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22 Rabbis Agree: It’s Time To Stop Ignoring Jewish Poverty

As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “Is there poverty in your Jewish community? What should we be doing about it?” Here are their responses:

Image by Anya Ulinich

Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: Yes, but not enough poverty. Homelessness, un/underemployment and exorbitant medical insurance are radically inclusive, affecting all kinds of people. We have Jews to feed, and Jews to train for jobs so they can feed themselves and their families. But if the problem is inclusive, so must its solution be. Feeding hungry Jews doesn’t solve hunger. Sharing resources isn’t all about charity; it’s about tzedakah — justice. Healthcare isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold like cars; healthcare is society’s responsibility to provide to all its citizens. Couldn’t we all stand to be just a little bit poorer so that others don’t have to be?

Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: I serve a rural Jewish community scattered across a cluster of small towns. Some of those whom I serve are affluent, while others struggle to make rent each month. As a rabbi, I help where I can, but perhaps more helpful than charitable giving (though of course that matters) is the establishment of policies that relieve and support those in need. I support my congregation in maintaining policies that don’t penalize those without funds — for instance, we did away with high holiday “tickets” years ago, believing strongly that no one should have to “pay to pray.” My community also partners with other faith-communities in my area to provide home-cooked meals for homebound seniors on days when Meals on Wheels doesn’t deliver.

Image by Kurt Hoffman

Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: There most certainly is poverty in our Jewish community. As with much of Florida, our area has many retired people who have moved to Florida. Many of them are of very limited means, very close to the poverty line. It is estimated that 80% of all Jews in this part of Florida are unaffiliated. The problem is that the vast majority is not identifiable until they actually request assistance. Even then, the local Jewish Federation offers minimal support. We should be using the community’s endowment to build low cost housing for retired people so that they can live out their days with dignity and security.

Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: There is far more poverty than people would like to think. Solution? Like politics, charity is local. At least the most effective forms of it are. The Talmud teaches that “the poor of your own city come first.” People do a better job when they can relate to recipients as “their” poor. Teaching people to take responsibility for those for whom they have some sort of affinity or relationship works well in so many places. Beyond that, we need to address the declining amounts of Jewish philanthropy that stay within the Jewish community. Our children should see us writing more checks rather than one large one a year. We should be communicating to them that we believe that our hard-earned money does not fully belong to us. According to the Talmud, we are stewards of some of that money, holding on to assets that G-d gave us for the benefit of others. We must remind ourselves of Maimonides’ observation in the Guide for the Perplexed that the word tzedakah is more closely related to the word for justice than the word for charity. Most importantly, we need to resurrect a confident Jewish particularism, in which we direct the majority of our giving within our community, even as we join in with our neighbors in more universal projects.

Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, New Israel Fund, NY: Pretending poverty is not a Jewish problem is a symptom of wrongly assuming that Jewish communities are homogeneous. We need to acknowledge without stigma the economic diversity within Jewish communities, work to make Jewish life affordable, and provide services for those struggling with housing and food insecurity. At the same time, we must recognize the position of privilege of the Jewish community as a whole and many of us individually. We have an obligation, rooted in Torah, and a moral obligation to use our resources and influence both to engage in direct service and to work towards ending systemic poverty.

Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: There is poverty in every community, even when we don’t see it. Our Jewish communities often perceive themselves as wealthy, which can be a way of acknowledging privilege but can also make it difficult to see the person who does not have enough food to eat or a safe place to live, or who is not in the synagogue community because they can’t pay the dues, or is not in the day school because they can’t pay tuition, or not in the camp because they can’t afford the fees. “There shall be no needy among you….If there are needy among you…open your hand… There will always be needy among you…” (Deut. 15:4,7,8,11) This circle of texts in Parashat Re’eh tells us exactly what to do: change our economic and social policies so that all have what they need and, in the meantime, care for the needy among us as if the need will never end.

Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: Tzedakah is one of the earliest values conveyed to every Jewish child. However, in celebrating the Mitzvah of “putting a penny in the pushka”, there is an opportunity lost. While we attach great joy to this deed, we rarely stop to focus on the simple fact that charity can only be achieved in response to the suffering of another human being. Sadly, every Jewish community has those who suffer in silence and often in shame. The mitzvah is not about the pushka or writing a check, it is about looking outward to see and help those around us who are in need. Perhaps that is the reason why there is no blessing associated with charity, for how can I recite a joyous blessing knowing that my brother or sister is in pain? Poverty demands action.

Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA: Yes. There is poverty and there are people who are facing serious financial hardship, even though they don’t fit the governmental definition of “living in poverty.” Immediately, we should make our constituencies know what support we can give or help them get in emergency situations. Systematically, within our own communities, we can recognize, and teach, that it is just a myth that no one suffers financial hardship in Jewish communities. We learn in Baba Metzia (58B) that to shame someone publicly is like killing them. In dues-based organizations, we should have confidential and dignified ways for people to have their dues and fees adjusted. And we can be activists for fair and accessible laws locally and federally to help stop the cycle of poverty.

Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: Yes, there is, and I don’t think there are many simple answers. I do think that a remarkable number of people are unaware of the basics of budgeting and financial planning (myself included). Perhaps experts could come and make these tools more available to those who would like to learn. Judaism values self-sufficiency — as it says in Pirke Avot, “the person who eats of the fruits of his labors is happy and all is well with him.” At the same time, there are those who through no fault of their own find themselves in very difficult circumstances. The community has a special obligation to care for these people and hold their hands until they can regain their footing.

Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: I live in Hamilton County, Indiana. It is the home of the Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers, a golf course that holds an annual, televised PGA tournament, and a family prominent in the shopping mall business. Imagine my surprise when I learned, only two weeks before writing this, that Hamilton is the second neediest county in Indiana. Yes, there is poverty here, including in the Jewish community. What should we be doing? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked — do what the Torah tells us to do. And we do. Through various Jewish community agencies, there are sources of help for those in need. Our Religious School volunteers at a local food bank to educate our young people about the problem. The Torah is correct: there will always be poor among us, and we are obliged to contribute towards meeting their needs.

Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: There is poverty in every Jewish community — if community means something more than congregation members. Country club-style dues make the poor among us either invisible or painfully exposed: those in need do without Jewish connection or must ask for help. Even Jews in affluent neighborhoods are in metropolitan areas with deep needs. My congregation addresses both by welcoming “Contributing Members” no matter their contribution and by reminding ourselves of the needs of others. We choose whether we fast on Yom Kippur, so during High Holidays, we collect food for those who do not choose to be hungry. The need is great, and the opportunities are many.

Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of Sadly, there is rampant poverty in the Jewish community. Not just the elderly, disabled and unemployed, but even working families cannot make ends meet because the cost of Jewish life is so high. Kosher food, housing near synagogues and yeshiva tuitions can overwhelm a family. Thankfully, despite jokes to the contrary, by and large people are not refraining from having children because of the cost. The Jewish people need children. Local charities, dedicated volunteers and donors step in to support those who need it. However, the way to permanently solve the problem is to reduce the cost of Jewish life, starting with the largest item — Jewish education. The entire Jewish community must come together to reduce dramatically the cost of Jewish education.

Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: Although collectively American Jews today have an unprecedented amount of wealth, many live below the poverty line. We should help our Jewish brothers and sisters however we can. That starts by never accepting poverty as a given. Yes, the Torah says: “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” But Nachmanides clarifies that this is conditional, if we don’t follow God’s commandments. Torah, then, should lead to a reality of “no needy among you.” Nachmanides also understands “in your land” to mean “in Israel and outside of Israel.” Our task as Jews is to help build a world — not just a nation — without poverty.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: The midrash states: “If all the suffering and pain in the world were gathered [on one side of a scale], and poverty was on the other side, poverty would outweigh them all (Exodus Rabbah 31:14). We have the unique responsibilities of ahavat Yisrael (loving fellow Jews) and arvut (responsibility for one another). Beyond particular mitzvot, Jews have a shared history and destiny. Because of this, we have a moral responsibility to all creation that goes beyond the unique responsibilities to our biological and Jewish cultural families. Ensuring that all people are given care and treated with dignity is our greatest obligation.

Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: There is poverty in the Jewish community in Los Angeles. There has always been poverty among Jews. Even amidst some of the wealthiest Jews in history, we have many who are so poor they are off the radar of the Jewish world. This is in part because the organized Jewish world is too expensive to be a part of it. The Jews who live in poverty thus often fall through the cracks of the Jewish world. In Los Angeles, our congregation works closely with our Jewish Food Bank, and we don’t turn away people from our community. The funders prefer cutting edge programs and start-ups, but there is real need to address our own communal issues. One problem is that defeating poverty is not sexy or innovative. It takes a multi-pronged communal approach and time.

Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: As a rabbi working with young adults in Manhattan, my community members are largely affected by college debt and the high living costs of the world’s most expensive city. Still, their passion for service is palpable. We gather weekly to prepare a home cooked meal for a local homeless shelter because we understand our non-Jewish neighbors are also part of our community. We raise money for Project ORE, a day shelter that serves a free hot kosher meal to the city’s most needy and impoverished and use every Yom Kippur to engage in community service. The prophets are emphatic in their charge to care for society’s most vulnerable; our battling of poverty should never be an afterthought.

Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: There is poverty in our Jewish community that is often unnoticed. Many believe the myth that there is no such thing as a poor Jew, but there is. We have assorted local agencies that provide assistance, seasonal campaigns and synagogues often step in to help the needy as well. We also have a very successful Jewish Family and Career Service that finds employment for those searching for work, fulfilling Maimonides’ highest form of charity. Our Jewish community is also very involved in helping the local poor who are not Jewish. The Torah teaches that helping those in need is a mitzvah but it also reminds us that there will always be poverty in our midst.

Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: Of course there’s poverty in the Jewish community. We should be ameliorating it, not sweeping it under the rug and doing everything possible to provide job opportunities, career opportunities and immediate financial assistance to those who require it.

Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: There are poor in our community, and there are many Jewish organizations that do an excellent job reaching out. Some focus on new immigrants that face poverty while others work with those who have grown up in the community. We must recognize that, despite the wealth in the Jewish community, many are struggling, even in the middle class, and we must augment our drive to succeed with a passion for taking care of one another. The ultra-Orthodox do an outstanding job of caring for members of their communities, but we must also care for those outside the community.

Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: Sure, there is poverty in the Jewish community – lots of it! Even amongst those who do not seem to be “poor.” The economic crisis of 2008 created a situation where many are still out of a job, unable to pay their mortgages. The Jewish community prides itself on the communal organizations that have been established to help the poor. And that should be a source of pride. But helping should not be limited to communal organizations. Here in Baltimore, Ahavas Yisroel was established as a grassroots volunteer organization that distributes millions of dollars of food and financial support to those in need. We need more of these organizations — not just in order to help the poor, but also to help bring out the best in us.

Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: We are commended in the Torah to help the widow, the poor and the orphan. Caught up in our busy lives, it is very easy to forget that others need us. There are people suffering on all of our communities. Individuals should find out which organizations in their local area are directly serving those in need and give donations of money, time, or goods. Communal organization such as synagogues can serve as important organizational centers for gathering donations and getting them to those in need.

Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: I can’t imagine there isn’t poverty in any community. The Talmud deals with this issue and explains that poverty is an opportunity for the more fortunate to help those who need it. Ideally, every community should try to find jobs for those who need and can work. For those who can’t work, financial assistance and social welfare must be provided. This is one of a community’s most important obligations.

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