9-Jlevine-julie-avatar
9-Jlevine-julie-avatar

What can one woman do to help at-risk Jewish women

My Jewish values have always guided me: helping those in need, tzedakah, social justice, a commitment to Jewish tradition. I strive to raise my kids with a deep connection to these values. I want them to see making the world a better place as their responsibility. I want them to treat people fairly, honestly and as equals. But it’s become increasingly challenging to teach my kids about empathy, compassion and equality when the gap between the haves and have-nots grows ever wider.

The gap between San Francisco’s wealthy residents and its poor ones is growing faster than in any other city in the nation, according to a 2014 Brookings Institution study. How can I ask my children to walk in someone else’s shoes when everyone around them is wearing new sneakers? What more can I do as a parent, a Jewish mother and member of this community to help bridge the deep inequality divide in the Bay Area?

It’s easy to get caught up in my day-to-day life of kids and work, carpools and afterschool activities. At times it can feel as if the social and economic turmoil is happening in other places like Baltimore, Detroit and Ferguson, but not here in San Francisco. This is a prosperous city with new construction on what seems like every block, plus services like Uber, TaskRabbit and Instacart that make our lives feel just a little too easy and removed. I worry about feeling out-of-touch, and I worry about this for my kids.

When Lisa Goldman called me last August to ask if I’d be a part of a new giving circle she was leading at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, I signed on immediately. And so did 19 other women who all pledged to support women and girls in the Bay Area through the Jewish Women’s Fund. I knew we might not be able to repair the entire world, but couldn’t we try to mend a little part of it here in San Francisco, in our own backyard? I was ready to dive in.

We met six times, once a month, in addition to several smaller group meetings. We brought many pressing issues to the table, and we wanted to solve them all: women’s reproductive health, job training for recent college graduates, domestic violence, trafficking, health care and Jewish engagement, to name a few.

But once we began to look at women’s and girls’ needs in the local Jewish community, our areas of focus became clear: single Jewish mothers who are struggling financially and elderly Jewish women.

We were aware that single Jewish mothers were especially vulnerable, yet they are largely hidden from view in our community. Before determining our course of action, we decided to fund a study to zero in on the issues most affecting these women.

The initial findings were eye-opening: Many of the mothers in the focus groups didn’t know where to go for resources or support. They wanted to raise their children Jewish but perceived many barriers. They felt that they weren’t engaged as welcome participants in the community but regarded as recipients of charity. One mother summed up the concerns of so many: “There is no understanding at all from the Jewish community about the expense of being Jewish.”

It’s painful to learn that there are mothers here who are trying to raise their kids Jewish but feel that they can’t.

The good news is that, after six months studying the issue, we are funding a trial program through Big Tent Judaism to offer a concierge service for Jewish single mothers. The concierge will do creative outreach to help connect the moms, enabling them to partner with Jewish organizations to better serve them.

Elders in the Bay Area are also vulnerable, and social isolation is a major health risk factor. Because women tend to live longer than men, outliving their spouses, they face heightened risks. Health challenges may leave them stranded at home instead of getting out in the community. Transportation that is sensitive to the needs and frailties of older adults is key to keeping them connected and vibrant. We are thrilled to fund a grant to the JCC of San Francisco for a van that will transport elderly Jewish women to cultural events.

Our group worked hard this year. I’m proud to be among 21 smart, dedicated women who care deeply about our community. I’ve learned a lot from being a part of the Jewish Women’s Fund, but mostly I’ve learned that while the power of one Jewish woman is mighty, the power of 21 is unstoppable.

Julie Levine is a Bay Area writer and the editor of the lifestyle blog http://florenceandisabelle.com. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. To learn more about the fund, contact Sue Schwartzman, at sues@sfjcf.org.