Response to your question: The Way We Were treated As Strangers and as Poor People

Posted by:  Jacqueline Sarah Homan

Posted on:  11/9/05

I came across your commentaries and have thoroughly enjoyed reading every one of them because they make me feel validated as a poor, unaffiliated Jew deserving of acceptance in the larger Jewish community. My husband is non-Jewish and was seriously seeking conversion (his heart is with the Jewish people - especially the Jewess he married), I had been orphaned at 13 and had never been a part of any Jewish community and recently sought to reconnect. We were told by our local rabbi that in order to be accepted as Jews in the local Jewish community, we would have to pay for conversion classes for my husband and attend every Sabbath service possible, barring illness or bad weather (we live in Erie, PA). We were also told that he (the "rabbi") would have to be certain as to our being able to be an "asset" to the Jewish community - i.e. financially. At our very first Shabbos service, nobody wanted to greet us or make us feel welcome. The first two people who approached us were the rabbi's wife and a wealthy prominent member of the congregation. The rabbi's wife did not ask my husband his name - or even my name. She did not ask us how we felt about Jews, Israel, keeping kosher, etc. Rather, she asked my husband what he did for a living in a real snobby tone of voice. He told her the truth: he is disabled and gets a $604/mo pension and social security check combined total and that I was employed in the insurance/financial services field at a very low salary as a marketing rep for Ion Health. She then turned and walked away nose in air, saying nothing further to either of us. When I lost my job due to anti-semitism and was unable to collect unemployment and we spiraled down into poverty as a result - having our gas shut off (it is still shut off) and nearly losing our modest home in the poor side of town to foreclosure, we were told that while we were always welcome to attend the services and synagogue activities (like decorating the Sukkah, etc), he would not recognize me as a Jew or teach my husband (and me also) any Torah, Judaism or conversion classes because we were not deemed viable assets to the Jewish community. His response to our suffering without basic human needs in poverty was that I needed to go get mental health counseling and be put on anti-depressants in order to cope with being poor (like that would really do me any good if we froze to death in our home for lack of heat or ability to get heat in our home because there really isn't "all this help out there" that people think there is). Meanwhile, two potential converts with no Jewish heritage, were welcomed with open arms because they have good jobs, plenty of money, can afford the "right" image and all that entails while my husband and I were told in so many words that we were not wanted, not acceptable to be Jews because we aren't an "asset". We don't have a nice house with fancy things, plenty of good clothes, prestigious jobs and good incomes. The message was painfully clear: affluent gentiles seeking conversion are welcome but poor Jews or poor people with Jewish heritage need not apply. 

While the rabbi told me that we were always welcome to come to any shul activity, he missed the whole point. To me, it is being accepted, learning how to live Jewishly, about reconnecting and rejoining my people, about reclaiming a heritage that is rightfully mine. It was about singing with my fellow Jews, dancing, laughing, mourning, praying and enduring and eventually dying and being buried with my people and being one more small Jewish flame to add to our collective Jewish light that we are to be unto the world. That is what being a Jew and a member of a chosen people means to me and choosing to grasp the Torah as the Tree of Life and hunger for it. 

I didn't choose to become poor, to face age as well as sex discrimination in the jobs market, to be orphaned and poor without any support since my youth. I didn't choose to be born with a learning disability making getting a college degree to access the "better life" mission impossible. I tried the best I could with what I had and considering all, I think I turned out OK. I have a degree, insurance and CFP licenses, I have never used drugs or alcohol or gotten into trouble with the law. I am now self-employed as an independent property& casualty insurance agent/broker, making very little money but able to slowly pull myself and my disabled husband out of poverty. I didn't get very many opportunities in life to succeed and do well, but the one which I partially created for myself I put my best effort into it and hopefully eventually we will have a better life for it. 

I didn't choose to be rejected by the rest of society for being less fortunate than others for the majority of my life. Nor did I choose for my great-great grandmother to assimilate out by marrying a middle-class gentile farmer in PA Dutch Country, however, given the cold hard facts that poor Jews, especially women, were oppressed and ill-treated by anti-semitic non-Jews and also the wealthy or more privileged Jews within their own communities, I now have a clearer understanding as to how and why this assimilation may have occurred. As you have so rightly pointed out in several of your past commentaries and articles, the poor are unwelcome in the Jewish community. It was very hard for me to approach the local Jewish center when after years of struggling just to survive, I finally felt secure enough to be able to commit permanently to living, breathing, eating, learning and worshipping as a Jew - only to be told in so many words that we are unacceptable to become part of the Jewish community because my husband and/or I are not Dr. Homan, Bank President Homan, Professor Homan, famous movie producer Homan, XYZ Non-Profit Charity Org Director/CEO Homan, etc ...I am only Mrs. Jacqueline Homan, insurance agent/broker, survivor of life's hard knocks who wants to reconnect with her heritage and her people - my fellow Jews whom I love as family, even when they hurt my feelings or personally disappoint me and behave badly. 

Shalom and G-d Bless You, Jacqueline Sarah Homan, Erie, PA

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