Poverty is not a Jewish issue. There are no poor Jews. We are insulated from poverty. Right?
Consider this: A year ago a young Jewish couple originally from an affluent, predominantly Jewish suburb of Detroit walked into San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect — a partnership of city government, nonprofits, the private sector and community volunteers. The couple, who appeared to be in their early 30s, had been evicted from subsidized housing.
Volunteers from the Jewish Community Relations Council greeted the couple and escorted them through a one-stop “shopping trip” for supportive services. Offered were free eye exams and glasses, food, clothing, shelter and help with completing the paperwork to apply for general assistance. As important as the practical benefits was the nonjudgmental and compassionate interaction that eased the couple’s path through the potentially confusing and impersonal processes of the relevant government and social service agencies.
No poor Jews? A myth, as this illustrates.
In 2007, the national poverty threshold for a family of four was an annual income of $21,027. According to a 2004 study commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the impact of poverty on Jewish children is especially alarming: 11 percent of Jewish kids under age 12 live in a poor household, a number that rises to 22 percent among children in Jewish single-parent households.
But even if there were no Jewish poverty, would it be less of a Jewish issue? In Deuteronomy 15:4, we are admonished that “there shall be no needy” among us. Poverty surrounds us in much of the Bay Area. It is one thing to invoke the term “tikkun olam” (repairing the world); confronting poverty ensures that tikkun olam is not just a cliché.
Multiethnic, multifaith and civic coalitions are working diligently to combat poverty in our community. We often gather as a coalition on issues of common cause, and we stand together now as local participants in Fighting Poverty With Faith, an innovative national week of action that runs from Wednesday, Sept. 10 to Sept. 16.
The initiative was launched by 17 organizations representing all different faith traditions and ethnic backgrounds. We are proud that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella organization of JCRCs, is not only a leading member of this partnership, but has been a pioneering voice in this arena through its Confronting Poverty Initiative, dating back to 2003.
Next week in communities across the country, people of faith will be calling and writing 2008 candidates for public office, holding forums to discuss poverty-related issues with civic and political leaders, and engaging in interfaith community service to aid those in need. What will you do to help?
We encourage Jews of conscience to participate:
• Take the “Food Stamp Challenge,” living for one week on a food budget of $21.
• Work with the homeless, providing assistance at Project Homeless Connect. Last year more than 100 Jewish participants and 17 Jewish organizations participated in the first Jewish Volunteer Day at Project Homeless Connect.
• Sign up for the first Interfaith Day of Service at Homeless Connect on Wednesday, Sept. 10. And participate in December at the second annual Jewish Volunteer Day. Register at www.sfconnect.org.
• Join the annual High Holy Days food drives. If your congregation is not already participating, lead the way. Get your synagogue or other Jewish community organization to register with your local food bank. Donations of nonperishable foods and money can be made to the San Francisco Food Bank (www.sffoodbank.org) or another local affiliate.
Our Jewish ethical mandate to act in the face of suffering should be reason enough to work with our partners on this cause. Poverty is indiscriminate and affects many of the ethnic and faith communities with whom we’ve developed a long tradition of mutual support. Just as we need their support on issues of concern to our community, so do they need ours. Raising consciousness about poverty and trying to relieve it are ways that we can assist our partners and simultaneously address an issue of deep concern to our community.
There are profound implications if the Jewish community is not at the table, working shoulder-to-shoulder with these groups. In tackling issues of common cause, we develop deep trust and mutual understanding. We count on these relationships when we need help with issues that we reflexively think of as “Jewish” — from church-state separation to condemnation of anti-Semitism.
However, in these times — as unemployment and food and energy prices rise, and health care becomes a luxury, and California’s unresolved state budget deficit keeps critical social services in limbo — our responsibility far transcends our self-interest.
With the JCRC, synagogues, other Jewish community organizations and our many ethnic and faith partners, Fighting Poverty With Faith week will launch a movement to combat the effects of the economic crisis in the Bay Area. Fighting poverty offers hope and the possibility of greater opportunity for all — including those in the Jewish community.
Linda Frank and Jerilyn Gelt co-chair the Confronting Poverty Working Group of the Jewish Community Relations Council. For more information about the poverty initiative, go to www.jcrc.org.