Baltimore Water Shut-Off Hearing: Testimony

June 24th, 2015
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg
JUFJ Baltimore Advisory Board MemberRabbi Burg speaks to government officials

Councilman Stokes, President Young,

I am Daniel Burg, the rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue and a resident and homeowner in Reservoir Hill. I'm here representing Jews United for Justice who represent hundreds of area Jews.

American sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote (The Conduct of Life, 1951): "A man can live three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air, but he cannot live three seconds without hope.”

The letters received by 25,000 Baltimore households denied no one the right to breathe, and did not withhold food. But in a few dispassionate words wielded water as a weapon against hope.

I stand before you today to speak in some small way for thousands of working class families and for the poor who should not have added to their anxiety about violence, food insecurity their children's education or the possibility of homelessness the question of whether or not they'll have sufficient access to water. Water is a basic human necessity and therefore enough water to drink and to live in sanitary conditions is a basic human right. We must ensure the most vulnerable populations are protected, not literally hung out to dry.

As a rabbi I think often of water and its role. Our bodies are mostly water; it is the most fundamental essence of who we are. The Bible is filled with tales of those who have enough and those who suffer from drought, thirst and starvation. And we look around the world today and see populations suffering from water scarcity as those in power cruelly restrict precious resources. Indeed what separates developed from developing nations is our ability to provide basic human necessities like electricity and sanitary conditions, which rely first and foremost on running water.

There are structural issues to be addressed. Budgets need to be met, delinquent bills ought to be paid and that's going to require a more strategic assessment of how water is handled and delivered and the extent to which it is commoditize in our society. And the city needs to come to terms with the financing choices that led to the need for rate hikes in the first place.

But the urgent need is to ensure that the most vulnerable are not disproportionately targeted, that the poor and working class who can depend on so little, know that having water to drink, to cook, to bathe in and to flush the toilet with is something they can count on!

Dr. King famously invoked the prophet Amos when he said "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." It is not just to withhold basic human necessities. It is unrighteous to disproportionately penalize those with limited means, many of whom are struggling from paycheck to paycheck. It is unwise to do that which undermines the best interests of our entire community. So this is our expectation: DPW will immediately restore water to those currently without and cease this practice while seeking more just and equitable billing rates and billing collection procedures.

The prophet Isaiah (12:3) says "With joy you shall draw water from the springs of salvation." In a free, democratic society, salvation is a shared enterprise. This year, of all years, is a the time to act, not just to speak but to act, as if we are one united community. There are many difficult decisions that must be taken to address our city's many significant problems. This is not one of them. This is an easy decision.  Keep the water on!

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