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A rabbi, a black woman, and some white congressmen walked into a WIC office

You are expecting a joke (for which I apologize) and I instead ask this question…

What is a person or community to do when the system is stacked against them?

Growing up in the rural Midwest I often heard proverbs such as

God helps those who help themselves.

Proverbs of course are not hard and fast laws of nature and this one is not particularly biblical, but the takeaway for me was something like,

Don’t bother to ask God for help if you are not willing to get the ball rolling.

As I looked around me, I observed many people, especially farmers and the Amish, who emulated this proverb. There were also, of course, those who didn’t follow this proverb and ran into trouble in life. By the logic of this proverb, they were responsible too.

This proverb became even more dangerous when coupled with race. My hometown was essentially white with a small hispanic community. The nearest city, about 30 min away, was a different story since it also had a significant black population. We’d often hear on the news about drugs, violence, murder and the like, and judgment was cast toward the black community by stone-throwers ignorant of the reality faced by that community.

It wasn’t so much that those around me were racist. In fact, there are only a handful of people I’ve known whom I would label with that moniker. Yet, there was a common conviction that the problems of the nearby african-american community were basically “their fault.” I’ve finally come to realize that racism is not only an individual, but also an institutional level problem. It’s not my intent to discuss that here, however, so I’ll leave that controversy for another day.

So, what is a person or community to do when the system is stacked against them?

There are many options, but the story which follows is as unique in its details as it is unconventional in its response to insult, oppression, and racism.Shirley_Chisholm

Enter Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm, elected in 1968, was the first black congresswoman. This landmark victory quickly became a bitter pill as several Democratic congressman from the South relegated her to the Agricultural Committee. This was particularly offensive since she came from Brooklyn and was passionate about making progress in education and labor. One New York paper headline quipped, “Does A Tree Grow in Brooklyn?”

Enter Rabbi Menachem Schneerson

Rebbe SchneersonRabbi Schneerson, “The most influential rabbi in modern history” according to his biographer, invited the congresswoman to his office.1 The Rebbe knew she was furious and he wanted to help her positively navigate this apparent disaster. She listened respectfully to his wise advice,

What a blessing God has given you. This country has so much surplus food and there are so many hungry people and you can use this gift that God’s given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.2

Chisholm could have easily blown the optimist Rebbe off… after all, what does white Jewish rabbi know about black suffering? But she didn’t.

Enter the WIC Office

Not long afterward, Robert Dole, a recently elected senator, shared his concern for midwestern farmers. Supply outstripped demand and they were suffering as a result. Chisholm used her creativity to not only expand the food stamp program but was instrumental in the founding of WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) which currently supplements eight million women, infants and children with food.

God used a rabbi and an open-minded black congresswoman to turn what some racist congressmen intended as a debilitating appointment to an irrelevant position into a blessing to millions. As Shirley Chisholm reflected on it,

A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you think is a challenge is a gift from God. If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.

To put it in my own words,

Thank you Rabbi Schneerson and Congresswoman Chisholm for helping to feed my family this past year.




One brief description of Shirley Chisholm’s story is found here.

1 Telushkin, Joseph. Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History. New York: Harper, 2014.
2 Telushkin, Rebbe, 14.

Published in Inspirational Judaism Racism


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