When Poverty is Worth Less


By Avi Shafran

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Chutzpah” was the title of an editorial in the June 6 issue of the Forward; the alleged audacity referred to was the Republican leadership’s exclusion of low-wage families from the recently enacted increase in the federal tax credit for families with dependent children.

The editorial noted that “50 million households — those that most need it — would get nothing” under the Republican plan, while other American families, those that earn enough to pay income taxes, would receive tax credits to the tune of $400 per child. That result, the editorial averred, was “perverse” and “mean-spirited.”

Fast “forward” to last week’s July 11 issue.

There, one finds an editorial entitled “Agudath Israel’s Bogus Bonus,” which, while never getting around to explaining what was bogus about its subject, decried my organization’s establishment of a special fund to help replace the recently curtailed one-time-per-child grant that Israel provides to Israeli parents of newborn children. That grant has long served not only to provide families with a modest sum to assist them as they care for a new addition, but also to signal the importance of population growth. However, the new Israeli government, seeking to address severe budgetary problems — and perhaps, as the editorial suggests, engage in some social engineering to boot — has cut the per-newborn child subsidy from about $309 to $93 for each child after a couple’s firstborn.

Recognizing the severe impact this cutback will have on some of Israel’s neediest families, and the importance as well of continuing to encourage Israeli Jews to have children, we at Aguda have decided to raise funds among our constituents in the United States to help make up the per-child shortfall for needy Israeli Jewish parents. In addition, we have reached out to United Jewish Communities, suggesting that it likewise consider allocating charitable funds to help repair the breach in the Israeli “baby bonus” safety net.

Last week, the Forward found both our initiative and our invitation to UJC entirely unpleasant. It makes no sense, admonishes the paper’s editorial, for American Jewish communal organizations “to spend [their] limited funds on campaigns to undermine Israeli government policy.”

Like the Forward, other traditional Jewish proponents of social welfare here in the United States seem to have a different perspective on the issue when it comes to meeting the needs of Israeli families with children. For example, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Mark Pelavin, maintains that the recent federal tax bill’s exclusion of low-income families from per-child tax relief “directly violates” the responsibility “to provide for the poor.” Yet, his colleague at the world arm of the Reform movement, ARZA/World Union executive director Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, is quoted by the Forward as saying that the effort to provide needy Israeli Jewish families with a one-time small grant “does not represent the mainstream priorities of American Jewry or the priorities of donors to the federation.”

What emerges here is a confusing double-standard: Poor families in the United States are entitled to economic help when they have children, it would appear, by simple virtue — and a virtue it is indeed — of the responsibility the more fortunate have to care for the less fortunate.

The Jewish poor in Israel, however, are unworthy of the same.

Ah, but there is good reason for the inconsistency. In Israel, you see, “there’s something larger going on,” the Forward’s editorialist reminds us. “Ultra-Orthodox, or charedi, Jews are expanding exponentially as a share of the Israeli population, thanks to a high birth rate that’s practically subsidized by government child allowances.” Most of those charedim, it seems “don’t work, don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army.” That is why they are undeserving of assistance.

So all is explained. Impoverished Americans — many of whom, surely, are poor at least in part because of life-choices such as dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock and drug use — must be provided generous financial assistance in raising their children. But Israel’s poor — many of whom are charedim, whose poverty is a product of their choice to dedicate their lives to the study and observance of the Jewish religious tradition — have no claim on any such assistance.

Most American Jews, to be sure, may find it odd that men and women in our day and age will willingly forgo opportunities to enjoy the material rewards that come with full-time employment in favor of lives of study and observance. But there are such men and women, both in our own country and in Israel. They regard Torah study much like most moderns regard medical research: as something so worthy in its own right that it is worth pursuing, even if it brings economic disadvantage.

There may be a small percentage of draft-dodgers or freeloaders in Israel’s yeshiva system, but they are overwhelmed by the vast majority of Torah-students who, along with their wives and children, live their Jewish idealism to the fullest — and, in the process, enhance the Jewish character of the Jewish state immeasurably. One can agree or disagree with the lifestyle they choose, but certainly their hungry babies have no less a moral claim on a humanitarian safety net than do those whose parents are poor for other reasons.

In its “Chutzpah” editorial, the Forward chides Jewish federated philanthropies for lobbying on behalf of state social-services allotments at the expense of a federal per-child tax credit for the poor. “[T]he charity chiefs say the fate of the low-income child tax credits is not their problem,” tsk-tsks the editorial. “After all, it’s not their kids who will go hungry.”

That sentiment seems equally, if not more, appropriate applied here.

Aguda is seeking to enlist American Jews of good will to assist Israeli Jews of limited means — charedi and otherwise, but that should be of no matter — through the private sector. For Jewish opponents of charedim to portray that attempt to help other Jews as some sort of sinister machination to advance a creeping charedi plague is unkind and unfair.

In fact, a less polite observer might well call it perverse and mean-spirited.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • 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.