Rebecca speaks four languages and has four degrees. She also has four children, no job and a house that is about to slip into foreclosure.
“I could be on the street soon, with four kids,” said Rebecca, a 44-year-old divorcée, as she loaded two bags of Passover food into a friend’s car outside a pop-up food pantry in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.
Rebecca, who asked that her surname not be used, was one of dozens of Jews who arrived at the food pantry on March 30, many pushing shopping carts on an unseasonably warm and sunny spring day. They headed over to a collection of big blue shopping bags filled with a dozen items, including matzo, pickles, gefilte fish, applesauce and mayonnaise. Each one was also given a 10-pound bag of potatoes.
Passover is traditionally a time when Jewish families gather with friends around large tables groaning with food and drink.
It is also a time when the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty distributes almost 2.5 million pounds of food. That’s about half of the 5 million pounds of food it distributes annually to needy New York families, most of them Jewish.
Poverty is a major, if often overlooked, problem facing the Jewish community. And Brooklyn is ground zero for Jewish poverty in New York.
Peter Brest, chief operating officer of the Met Council, said about 225,000 people in New York City’s Jewish households live at or below 150% of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that means a household with an annual income below $27,150 in one of the most expensive cities in America.
An additional 85,000 people in New York scrape by just enough to live slightly above that level. Even outside the city limits, there are pockets of Jewish poverty, with 36,500 Jews living in or near poverty in the suburbs surrounding New York.
Roughly one-third of all Jews who are poor live in Brooklyn, according to the most recent Report on Jewish Poverty, which was published in 2004 by UJA-Federation of New York and the Met Council. A new report is expected in the coming year.
According to the study, 84% of New York City’s Jewish poor are either members of large Orthodox families, Russian speakers or elderly Americans.
Poverty also affects many people who, until recently, considered themselves solidly middle class. Just a few years ago, Rebecca, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, earned $85,000 per year as an information technology specialist for New York City Transit.
She said the company laid her off in September 2010, six months short of 10 years of service.
Now she cannot find a job. Her $400-a-week unemployment benefit is due to end at the end of April. And if her home in the upper middle-class Mill Basin section of Brooklyn goes into foreclosure, she doubts she will be able to find a landlord willing to accept her as a tenant.