By Margaret Frisch Klein

The words of Qohelet that we read during Sukkot are haunting, ‘To everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die . . . A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.’ It became the popular hit ‘Turn, Turn, Turn,’ in the sixties when the Birds set it to music, which you can still hear on the radio, mostly on oldies stations.

There is a beautiful niggun, part of our daily evening service, ‘Ufros Alenu Sukkat Shlomecha’”Spread over us the shelter, the sukkah of Your Divine peace,’ that is also haunting and appropriate for Sukkot. That prayer recognizes the fragility of peace and of shelter. This Sukkot more than ever, in the wake of Katrina, Rita and the even more recent devastating earthquakes, we need to make this connection from the spiritual realm to the physical realm and talk about the fragility of housing and peace.

It is said that many American families are just one paycheck away from homelessness. The loss of that paycheck can be caused by natural disaster, family illness, or a layoff.

Poverty is not a new story but it has not been covered well in our media. As a former journalist raised on the concept of the impartiality of the news media, it was striking to watch reporters visibly angry at what they were reporting in the wake of Katrina. If they could get there, where was FEMA? But for many people, poverty is the grinding constant of daily life’it does not merely surface in times of tragedy or emergency. And not only is poverty a continual reality for many, it is growing. Timing is everything and the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report in the middle of hurricane relief illustrated that the statistics are grim: poverty numbers increased for the fourth straight year. There are now 37 million Americans living in poverty in the United States, 1.1 million more than last year. Poverty is defined as income of $9,000 to $14,000 or less depending on the configuration of your family. Most of us would agree that this is not a living wage. There are also now more people without health insurance and more children in poverty than ever before’17.8 percent of all of America’s children were poor last year, a total of more than 13 million children going to bed hungry every night. If you are hungry, your ability to learn is significantly compromised. If the rain falls into your sukkah and you are cold and wet, your ability to learn is significantly compromised.

With rising energy costs, fuel assistance in Massachusetts is predicted to run out before the end of November, before it gets really cold. People are already being forced into deciding to heat their homes or keep their homes’an untenable situation.

And if you think poverty is not a Jewish issue, think again’25 percent of New York City Jews, mostly elderly and immigrants, live below the poverty line.

This Sukkot, teach the niggun, but more importantly commit to helping your congregations understand homelessness. Find a local shelter and cook a meal. Swing a hammer on a Sunday afternoon for Habitat for Humanity. Invite guests into your sukkah and talk about poverty and the fragility of housing. Then maybe our own homes will be sukkot shlomecha, shelters of your Divine peace.

Or explore an even more difficult topic. October is also National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The statistics are startling. One out of four girls will be sexually assaulted before reaching adulthood, most frequently by someone she knows. Domestic violence is escalating. Bullying is on the rise.

Make sure that your congregations know that this is a Jewish issue. No one has the right to hit another person or abuse them verbally, emotionally, sexually or physically. Unlike the words from Qohelet there is no time that is right. But maybe this confluence between Sukkot where we pray for sukkat shlomecha, shelters of Divine peace and National Domestic Violence month provides the right time to talk about these tough issues.

Check that your congregations have signs posted in the bathrooms telling victims where they can receive safe, confidential help. Make sure that your congregations live up to the promise of being a safe community. When I first started working as a Jewish professional, the youth movement provided training to outline our responsibilities to report suspected abuse (as educators we are mandated reporters) and to prevent false allegations. Churches have leapfrogged Jewish congregations in thinking about security and what it means to provide a safe environment for worshippers and staff. I encourage you to think about bringing in a professional to meet with your board to address ‘Safe Church’ programming.

We tend to think that abuse does not happen in Jewish families, like there is no alcoholism, divorce or other societal myths. Abuse happens in all socioeconomic groups, in all ethnic groups, at all educational levels, and in all religions. It is a Jewish issue, too. In Boston we have Kol Isha, the Jewish response to domestic violence, run through Jewish Family and Children Services. It sponsors an evening every year called ‘Sukkah of Peace’ to raise awareness about domestic violence. It offers programs for teens, for our Russian community and for victims and survivors. Find out what the resources are in your community. Be prepared to refer someone. Have the number in your Rolodex. Better, make the connection before you need it. Know that someone in your congregation could be hurting.

The Kol Isha Web site defines domestic violence:

Domestic violence is the emotional, physical, sexual or financial abuse of a spouse/partners, child or older family member. Once begun, violence tends to escalate in frequency and severity. The abuse is a pattern of behavior that the abuser uses to try to control the victim.

The escalating nature of the violence and the cycles can be difficult to break. However, maybe with awareness drawn to the topic we can begin to build those sukkot shlomecha so that no woman, no person, needs to be afraid in her own home, in his own congregation. Then can Sukkot truly be zeman simhatenu, the time of our joy.