Many stereotypes have a nugget of truth in them, including the notion that Jews have money. A 2016 national Pew study showed that among 25 American religious groups, Jews had the lowest percentage of households earning $30,000 or less, and the highest — 44 percent — earning more than $100,000.
But a more complex picture of economic realities in the Jewish community emerged at last month’s National Convening on Jewish Poverty in San Francisco, one confirmed by a range of Bay Area Jewish social service providers.
With more Jewish families reporting in a recent local study that they were unable to make ends meet than those saying they were “well off,” that pervasive stereotype feels less and less true for many Bay Area Jewish families.
The purpose of the March 19 conference, hosted by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, was to “shine a light” on the issue of Jews struggling with poverty in the U.S. and to problem-solve with national leaders. Speakers included Alan Cooperman, a religion researcher at Pew, Sarah Abramson of Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Rabbi Ryan Bauer, who heads social justice efforts at Congregation Emanu-El.
In an interview, Bauer discussed his synagogue’s programs not only to help the poor and homeless in the larger community — and desperate migrants abroad — but Jews at home, too.
“There is a perception that Emanu-El is a rich synagogue. But this synagogue is a cross-section of San Francisco,” he said. “We have captains of industry, and we have people who are on welfare.”
Bauer estimated that 40 percent of congregants are unable to pay the full individual membership dues of $1,850 per year for adults over 40 (younger people get a sharply discounted rate). The gap is subsidized by other members who can afford to do so.
He said congregants will come to him for emergency assistance to help pay bills, and for that he turns to the rabbi’s discretionary fund, a common resource in American synagogues.
“Many come up throughout the year who can’t afford their rent, or can’t afford food. They’re about to be homeless,” he said. “Congregants, preschool families — you name it. The people you’d never expect.”
According to the 2018 “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, out of approximately 148,000 Jewish households in the Bay Area, 22 percent reported they were either “just managing” financially or “cannot make ends meet.” Thirty percent had sought assistance from a human services organization. Just 17 percent of households reported being financially “well off.”
Nationally, the percentage of Jewish households earning less than $30,000 a year is between 16 and 20 percent, according to the Weinberg Foundation, while 7 percent of U.S. Jewish households earn less than $15,000 per year.
Jewish poverty is concentrated among older adults, Hasidic Jews, individuals with “lower educational attainment,” the disabled and immigrants, according to the just-released Weinberg Foundation study “Jewish Poverty in the United States,” which combined study results from Pew, the JCF and others. The highest concentration of Jewish poverty was found in New York City and surrounding areas.
The cost of living in the Bay Area has burdened working- and middle-class Jews just as it has all residents, experts say. Those experiencing financial hardship vary widely, from seniors whose monthly expenses outstrip their Social Security income, to families suffering long- or short-term unemployment, to young adults strained by student debt and high rents.
“There have always been Jews in our community that have needed help,” said Nancy Masters, associate executive director at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. “I’ve seen an increase over the time that I’ve been here, and I think that’s related to the economics of the Bay Area.
“More and more people are facing challenges finding affordable housing,” said Masters, a 12-year veteran of JFCS. “And people at the lower end of the income spectrum are struggling more.”
Federal poverty guidelines “are very, very low,” she continued. “But the guidelines for what it takes to live in San Francisco are considerably more than that. And you’re still in poverty. People are paying 70 percent or 80 percent of their income on rent.”
Among JFCS initiatives to support people in need are five food pantries it operates across the Bay Area. Food bank clients, who primarily are Jewish, according to Masters, are increasingly relying on them not just to supplement household groceries but to supply them.
“We see families with children, we see seniors,” Masters said. “We see people on fixed incomes, whose income does not last them through the month, who will run out of food.”
Traci Dobronravova, who runs JFCS’ Seniors At Home program, has seen the problem acutely affect retirees.
“First they’re going to use their income to pay rent, and then food,” she said. “You can see that once most people pay rent in the Bay Area, there really isn’t that much left over.”
At Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, executive director Avi Rose said his organization had to suspend a program that helps poor Jews when the funding sources ran dry. Project Ezra, which operated since the mid-1990s, provided stopgap emergency financial support to those struggling to make ends meet.
Now, JFCS East Bay is fundraising to establish a similar initiative, called the Jewish community safety net program, which Rose said would build on Project Ezra by adding case management, and mental health and vocational support if needed.
“It’s not enough to do a one-time intervention,” he said. “If you’re going to really help somebody in a more substantial way, to get to a better place, it requires an ongoing connection.”
Echoing other Jewish communal professionals, Rose said that helping Jews who are struggling financially presents a unique cultural challenge.
“There’s an image that’s carried inside and outside the Jewish community about Jews being financially comfortable,” he said. “If someone is not achieving that for whatever reason, there’s some ‘flaw.’ It’s their shortcoming individually. There’s often a lot of invisibility and stigma and embarrassment around it. It’s not supposed to be what happens.”
Masters finds a similar dynamic at JFCS, where people may stay away because of shame or lack of awareness about what’s available to them.
“People often come to us only after they’ve exhausted their other resources,” she said. “They’ve already tried to do everything on their own. They’ve spent all their savings, they’ve gone to family,” she continued. “I think it’s hard to ask for help.”