Jewish Poverty

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


A Walk Through the Torah


   In the book of Vayikro (Leviticus) 19:16 we read: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.” Now we don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to understand what that means. In fact, we need no education at all to understand even more. For example in D’vorim (Deuteronomy)15: 7-8  we are told: “If there is a needy man among you, ……… you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother.”

   Who then are the needy? Are there any? Of course there are. In New York State alone, there are at least 150,000 Jews in need of food right now. This is true of native born Jews and of recent refugees who came here from Russia and from a number of the other erstwhile Soviet Republics.  While at one time the poor were usually the old, this is not so any more. The old have generally been able to work long enough and earn enough savings and pension benefits to live well now.

   Therefore, we find that a good number of young people are now very poor. These are folks who haven’t been in the labor force for long. The majority of those in need today come from the Jewish middle class. They are people who lost their income, their jobs or their business and are forced to accept government hand- outs.

   The U.S. government has recently raised the barriers to gaining any help quite high. Consider this. According to our government statisticians, (bureaucrats) the poverty level for one person is now $7, 980.-.   Two people are considered poor by the government if their income falls below $10, 610. Four people get no government help unless their income is less than $ 16, 050.- etc.  Now let us ask ourselves if we could lead a Jewish life with so little.

    When I use the phrase “Jewish life” I do not seek to demean the poverty among non-Jews. Hunger is a terrible thing and poverty, as we Holocaust survivors know all too well, is devastating. Yet, it seems to me that for Jews it is even worse than for others. Consider that our Jewish institutions are almost all in the suburbs, unreachable to those who have no money for transportation. Therefore it is of the greatest importance that we continue to maintain a Jewish Center on Delaware at Summer;  that Temple Beth Zion continues there; that Jewish Family Service has its offices downtown; that Beth Abraham is still functioning on Elmwood; that Chabad and Saranac Yeshivah are going on in Buffalo. We must keep these Jewish places and keep them going for those who need them. Therefore we must support one or more of these Jewish establishments and do it now.

    We must put food into the food barrels in the lobby of each synagogue. It is needed by the poor, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  We can also contact MAZON (Food in Hebrew) and support their distribution of money to food banks throughout the country.  Mazon is located at 1990 S. Bundy Drive, Los Angeles, Cal. 90025.

    We can also contact Ms. Patricia Griffith at 1272 Delaware (Tel # 882-7705).  She chairs the "Food for All" program here in Erie County. She came to Shaarey Zedek several weeks ago and urged us to participate.

    We can also improve our annual contribution to the United Jewish Appeal.

    So what does the Torah say? Here is one example: Proverbs 19:17 “He who is kind to the poor lends to Hashem (G’d).”

    Surely there are those who believe that the small contribution of one person really cannot make any difference. That is totally wrong. The smallest contribution can make the biggest difference. Permit me to tell you one personal experience.

    Many years ago, when I had just gotten off the boat from Naziland I was walking the streets of New York. I had literally not one cent. Therefore I was attracted to a storefront in which I saw a man handing candied apples to customers able to pay a nickel or a dime. I cannot remember the amount now. I leaned against the window of the storefront with my nose, wishing I had the money to buy a candied apple. Just then, and without any reason known to me, a lady I had never seen pulled me into the store by my sleeve, bought a candied apple, handed it to me and walked out. I was stunned. I could not believe this was true, considering from where I had just arrived. I could not thank her. It all went too fast. Furthermore, I could not speak English so that I could not say anything anyway. Yet, I have never forgotten her or the anonymous people whom I never saw and who left a food basket at my door during the night so that I would never know who gave me something to eat when I came outside in the morning.

   So what does the Torah say? Vayikro (Leviticus) 19:18 :”………..and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest is commentary.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.


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