Who Counts?

May 22, 2020
By Avi Rose

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, public figures have been pronouncing that certain people are dispensable. First it was the elderly and people with disabilities who should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of everyone else. Increasingly, it has been front-line essential workers, disproportionately women and people of color, who should put themselves in harm’s way for “the rest of us” and for the sake of the economy.

This notion of dispensability stands in sharp contrast to the fundamental concept—in Jewish and many other cultures—that each human life is precious. In the Jewish community, that principle is underlined this week by the parsha (weekly Torah portion) we are reading, which discusses the paramount importance of the census—making sure that every person counts. It’s worth repeating: every person counts.

And in the midst of this week when we are focused on our communal responsibility to count each person, there has been a storm of controversy surrounding an article in the Jewish media that alleges that recent demographic studies that finally begin to really count Jews of color are flawed. The authors of this article somehow come to the conclusion that studies that show lower figures are more credible. Their arguments include the astonishing claim that perhaps Jews of color are actually over-counted because they are overly motivated to participate in these studies. What a bizarre allegation, and to what end?

I look at this from the vantage point of leading an agency that is embedded in a richly diverse Jewish community and welcomes the responsibility to encompass all of us. More personally, I see this from the vantage point of being a father to two Jews of color. Both professional and personally, I am appalled by this effort to discount the numbers and growing visibility of Jews of color. What could possibly be the rationale for not counting all of us? And how does that square with our traditional census obligation?

All this is happening against the background of our country being in the midst of a highly disrupted census. Dollars and lives depend on an accurate count, and many among us are afraid to be counted. As it turns out, counting every person is not a simple task, but it is one we must be committed to.

Our agency—and our whole communal structure—is based on the principle that each person matters. Further, we adhere to the idea that we have a special responsibility to attend to the needs of those who are most vulnerable. It is in our core. We do not see people as dispensable. In the midst of this pandemic, JFCS East Bay is attending to those people: homebound elders who can’t risk a trip to the grocery store, the suddenly unemployed trying to make their rent, undocumented families ineligible for federal assistance, and others. That is what we’re here for.

For all of us in all kinds of circumstances—some very fortunate, some not—this is a moment to come forward and be counted. If you need us, please let us know. If you can help us, please be in touch.

I wish all of you and your families health, stamina, resilience, and the resources you need to make it through this extraordinary time.