Jewish Poverty

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish Poverty

In New York City and other American communities there are many Jewish poor. In New York there are 410,000 Jews who are so poor that they are eligible for government programs. Worst off among these poor Jews are the “near poor” who are not entitled to receive most government benefits because their income is deemed too high. Eligibility for government programs is calculated on the basis of these guidelines: A family of eight is considered not eligible if they have an annual income of $26,930.-. The same holds for a family of six with an annual income of $21,490; a family of four earning $16, 050.-; a family of two earning $10,610 and a single person with $7,890 income per year.

Poor women outnumber men by about 14% because women live longer than men. Many of the poor Jews are intact families. Jews are seldom involved with drugs and we have few unmarried mothers among us. Therefore, 49,000 Jewish children under 21 are among the poor Jews of New York. Similar conditions exist in other Jewish communities as well. For example, there is a tent city in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This tent city serves the homeless, including the Jewish homeless. These Jews receive no help from the Florida Jewish community organizations except the Jewish Defense League, who has been giving the homeless the limited help the JDL has available.

Now one of the most widespread and vicious anti-Jewish canards is the assertion that “the Jews have all the money.” This lie was used by the European/Arab hate mongers for years to somehow justify the mass murder of the poorest of the poor, the Jews of Eastern Europe and Israel.

It is of course true that here, in the United States, Jewish income is generally good, reflecting an overall Jewish middle class status. There are also a few American Jews who have very large holdings and very large incomes. All that is to the good as it allows us to promote numerous strong Jewish communities here and ensure Jewish life in the United States forever.

Unfortunately, the relative wealth of our Jewish community overlooks that there are in this country some very poor Jews. This is in the main overlooked because the poor are indeed “invisible”. That “invisibility” has a number of causes. The first is that the poor cannot access our Jewish institutions. Our synagogues, Community Centers, Jewish schools and all our activities are located in wealthy suburbs, far away from the homes of the poor who often have no transportation with which to reach such establishments.

The poor are also invisible because by definition they cannot afford to participate in Jewish activities. It costs the poor too much to be a member of a synagogue, particularly because High Holiday tickets are so expensive. I am reminded of the story of the Jew who comes to a “shul” on Yom Kippur and tells the guard at the door that Dr. Refuah is in that “shul” and that he must get a hold of Dr. Refuah at at once. “It is an emergency,” says the visitor. The guard asks for the visitor's ticket. The visitor has no ticket but insists on seeing Dr. Refuah at once. So the guard calls the president of the “shul” to deal with the ticketless visitor. The president hears about the emergency and tells the visitor, “Dr. Refuah is in the first row. Go get him but since you have no ticket, don’t let me catch you praying.”

Numerous Jewish “affairs” such as dinners, dances, public speeches, etc. are all out of reach of the poor.

Thirdly, the poor are invisible because they cannot make big donations to the various Jewish institutions. Those who make such donations are generally praised publicly, and their names are engraved on buildings or printed on programs. The poor evidently receive no such publicity and are hence invisible.

The story is told of the man who visited a “shul” and asked the rabbi to make his dog Bar Mitzvah. The rabbi refused and felt insulted at such are request. He asked the dog lover to leave. In leaving the dog lover said, “I am sorry you won’t make the dog Bar Mitzvah. I will therefore take the dog to Temple Ahavath Behaymah for his Bar Mitzvah and give them the $50,000 I would have given you.” “Wait a minute,” shouted the Rabbi. “Of course I’ll make the dog Bar Mitzvah. I just didn’t know before that the dog is Jewish.”

In the fourth place, the poor are invisible because our poor brethren are generally ashamed to ask for help. Many never come to any Jewish institution for fear of exposing their poverty and reaping the disdain which so frequently devolves on the poor in all societies. Here are some examples: Two small Jewish girls, recently arrived from Naziland, lived in a Jewish neighborhood. Too poor to buy more than one dress, they wore the same dress every day. Too poor to eat more than twice a day, they were overjoyed to be invited by a local “establishment” Jew to the wealthy man’s house, there to receive a gift. They came to the house at the appointed time and were shown a stick of gum and a piece of candy. They were asked to pick either the gum or the candy but not both. One girl took a piece of candy, the other a stick of gum. Thereupon the “donor” sang in Yiddish ‘Shayn is dos Zigeuner Lebben, ze voll’n nur nemmen un’ gor nisht gebben”. English translation- “Beautiful is the life of the gypsies, they only want to take and give nothing.”

Second example, which I have previously mentioned in this column: Having recently arrived from Naziland I was unable to use the English language. I was unemployed at the time, lacked any education, had no income and lived in a Philadelphia slum. On Yom Kippur I went to the nearest synagogue, unaware that a ticket is needed to enter. European Beth Hatefillim never ask for money or a ticket to enter a synagogue. I arrived at the door only to find a large woman had placed a table across the door to prevent the entrance of “schnorrers”. She asked for my ticket. I said in broken English that I knew of no ticket and that I did not understand what she meant. Said she: “You need a ticket when you want to get into a theater and you need one here. Get out.” I spent Yom Kippur on a park bench. I also think of that event every time I am asked for money by the collectors who write or ‘phone me every day in my office and at home.

Third example: While living in Philadelphia I became very hungry as I had no means to buy myself a meal. I was told that the Hillel Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania was then maintaining a kosher dining room and that a rabbi was in charge of that establishment. Being hungry and homeless, I visited there and asked the “rabbi” to let me eat one meal. The “rabbi” refused to give me any food and told me never to come back as he feared to let a fellow with my accent and disheveled appearance to be seen by the wealthy Ivy League crowd eating there. I think of that event every time I am solicited for money from “guess who”.

Fourth example. My family and I arrived in Buffalo forty five years ago. We had three small children then. I had just been appointed an assistant professor and had very little money. Hence my furniture at a rented apartment looked shabby. Because we were newcomers and not acquainted with anyone in town we telephoned a professional man whose name was given us before we came. The professional man came to our apartment on our invitation and then and there severely criticized our furniture and our appearance. He felt insulted by our lowly life style and never spoke to us again. Likewise there are those in the Jewish community who even now cannot tolerate the presence of anyone poor for fear that the poor may want something or that the presence of the poor will contaminate them.

All of this is remembered by those so affected. None of this is admitted or known to those not involved. This is true everywhere and has always been the case at all times. It will never change. It need only be understood but it cannot be alleviated. The poor are not only devoid of the basic necessities of life. They are also the targets of insult and emotional pain. Their lives are shorter than that of the wealthy because they cannot afford health care. The poor are also less likely to gain access to that most important American social elevator, education. Those who lack a college education can seldom earn much nor attain the professions that depend on such an education. This does not negate the evidence that there are some folks who are exceedingly rich precisely because they did not spend time in school.

In sum, we learn here that poverty is not unknown in the Jewish community and that contrary to the lies of our enemies there are indeed many Jews who are in need.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders.

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