B'midbar 5779: Everyone Counts
I had the great pleasure this week to visit the Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, along with a few other local clergy who are new to the area. I was very impressed by what I saw: a well-run school where children are learning and growing.
As you may know, the schools in Port Chester face some significant challenges. The population of Edison Elementary is about 90% Latino, including many recent immigrants and English language learners. A similarly high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most such schools perform beneath the state average on standardized tests or are plagued with disciplinary problems. Yet the schools in Port Chester perform at state average on tests, and the school has a low number of suspensions each year, a remarkable feat. The principal credited a positive school culture with these impressive results. The schools also feature bilingual kindergartens that ensure that the children are literate and fluent in both English and Spanish, a very valuable skill in today’s labor market.
What most impressed me, though, was the many community partnerships that help make the school thrive. Health care providers from the Open Door clinic in Port Chester and Family Services of Westchester come to the school routinely, which ensures that children don’t have to miss a day of school because of a minor illness or injury. Staff from the Carver Center run after-school programs on site, giving the children something to do in the afternoon while their parents are at work. These and other community partnerships bring together school, community and family to ensure that each child has the best chance for a thriving and successful life.
Through our participation in the Food to Grow On program, we at KTI help support these students, and I will be looking for more opportunities to do so in the future. One possibility we discussed during the visit was the annual need for coats and winter accessories for the students and their families. Stay tuned in the fall for ways we can help.
I mention all of this because one structural challenge these schools face is that state and federal funding they receive is tied to census data and official statistics about the population they serve. Having an accurate count ensures that these schools get the correct amount of funding to serve the population that depends on them.
We are now less than a year away from the decennial, constitutionally-mandated census, which will have a significant impact on Edison and schools and community resources like it around the country. Many planning decisions that affect our daily lives are in part determined by census data. An accurate count is in everyone’s interest: it helps governments and businesses plan for the future and ensures that about $675 billion in federal funding is distributed fairly.
There is reason to be concerned, however, that the count might not be accurate. A recent report from the nonpartisan think tank Urban Institute warned that for a variety of reasons, as many as 4 million people may be missing from the census next year . Places like Port Chester might be especially impacted due to the high concentration of populations that are typically undercounted: young children, immigrants, renters, people in complex or unstable living arrangements, and Latinos and African-Americans. For this reason, the village government has formed a Complete Count Committee, on which Daniel serves, to raise awareness and obtain as accurate a count as possible.
A census, of course, is nothing new, and is the major subject of this week’s Torah reading, B’midbar. The section we read this morning dealt with a subset of that national census in the desert: an accounting of all of the men of the tribe of Levi from the age of one month and up. The general census only counted men from the age of 20 and above because that census was for military purposes. The people at this point in the Torah’s narrative were preparing to leave Sinai, go through the wilderness, and face enemies along the way.
But the Levites has a particular purpose: maintaining and operating the Tabernacle. One ancient rabbi (Midrash Tehillim 92:9) explains that because the Levites were intensively prepared their entire lives to serve in the Tabernacle, it was as if they were already serving even at the tender age of one month. For this reason, Levites under the age of 20 were included in the count, even as their peers from other tribes were not. Later in the portion, God commands Moses and Aaron to take a second census of the Levite adult men, for the purposes of determining how the Levites would transport the disassembled Tabernacle from place to place in the desert.
Why this obsessive focus on counting up the people, here and elsewhere in the Torah? To this day in Jewish culture there is an anxiety about counting Jews; hence the custom of counting off “not one, not two” when determining if a minyan is present. But nonetheless, in several places the Torah commands a census and records the results in detail.
One Hasidic commentator notices that the final total of 603,550 adult Israelite men in this census corresponds to the 603,550 letters in a Torah scroll, or at least to the Kabbalistic tradition that there are that number of letters. The comparison is instructive: each Israelite, or more accurately speaking, each Israelite military-age man, is like a letter in the Torah. And we know that if even a single letter of a Torah scroll is defective, the entire scroll is invalid for ritual use. So too, then, was each person who was counted essential to the mission of the people. Without any single one of them, they could not succeed in their goal of making it through the wilderness into the Promised Land.
Everyone counts; no one could be left behind. For sure, we might object to the exclusion of women and children from this census, but the broader point remains. The numbers are recorded in detail because each person mattered. And we too have the opportunity to make sure everyone counts in our own census today. We can participate ourselves and encourage everyone we know to do so next spring.
This evening, we begin the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the revelation of Torah at Sinai. Tradition teaches that we all stood at Sinai at the moment—both the ancient Israelites who had just escaped slavery, along with all of the other Jews who would ever exist in the future, who were present there in some spiritual sense. There, too, each person mattered, as someone who received Torah and pledged to follow it and pass it on. As one midrash (Ex. Rabbah 5:9) puts it, each person heard a personalized version of the Torah, according to his or her ability to understand. So in order to completely understand the meaning of Torah, it follows that we need the interpretations of every single person who stood at Sinai.
So as much as Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah, it also celebrates the receiving of Torah, how we, all of us, from generation to generation, made the Torah our lodestar and reason for being as a people. We each have our own letter in the Torah, our line in the census data, our indispensable piece of any collective project. Everyone counts.