Shanah Tova, Happy New Year! As I write this, we have just completed the Days of Awe, the holiest period in the Jewish calendar that begins with Rosh Hashanah (our new year) and ends with Yom Kippur (our day of atonement). It is a time of individual and communal reflection. We each apologize directly to those whom we have wronged, and we apologize as a community for social injustices. We commit to doing better.
I have the tremendous privilege to work with Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, an organization based in the Capital Region and Upper Hudson Valley that works with immigrants and allies to support, empower, and defend our communities. At the beginning of the pandemic, we created a mutual aid fund that supported immigrants who suddenly found themselves without work, childcare, and in some instances, no internet or computer access either. Many more found their hours cut; farmers, cleaners, and restaurant workers deemed “essential” and risking their safety on the job, yet still unable to make ends meet.
We were dissapointed but not surprised, then, when the state and federal government left out undocumented people from all COVID financial relief. As we say on Yom Kippur, our country “missed the mark”. COVID stimulus and enhanced unemployment benefited many-- but fell far short of where we needed to be.
At the beginning of the year, our organization embarked on a campaign to start an Excluded Worker Fund. Along with our allies at the Labor Religion Coalition and other organizations across the state, we fought for, AND WON! an Excluded Worker Fund that allotted $2.1 billion to undocumented New Yorkers who lost income during the pandemic. This fund is a desperately needed lifeline-- offering the equivalent to a year’s worth of expanded unemployment for some, or the total amount of stimulus checks for others. In August, this fund opened, and already the DOL has announced that the funds are likely exhuasted. As a community, we had to force a reckoning and accountability to our elected officials. The apology, in the form of pandemic relief, will finally come for some (but not all) of us.
This New Year also marks a special occasion-- what’s called “shmita”. Every 7 years, we are commanded to let the land lie fallow to allow it to replenish and to offer food for those who have no other means, trusting in G-d to ensure we can survive from previous years’ surplus. It’s also a year of debt forgiveness- traditionally any pending loans are forgiven, so that together our whole community can begin again next year. The Excluded Worker Fund itself- both as a lifeline for the very farmworkers who tend to the land, and as a means for us all to begin again- are beautiful extensions of the practice of shmita.
I appreciate that this fund opens during the High Holy Days that mark the beginning of a Shmita year. Those of us who have held onto our jobs, received government support, or found an abundance while others are struggling have an opportunity to acknowledge all we have. We can see how we’ve failed those whose work we have depended on throughout this pandemic, and we can vow to do better. We can release the debts of our neighbors, so that we can begin again together.
While the Excluded Workers Fund is a big step in the right direction, we have still missed the mark. The fund too leaves out so many, from those who are street vendors or work under the table, to those who fled their countries quickly and did not retrieve all the paperwork they need to qualify. If you’re undocumented and unable to work, you’re still left out. And many eligible Upstate and rural immigrants face systemic hurdles to access the fund, struggling for instance to secure appointments at and transportation to backlogged NYC-based foreign consulates for needed documents.
In these High Holy Days and this Shmita year, let’s shine a light on where we fell short and commit to do better. Let’s push for the forgiveness of debts (like rent assistance and tenant protections!), and enter the next phase together. G’mar Chatima Tova, may you be inscribed in the Book of Life, and seguimos luchando!
If you’d like to make a donation to support Columbia County Sanctuary Movement assist immigrant workers in accessing the Excluded Worker Fund, and provide direct aid to those ineligible through our Mano a Mano Mutual Aid Fund, you can donate at https://www.sanctuarycolumbiacounty.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=1.