The Rebbe and Congressman Chisholm

The Rebbe and Congressman Chisholm August 18, 2014

What happened when “fiery street activist” Shirley Chisholm became a congressman and asked the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson for advice:

Conservative racist Southern congressmen tried to thwart the newly elected Chisholm by assigning her to the Agriculture Committee. What could this urban radical who wanted to work on education and labor issues possibly do on the Agriculture Committee? She was dejected and frustrated. She was also the representative from the Rebbe’s area of Brooklyn, and she received a call that he wished to see her. Telushkin [Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Rebbe] recounts the story in his book as well, and describes how the Rebbe told her he recognized how upset she was. She acknowledged her frustration and feeling of being insulted, and asked him, “What should I do?”

“What a blessing God has given you,” the Rebbe answered. “This country has so much surplus food and there are so many hungry people and you can use this gift that God’s giving you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.”

And she did, a short time later, when she met Robert Dole on her first day in Congress. He had just been elected to the Senate from Kansas, and spoke to her about the plight of Midwestern farmers who were producing more food than they could sell and losing money on their crops. Joining forces with him, and later on her own, she greatly expanded the food stamp program. By 1973, the government ordered that food stamps become available in every jurisdiction in the United States. She also helped create and push through Congress the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC. Today 8 million people receive WIC benefits each month.

When she revealed this story at a retirement breakfast in her honor in 1983, she said: “A rabbi who was an optimist taught me that what you think is a challenge is a gift from God. And if poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

One doesn’t have to agree with Chisholm’s politics to find this a good story about repaying evil with good and making use of the situation in which you are placed— not exactly a religious lesson, but one the religious, with Judaism and Christianity’s mixture of hope and realism that encourages effective action, should be offering.

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