Like people in other faiths and traditions, Jews feel an obligation to help the poor. When we lived in an ancient agricultural society, people left the corners of their fields untouched, anyone could eat from your land in a year of shmita and there were offerings at the Temple that the poor could partake in freely.
In a post-industrial world, self-sustenance is more complicated, but our moral imperative to help people struggling with poverty is as commanding as it was thousands of years ago.
Though millennia have passed, the problem of poverty hasn’t been alleviated. In fact, over the past decade, poverty has risen dramatically in the New York Jewish community, according to UJA-Federation of New York’s “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 Special Report on Poverty” http://www.ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-special-reports/, released last week. One in five Jewish households is poor, and 45 percent of the children in Jewish households now live in poor or near-poor households. To give you a better sense of the scope, there are more Jewish people affected by poverty in the eight-county New York area than the entire Jewish population of other cities with large Jewish communities, such as Chicago or Washington, D.C.
While the numbers alone stir us to action, it is the individual stories that pull at our hearts. We can’t stand by while a senior citizen is forced to choose between buying food and purchasing his/her medicine; while a child painfully feels the absence of school lunches in the summer time; while a single mother worries about how she will pay next month’s rent.
The men, women, and children behind the numbers demand a coordinated response — from government, the voluntary sector, the philanthropic sector, and all segments of society. The report’s findings suggest that organizations in the Jewish community need to work together to build on the current level of assistance and take a hard look at current planning, advocacy, service delivery and resource investment.
The results of the study provide a wealth of detail that shows far more than just the growth in poverty in New York’s Jewish community. We designed the study to help us better serve the community by uncovering which parts of the region had high levels of poverty, which types of households were most affected, and how many people depend on public benefits, among many other valuable nuggets of information.
Since 1991, there has been 14 percent growth in the Jewish population, but the rate of Jewish poverty has doubled over the same period. The percentage of poor households with children increased, while the percentage of poor households with seniors decreased since the last study in 2002. There are many faces of Jewish poverty, but much of it is still concentrated among seniors, as well as among Russian-speaking and haredi households. The study also revealed that even when one or both spouses in a family have full-time work or are self-employed, many households still face privation.
UJA-Federation, working with our network agencies, is already spearheading multiple efforts to help impoverished members of the New York Jewish community. We are offering people in need emergency cash and food assistance, case management, public benefits screening and enrollment, legal and financial counseling, in-home support, and transportation. Our network allows us to respond swiftly in the wake of crises like the recession and Hurricane Sandy.
Perhaps most importantly, in keeping with Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah, we also support numerous programs that help people find jobs to sustain themselves and their families, through career services and small business development.
But we know that philanthropy alone cannot fully address poverty, so we harness the power of volunteers, who have the ability to do so much for their neighbors in need. And our Government Relations Department advocates with legislators and policy makers on behalf of at-risk individuals and families, which includes both people who face chronic poverty and those who have only recently fallen on hard times.
Moving forward, the data from the study will help us and others design more comprehensive intervention strategies to protect the most vulnerable members of our community through support, services, and advocacy. Though there are few fields in eight-county area today from which the poor could glean, the findings of this study will help us glean how best to help.
Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld is chair of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission and a partner in the New York investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman, and Alex Roth-Kahn is managing director of the Caring Commission.