Last month I was fortunate to be both inspired and challenged by two powerful Jewish gatherings.
First was the annual Jewish Public Affairs Committee Advocacy Day in Sacramento, where I joined 145 Jewish community leaders from across the state to learn about key issues and meet with legislators. A particular focus for us was asking legislators to support state assistance for low-income Holocaust survivors, something that already has been done in Illinois and New Jersey. This is an issue of acute concern to us at JFCS East Bay, with our longstanding commitment to and daily involvement with East Bay survivors. Like many older Californians, some survivors struggle to make ends meet and stay safely in their own homes. What’s unique is their urgent need for home care and other services that will help them avoid the retraumatization of living in an institutional setting. I appreciated the opportunity to carry that message forward to our elected representatives and was moved by the depth of their concern.
We also advocated for legislation related to the overarching issues of poverty, economic disparities and the lack of affordable housing. Here’s the core question: In our state’s current period of relative prosperity, isn’t this the time to raise the floor of assistance for the poorest and most vulnerable Californians? If not now, when?
Our “safety net” is full of holes, woefully inadequate to hold people up. During the last recession and its aftermath, poor people’s benefits repeatedly were cut and have not been restored to pre-2009 levels. “Fixed incomes” tend to get fixed at a very low level. In a state with an economy bigger than that of most countries, this is unconscionable. We are way out of balance.
Later in the week, I participated in the wonderfully exuberant and diverse Tikkun Leyl Shavuot at JCC East Bay, joining hundreds of people in observing the holiday by learning together, with some sessions lasting till dawn. I co-led a session with Rabbi Andrew Kastner from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, looking at the recent Bay Area Jewish community study with a particular focus on what it tells us about financial stress among East Bay Jews. In the report, we find that 23 percent are “just managing to make ends meet,” while another 2 percent report that they “cannot make ends meet.” That represents a lot of people, and each person has his or her own story, deserving to be heard.
In the past few generations, the level of affluence in the U.S. Jewish community has increased overall, but there have always been significant disparities — for elders, for recent immigrants, for people with disabilities, and for many others for a myriad of reasons. Clearly we are not all wealthy, by background or by current position. And now, in this period of astronomical Bay Area housing costs, there are additional strains, including for young adults breaking into the job market, paying high rents and dealing with student debt.
Financial hardship — and long-term poverty — are largely invisible in our Jewish community. There is often shame and stigma attached to financial need. It’s not easy to come forward, and some simply stay away from Jewish institutions as a result. We are all the poorer for that.
At our Shavuot session, we studied texts from Deuteronomy, pronouncing that “there shall be no needy among you” and “do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin.” As a community, we are mandated to share our resources equitably, ensuring that everyone has what they require. Sounds simple. But as is true with the statewide safety net, our local Jewish community safety net is full of holes, too.
We at JFCS East Bay are determined to change this situation, which will take a combination of community education, fundraising and ongoing advocacy. This is our responsibility, and our honor.