For more than six years, I have become increasingly single-minded in my efforts to improve foster care and make the case for a child-first political movement. This ever-growing and consuming passion is derived from many places: One is that I am wary of injustice, and another is the DNA of suffering that I consider the essence of what makes me a Jew.
This personal sense of Jewishness is largely inherited.
My mother was born in Iraq and raised in Iran, and her childhood memories are — to the degree that she has shared them with me — imbued with fear and an understanding that privation was always lurking at the periphery. Anything and everything could be taken away from you.
While my upbringing was free of much structured religion, I shared the elemental sense of survival that is so celebrated in the Jewish tradition — the uneasy understanding that status, wealth and esteem are no protection against the injustices of the world.
But it is fear — in this case, sensible existential fear — that opens the path to courage.
While many Jews, and people in general, shirk from facing the precariousness of their existence, for vulnerable children — especially those in foster care — there is no such choice.
Anything and everything has and can be taken away. For children in foster care, fear and uncertainty permeate life, and in a much more visceral way than is typically experienced by American Jews of my generation.
For me, the idea of Jewish survival — as well as reverence for hardship as a requisite of strength — remained largely intellectual concepts.
That changed when I met and became mentor to a parentless 16-year-old boy that I coached on an unlikely lacrosse team in rough-and-tumble south L.A.
What made him, and another young man I informally mentored, so compelling was the strength they were able to derive from hardship beyond my comprehension. I was also covering foster care as a journalist. The more time I spent looking at the system and interacting with the children in it, the more I found a group that I could empathize with and look up to.
Soon I was exposed to youth-run advocacy organizations, where I met foster-children-turned-adults who, after escaping the pain of their own upbringings, had decided to become social workers, attorneys representing children, teachers and politicians — to help alleviate the pain of the foster kids growing up behind them.
But there is a darker side to this story: Allowing injustice in the door is the first step to much larger dangers.
This injustice begins with the parent who hits a child, neglects to feed him/her or abuses him/her in much worse ways. But the injustice is larger still, for it is empirically true that these cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods, meaning that we, as a society, knowingly and continually allow certain children to be abused, even murdered, at higher rates than others.
One can argue that the United States has been on a crusade against injustice since its birth. We have seen the evil of slavery ended, and blacks and women given their obvious right to vote. And children have exceedingly more rights today than in past times.
While I have studied and witnessed incredible progress in the foster care system, and have seen the courage and relentless spirit of hundreds of social workers, foster parents, teachers and community-based organizations across the country, I also see an expansive and growing need. The walls of inequality grow ever higher, the helping professions are less revered, and an entire generation of foster children is abused by the injustice of a culture that willingly puts some people ahead at the expense of others.
If the Jewish story is worth telling, it is because of the recognition that once justice is identified, one must work against it.
I have found a community of people, whether former foster youth or children’s activists, who, tempered by the fires of hardship, fight that injustice everyday.
The Jewish community’s strength has been burnished by generations of withstanding similar affronts. So I ask that you take up this issue of vulnerable children. It is at the heart of the evil that we have the proven courage to defeat.
Daniel Heimpel is the director of S.F.-based Fostering Media Connections. He is teaching a course at U.C. Berkeley this semester about using the media for social change.