Just months after Susan M. of the Bronx underwent triple bypass surgery following a heart attack, she was threatened with eviction and a cutoff of her phone, gas and electric service.
“I didn’t know where to turn,” said the 58-year-old widow.
Susan, whose husband died of cancer 20 years ago, leaving her with two small children and no life insurance, said she was physically unable to return to her secretarial job and had no savings.
A hospital social worker helped her apply for the Supplemental Security Income and food stamps she now receives, and she eventually found her way to the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.
“I pay $600 in rent and get $522 a month from SSI and $100 a month in food stamps,” Susan said. “So I don’t have enough to cover my rent, yet alone gas and electric or the phone bill.”
With bills mounting, Susan said Met Council found a Jewish organization that not only paid her back rent but agreed to pay half of her current rent. And Met Council has given her food vouchers of $10 or $15 a month.
“Their help has meant survival for me,” she said. “My husband and I lived an upper- middle-class life. I was never put in this kind of position before. Even after he died, I managed to stay with my head above water. I’m young, but I know there are a lot of older people — and even some younger ones in the area — who are also financially in need of extra help. There is a definite need for it.”
In response to the increasing number of poverty-stricken Jews in the New York area, UJA-Federation of New York is highlighting their plight during its 1999 fund-raising campaign, which began last month. And for the first time it will be asking specific donors to make a two-year commitment to supporting a special Community Poverty Fund.
The executive vice president of UJA-Federation, Stephen Solender, said it would be a one-time supplemental gift to deal with the pressing problem of hunger and poverty in the five boroughs, Long Island and Westchester.
“We have an ironic situation,” he said. “At the same time the wealth of the New York Jewish community is increasing dramatically, the number of Jews who are close to the poverty line is also growing.”
The 1990 census put that number at 145,000, but Solender said UJA-Federation and its network of agencies now estimates that number to have grown to 185,000. The increase, he said, stems from the large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union who began arriving after 1990, and from the aging Jewish population.
“This growing number must be a centerpiece of our 1999 campaign,” he said.
Solender added that donors to the campaign are being asked to increase their contributions by 10 percent this year in order to address this need. The campaign that ended June 30 raised $123 million. Solender said it is hoped that about $5 million of the increase will help to “alleviate poverty in the New York area and in the former Soviet Union.”
In the former Soviet Union, 140,000 needy elderly Jews received assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Hunger Relief Program. The project, which received about $10 million from the federation system, as well as other sources, will be increased to 150,000 Jews this year. Solender said UJA-Federation of New York will contribute $1.6 million this year, the same as last year.
The executive director of Met Council, William Rapfogel, pointed out that in addition to those New Yorkers who are at or below the poverty line — $15,000 for a family of four — there are many others who are slightly above that level. That makes them ineligible for such government benefits as food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing and child care.
“When they have hard times, they have to be helped with philanthropic dollars,” he said. “So in a way the poor are easier to help because we can access government help for them. But the poor, even with help, need assistance.
“You don’t have to travel to the former Soviet Union to see hunger in the Jewish community. You can see it here.”
Rapfogel suggested that another reason for the increasing number of poor here is that it no longer has the “sense of shame it once had.” The Met Council numbers tell the story:
# In 1992, it delivered home care services to 450 elderly clients. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, that figure was 2,840.
# In 1992, it provided 75 people with at least one meal a day. That figure is now 1,600.
# In 1992, 20,000 meals were provided from food vouchers, Meals on Wheels and food pantries. That figure is now 160,000.
Merryl Tisch, president of Met Council, said poverty “cuts across all segments of the Jewish community and it is the responsibility of our community to fight it wherever it exists. I believe there can be no greater form of tzedaka than a community turning inward and identifying and combating hunger and poverty.”
A volunteer for the Passover Outreach Program, Ronni Feigenbaum, said working with poor Jews from the former Soviet Union reminded her of growing up poor in Brooklyn.
“I worked very hard to forget poverty and my family’s humble existence,” she said. “It took this program … to realize I must look back to appreciate going forward.
“It’s so important to me that Jews take care of Jews,” Feigenbaum said. “It is how we stayed alive as a people. That’s our responsibility.”