Newsoms budget comes under fire in sacred protest

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signs off on the city’s budget, he doesn’t consult a rabbi. But maybe he should.

A coalition of rabbis, reverends, nuns, friars, Buddhist monks and more came together at S.F. City Hall on June 4 to protest Newsom’s proposed budget cuts, which would drastically affect the poor and homeless.

Fifty-two local religious leaders joined with Religious Witness With Homeless People and more than 100 supporters to put on the unique demonstration, which was titled “Claiming our City Budget as a Moral Document.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan from San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, who participated in the protest, said the demonstration felt like a religious ceremony.

“It was a protest, but it was conducted in a very sacred way,” he said. “It had a rhythm and ritual to it.”

The ceremony included a brief Buddhist meditation, a ringing of a mindfulness bell and a shofar-blowing by Rabbi Alan Lew of Makor Or Jewish Center for Meditation in San Francisco. Lew also serves on the steering committee of Religious Witness With Homeless People.

Short speeches about the need to avoid closing homeless shelters and cutting psychiatric services to the poor were delivered, followed by a moment of silence and a procession that was accompanied by a violinist.

The demonstration concluded with a march up the City Hall rotunda to present the offices of Newsom and the city supervisors with placards of the group’s letter proclaiming that “a budget is a moral document.”

Other rabbis involved included Pamela Frydman Baugh of the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, Jonathan Jaffe of Congregation Emanu-El in S.F., Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun in Berkeley and Micah Hyman of Beth Sholom in S.F.

Lay leaders included Michael Bien, a San Francisco attorney who serves on the Steering Committee of Religious Witness; Rachel Biale, Bay Area Regional Director of Progressive Jewish Alliance; and Diana Scott of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring.

Newsom’s proposal to balance the city’s estimated $338 million budget deficit includes cuts that would close a drop-in center for homeless people in the Tenderloin and significantly reduce funding to several mental health and substance abuse nonprofit agencies. Funding for the Department of Public Health would be cut by $48 million.

“[Our message] insists the city budget not be balanced on the backs of the poor and homeless members of the community,” said Sister Bernie Galvin, founder and director for Religious Witness With Homeless People.

Galvin credited Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi for helping her organization reserve time in City Hall’s South Light Court for the action, saying he has always been sympathetic to Religious Witness.

“The original focus was [to be] on the quality of life citations being given by the police department [to the homeless],” said Wolf-Prusan, adding that the citations have cost the city $6 million while bringing back nothing in return. “But when the budget was revealed, the focus shifted.”

“It’s a moral issue here,” Bien said. “These people’s needs must be respected by all of us … a universal value across all religions and faiths is to take care of the poor and sick. There are tough choices to be made, but what we’ve heard so far is not positive in how to make those choices.”

The Board of Supervisors’ budget committee will discuss issues related to the Human Services Agency and Public Health Department in board chambers on Thursday, June 19 at 11 a.m. Public comment is scheduled for 5 p.m.