"It has been a blessing," the 42-year-old Suffolk County mother of four says of her monthly package of food and sundries from an anonymous group of Jewish nursery school children, their parents and teachers.
Noting that she takes home only $579 a month working 30 hours a week as a data processing employee, she adds: "It’s very difficult to make ends meet."
The woman and her children are one of 75 families who receive the regular packages from donors who have been paired with them by a program called M’Yad L’Yad (From Hand to Hand), started five years ago by the Suffolk Council of Jewish Organizations.
Now a self-sustaining program operated from the council’s office in Commack, L.I., M’Yad L’Yad seeks to provide recipients with items that will
enhance their life.
"We’re not here to pay their bills," stressed Ellen Greenberg of Dix Hills, who is a co-chair of the project with her husband, Stephen. "For instance, I’m now wrapping a package that contains two shirts, some silk flowers and a gift certificate for use at the local supermarket. I’ve also put in an electric can opener that I got from someone whose mother-in-law just died and who wanted us to take any appliances from her house that our recipients could use."
Greenberg said when the project was launched, the belief among Jewish social service agencies was that about 10 percent of Suffolk Jews were living below the poverty line. But a study released this week by UJA-Federation of New York found that only 4 percent of the 90,000 Jews in Suffolk are below the poverty mark, which is an income of less than $14,000 for someone living alone and $27,800 for a family of four.
The study found the same percentage of poor, 4 percent, living among Nassau County’s 221,000 Jews and the 129,000 in Westchester.
William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Jewish Council on Jewish Poverty, pointed out that those families who make just above the poverty level are actually in worse shape than those below the line because they do not qualify for such benefits as Medicaid, Food Stamps and rental assistance.
The study confirmed what Rapfogel has been saying for years: that one-third of the Jewish population in New York City is at or near the poverty level.
"Some people thought we were crying wolf," he said.
"There are more Jews in poverty today than there were 10 years ago," Rapfogel said of the city statistics. "Ten years ago there were 145,000 people living at or below the poverty level; today UJA is saying it is over 200,000. And the near-poor could increase that number by 10 percent. So combined, the number could be more than 40 percent" of city residents living near or below the poverty level.
Rapfogel attributed the increase to the many immigrants from the Soviet Union who are poor when they move into the city, many of whom have difficulty making ends meet even after they are here a few years; an aging Jewish population; large families; and the economic slump of the last three years.
"We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have lost their jobs, are underemployed or who depend on income from stocks and annuities" that have lost much of their value in recent years, Rapfogel added.
Although M’Yad L’Yad is designed to provide supplemental assistance to those in need, project coordinator Renay Weisberg said there have been exceptions. For instance, there was the mother and daughter who had been living in their car before seeking assistance from the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, which got them an apartment. The mother has since died and her daughter, in her 50s, continues to live by herself in the same subsidized apartment.
"In the beginning we had more potential sponsors than those needing our help," said Weisberg, adding that as word of the group’s existence spread it has received more and more referrals and now is looking for sponsoring individuals or groups.