I am about to become a statistic. I am about to join millions of others in very difficult circumstances. I will have my home that I have lived in for almost 15 years foreclosed on very soon. I am a single father with three children, who represent 30 years of day school, 20 summers of Jewish camp, and nearly 10 years of university. Beyond that I am not going to talk about how I got into this situation.
In the end it doesn’t really matter. Everyone who has arrived at this point has a story. Every one of the stories has merit, and yet can be criticized. If we are going to find fault, let us start with an unregulated financial system that systematically takes advantage of borrowers and investors. The real question is, What should happen? Should millions of people lose their homes and be forced onto the streets, so that their homes can remain empty or be bought up by speculators?
In the Gemara (Baba Metzia 83A), there is a story about some porters who were carrying a barrel of wine for Rabbi Rabbah and they broke the barrel. The porters were deemed to owe him damages. Rabbi Rabbah seized their cloaks.
He was rebuked for that and ordered to return their cloaks. When he asked, “Is this the law?” Rashi said that according to the law he could keep the cloaks, but in order “that thou walkest in the way of good men” he had to return the cloaks. The Gemara is going beyond the letter of the law in order to promote a more compassionate society. This should be an example for us.
One of the most difficult aspects of being in this situation is the feeling of shame. In America financial success is celebrated and lack of it is shamed. I have told only a few very good friends about my predicament. I know that I am not alone, but we all suffer in silence. It is time to break that silence. No one can go through this alone. We need the support of the community and of each other. In this country people internalize the pain and go to therapists; in other countries they go into the streets.
We in the Jewish community need to understand that it is not only those poor folks on the north side of Minneapolis or immigrants in financial distress. It is all of us: it is the person you see in the store, or in the park or sitting across from you in synagogue. If you want to see the faces of foreclosure, look in the mirror, because you might be next. How many of us are one or two paychecks away from falling behind?
There are a number of programs that the federal government has announced over the last year. No one quite knows how they work and no two people understand them the same way, and very few have been helped. When I have attempted to access this system, I have spent hours on hold, been told to wait because they are overwhelmed, and when I contacted them again, been told something different than what I was told before.
This ends up being a death of a thousand cuts. When I realized I was having a problem but was still current, I contacted my mortgage company; they were not interested in discussing a modification to my loan because they were receiving payments. When I fell behind, I was receiving as many as 10 or 15 phone calls a day, seven days a week, starting at about eight in the morning and going until nine in the evening. I have spent hours on hold trying to get to individuals who can make decisions.
It is a process of wearing people down. Eventually many give up and walk away. No one seems to know where people who have lost their homes are going. The rental vacancy rates are not going down. Now and then there are stories of tent cities or of families camping in national parks. What will happen when the season changes? What about school for the children? How can people in that situation find jobs?
In the Torah we read that “one should not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” We need to stop this process. We need to do it now. Every day in this country people are losing their homes. We need an immediate moratorium on foreclosures.
President Obama says that the economy is starting to turn around, that we need to be patient. Then the banks need to be patient. We saved them with huge bailouts. Now we have a right to demand that they return the favor.
In addition, stopping the foreclosures will help to stabilize the economy. There are a lot of ideas that can both help the homeowners in difficulty and provide a means for that homeowner to pay the mortgage in an affordable manner.
We must demand that the federal government immediately order a two-year moratorium — at the minimum — on foreclosures and a return of homes to their original owners. The Jewish community, and synagogue social action committees in particular, should be taking the lead on this. In the words of Joe Hill, “Don’t waste any time mourning — organize!”
John Ostfield lives in St. Paul.
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