Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
While taping a recent interview on Jewish poverty for a public affairs TV show, based on an article I wrote about kosher soup kitchens, I was somewhat surprised when the host asked me to comment on the perception that “Jewish and poor don’t usually go together.”
On one hand, it’s generally politically incorrect to acknowledge a stereotype of a group, let alone to ask a member of that group to address it. On the other, maybe it’s a journalist’s job to bring up questions that will strike the audience, no matter how impolitic those questions may be.
I answered gracefully, noting that New Yorkers see a lot of public figures who are both Jewish and wealthy, not least our billionaire mayor and numerous other developers, financiers, publishers, celebrities and elected officials. But the reality is that 21 percent of the Jewish community is living at or below the federal poverty line, according to the last survey taken in 2002, and that number can only have increased in these recession-plagued times. Another 10 percent of the community lives on an average income of $35,000, which means constant struggle.
I don’t know how an estimated 70 percent of Jews who are comfortable or better compare to the ratio in other religious communities, but it shouldn’t obscure the fact that for every Mike Bloomberg and Bruce Ratner there are literally tens of thousands of struggling Jews who need lots of help putting food on the table, most of them elderly and/or immigrants, and that’s why the Metropolitian Council on Jewish Poverty was founded.
Aside from raising enough public and private cash to help those people, Met Council has always faced a second formidable task in battling just the perception the TV host addressed.
“Jewish poverty is an oxymoron to so many people in the general and Jewish community,” says Met Council exec Willlie Rapfogel.
My experience on the TV show reminded him of a conversation he had years ago with Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on a flight from Washington to New York.
“As we made some small talk, he inquired about the challenges I face in my work,” Willie recalled. “As I filled him in about the housing, hunger, employment and crisis issues among poor Jews, he was incredulous. Rev. Butts smiled an said ‘I am glad there are poor Jews..and that you are doing what you are doing.’ I was puzzled and asked what he meant about being ‘glad.’ He replied that he had always thought that the many Jews who had helped the African American were engaged in a ‘paternalistic’ bit of altruism.
“But hearing that there are poor Jews who need help made him feel better because there was self-interest involved as well.”