Monday, May 17, 2010

Holy Shekels

Have you ever heard of a holy shekel? Of course you know that “shekel” is the currency of Israel. It was also the currency of ancient Israel, and when the Torah speaks of the donations to be brought to the maintenance of the tabernacle in the desert, it speaks of “shekel hakodesh,” essentially holy shekels. The obvious question comes: what’s a holy shekel?

The 19th century commentator Menahem Tziyon has an answer. He asks how many shekels we have given to holy purposes. “Your true worth is not the money that you possess,” he writes. “One’s abiding value is only the shekels that he gave to holy purposes, because, about all else, who knows what the future will bring - even whether or not the money will remain yours.”

I wonder how many people today can say they have holy shekels in their wallets, money they have earmarked to holy purposes. Two news items this week make me wonder whether the notion of holy shekel should be revisited, because it has clearly lost its power today.

First, I learned about Homeboy Industries. This is the nation’s largest gang intervention program, run by Father Greg Boyle in Los Angeles. It serves – or served – some twelve thousand clients a year, 8 thousand gang members from 700 different gangs. It offers hope where hope is an alien term. It runs – or ran - five businesses where enemy/ rival gang members worked side by side with each other (Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Cafe, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise and Homeboy Maintenance). Many thousands of gang members have been trained during two decades of operation. It got its start in Boyle Heights, but now serves all of Los Angeles County. This is a program that our city desperately needs. It is doing amazing work saving young men and women and giving them skills and a place to work. It continues to be a drop-in place for young people looking to leave their gang lives behind them.

And it’s in trouble. The faltering economy has caused funds that support Homeboy Industries to dry up, and last week Father Greg told his staff that if they want to come back tomorrow, they should know it would be strictly as volunteers. The money is gone. The shops that Homeboy runs are still viable – they are even doing well, so Father Greg is hopeful that those businesses will be self-sustaining.

I had heard Father Greg interviewed before, so the news of Homeboy’s imminent demise was terribly distressing. I felt as though I’d lost a friend, as indeed every Angeleno has. But then came the second news item.

Apparently Lisa Marie Presley was upset. She thought there weren’t enough candles and flowers at the crypt where ex husband Michael Jackson was buried. A local fellow heard the distress call and spent several thousand dollars to plant sunflowers, purportedly Jackson’s favorite flower, at the crypt.

Several thousand dollars to plant sunflowers at the burial site of a singer, when young people in danger are losing their way out of the gang life. Something is very wrong here.

Since returning to Los Angeles, I have remarked repeatedly while driving down the 405 that I have never seen so many Beemers and Jags and Bentleys. There is so much wealth in this city. And yet Homeboy Industries is going under. People spend thousands of dollars to plant flowers at the grave of a singer because his ex wife thinks there isn’t enough tribute going on, but kids at risk are losing their life line.

Something is really wrong here.

Los Angeles: How many holy shekels are in your wallet?

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