Rabbi Ryan Bauer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco speaks at the National Convening on Jewish Poverty in San Francisco, March 19 (Photo/Courtesy Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation
Rabbi Ryan Bauer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco speaks at the National Convening on Jewish Poverty in San Francisco, March 19 (Photo/Courtesy Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation

National conference in S.F. explores Jewish poverty

Largely hidden behind the prominence of Jewish wealth and achievement in this country are a not insignificant number of Jews in dire circumstances.

Consider, for example, an educated, single mother of two who has to stop working to care for her ill parents. Or how a family may be affected when its breadwinner becomes afflicted by a degenerative disease. Or an elderly Holocaust survivor clinging to survival with no family nearby.

All of these scenarios represent real American Jews living on or near the poverty line — in our time, on our watch.

“The stories of Jewish poverty are rampant and they are not declining,” Perry Ohren, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Metro Detroit, told a roomful of Jewish leaders in San Francisco on March 19. Describing actual clients his agency has served, Ohren was one of the many speakers at the National Convening on Jewish Poverty, a four-hour symposium sponsored by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

More than 200 people from across North America and Israel attended, an assemblage that included direct-services professionals, funders, community leaders, researchers and clergy. The theme was a moral urgency to do more and find better solutions to combat Jewish poverty.

“Especially in the United States, poverty comes with a lot of stigma,” said Rachel Garbow Monroe, president and CEO of the Maryland-based Weinberg Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of low-income and vulnerable people. Poverty is also associated with feeling a lack of belonging to a community, she added.

Rabbi Ryan Bauer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco said that those with means have a moral obligation to help reset this social dynamic.

“Being called ‘the chosen people’ means you’re chosen to do something in the world,” Bauer exhorted the group. “You’re chosen to react to the world, to make it safer.”

Naomi Tucker of Shalom Bayit speaks at the National Convening on Jewish Poverty in San Francisco, March 19. (Photo/Courtesy Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation)
Naomi Tucker of Shalom Bayit speaks at the National Convening on Jewish Poverty in San Francisco, March 19. (Photo/Courtesy Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation)

Bauer then cited an example, a campaign that started at Emanu-El in 2017 in response to the news that one in 25 San Francisco schoolchildren was homeless. Bauer and members of the congregation began “adopting” homeless families to help meet their needs, then got the San Francisco Giants and then Airbnb involved. And “by the end of the year, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, we had raised $30 million for the city’s homeless,” he said. ”This is what our job is: to look at our own lives, and think about how we’re chosen, and how we can use our unfair advantages … to take the world from how it is today to how it ought to be.”

According to two major national studies cited at the conference, between 16 and 20 percent of Jewish households earn less than $30,000, and 7 percent earn less than $15,000. Many more struggle periodically or “can’t make ends meet.”

Moreover, the methods of accounting for “absolute poverty” don’t seem to factor in the higher cost of living in places such as the Bay Area and New York City, said Rochelle Zak, board secretary for Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay.

Among the demographic groups where the poverty is most concentrated are older Russian immigrants; Holocaust survivors; Hasidic Jews; Jews with lower levels of educational attainment; single women, especially with children; and — especially in the Bay Area young adults with low incomes who can get by because they live with parents or roommates.

Domestic violence and gender discrimination in the Jewish community — realities that often are overlooked — also figure into things, leading to higher rates of poverty and hardship for many Jewish women, added Naomi Tucker, executive director of Shalom Bayit, an S.F.-based nonprofit that promotes domestic violence prevention.

As the gathering wound down, Monroe announced a new initiative to accelerate both research and direct responses to poverty across the nation. In partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation, the Gates Foundation, S.F.-based Tipping Point Community and other organizations, the Weinberg Foundation has committed to funding $25 million over five years in six major U.S. metro regions (including the Bay Area) to focus on upward mobility and finding “solutions that will permanently lift people out of poverty.”

She also announced the launch of a new “affinity group” to tackle issues of Jewish poverty. The first meeting is set for June 11 in Chicago; for contact information, or to read research papers produced for the S.F. conference, visit hjweinbergfoundation.org.

“I believe we are going to succeed in this effort,” Ohren said. “We have to. We have to do better than putting Band-Aids on the problem.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.