the move to the suburbs is immoral.  In the fifties large-lot zoning was sold by self-styled liberal planers.  They said 1, 2. and even 4 acre zoning was necessary to maintain the suburbs environmentally pure.  At the same time the Eisenhower administrating was busy putting billions into the federal highway system so commuters could expeditiously bypass the cities. Banks and their good-old-boy regulators made it easy to lend cheap city derived deposits to the new ex-urbanites on terms never so favorable.  And the tax laws funded development by providing trillions in under-the-radar subsidies (e.g. making real estate mortgage interest deductible from income in calculating income taxes).  As a sop for their easy cooperation, urban politiicians partnered with developers to be given billions in federal dollars for “redevelopment.” Translartion: tear down decades old city fabric replaced by cheap, unimaginative, insubstantial developments (e.g. the New Haven Mall, Macy’s & Malley’s).

I’m glad courageous, bright young people like Rabbi Stein and “Robn” have finally turned up to tell us all “the emperor has no clothes.”