The Ignored Jewish Poor

Study Finds Half a Million American Jews Living in Poverty

Poverty Amid Plenty: Volunteers pack up food packages at a popup Passover food pantry in Brooklyn. Surprising numbers of Jews are seeking help, even those who once considered themselves middle-class.
Claudio Papapietro
Poverty Amid Plenty: Volunteers pack up food packages at a popup Passover food pantry in Brooklyn. Surprising numbers of Jews are seeking help, even those who once considered themselves middle-class.

By William E. Rapfogel

Published July 10, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Forty years ago, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was founded in response to growing concerns that Jewish poverty was largely overlooked, something that was too taboo to discuss. We were all shocked when the 2002 Jewish Community Study first showed that there were 226,000 Jews living in poverty in New York City.

Unfortunately the problem has only gotten worse. A new special report on poverty by UJA-Federation of New York in partnership with the Met Council, found that 565,000 New Yorkers live in Jewish households below or near the federal poverty line. Twice as many people live in poor Jewish households today as did in 1991, an unimaginable statistic.

So why haven’t you heard more about this poverty crisis right in our community? It’s not a lack of caring from American Jews. Social action is increasingly a part of our lives; tikkun olam is central to everything we do as Jews, improving communities around the world. But when it comes to poor American Jews, there is no outcry. One part of the answer is that Jewish poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated in New York. If New York were a foreign country, American Jews would not tolerate more than 500,000 Jews living in or near poverty. We would see it as a “Jewish issue,” and hundreds of us would go on “missions” to help. But because the issue exists largely in New York, it is considered a problem for local organizations and government to address.

We can no longer afford to take that attitude. Forty-five percent of all children in Jewish households in New York now live below or near the poverty line. While the Jewish population increased by only 14% in the New York area over the past two decades, the number of people living in poor Jewish households doubled. The crisis is spreading past New York City, as well. Suburban Jewish communities in the region saw an 86% increase in poverty in just the past decade.

Three populations in particular need our help the most: Russian-speaking immigrants, the elderly and large religious households, including those that have children in need.

The report found that poverty is highest in the Russian Jewish community: Seventy-two percent of Russian-speaking Jewish seniors live in poverty in New York, making up 26% of all poor Jewish households. Many do not speak English, and thus find it hard to get work, obtain Social Security or apply for basic services. This leaves them isolated, coping with aging and poverty without help.

It’s not only the Russian elderly that need assistance; 43% of poor Jewish households are seniors that live without anyone under 65. For the elderly living alone in poverty, access to human services and housing is critical to their quality of life.

The number of poor children has increased by 10% since 2002, a particularly distressing statistic; 33% of people in poor Jewish households are children younger than 18, and these children come from diverse social, economic and geographic backgrounds. And they are located throughout the region: More than one-third of the families live in the Bronx, another third in Brooklyn and a fifth in Queens.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.