The Jewish Poor

We’re not poor, but we used to be. Back in Europe, Spain, the Middle East, Russia. Not anymore. Now we Jews live in relative comfort. Our parents and grandparents have struggled to make this place called America home. They’ve worked hard, and gained the following generations a place in the middle and upper classes. We can now relax, practice Judaism in safety, eat well, dance, go to school, get jobs, teach, own a home, and raise children all without worrying over economic issues or material needs. Those days are over. Free at last, thank America almighty, we’re free at last. 

Or at least that’s how the myth goes. 

Jewish poverty, in fact, is a huge problem, and it’s not going away. The myth of Jewish economic comfort does nothing to alleviate the suffering of American Jews in dire need, but rather, only helps to marginalize them further. The fact that most Jews in America who do live in poverty are recent immigrants who speak over 200 different languages and don’t necessarily share light skin privilege doesn’t help. Indeed, the intersections of race, class and language make the issue of Jewish poverty particularly difficult to untangle. 

Scraping by in New York City 

So who are the Jewish poor and how many are there? Let’s focus on New York City, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. According to the January 2004 Report on Jewish Poverty commissioned by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the UJA-Federation of New York, approximately 311,700 Jewish households in the city are poor, which is defined as living on one-and-a-half times the income of someone at the poverty line. 

That means that in 2004, the most recent year for which information is available, 20 percent of New York Jews were living at one-and-a-half times the $18,850 poverty line for a family of four. One-in-five Jews from the land of the Bergdorf-Goodman department store, the grand Park Avenue Synagogue, and H & H Bagels come from families making less than $21,678 per year. Another 85,000 are “near-poor,” who do not qualify but still cannot feed their families. There are 226,000 Jewish people in New York City poor enough to qualify for government assistance programs. 

That means one in every five Jews in New York City is poor, which is a proportion that nearly equal to the percentage of all New Yorkers who are poor (20.4 percent). Where are the Jewish poor of NYC located? 

69 percent are located in Brooklyn (156,200 households), 19 percent are in Queens (42,700 households), six percent are in Manhattan (12,800), five percent are in the Bronx (10,400 households), and two percent are located in Staten Island (3,900 households). 

The concentration of Jewish poverty in Brooklyn and Queens mirrors the areas where concentrations of Hasidic Jewish families and recent Russian and Soviet immigrants live. According to the report, poverty is more prevalent among seniors, people who are unemployed, people who are unable to work due to physical limitations, people without college degrees, Orthodox households with large families, and recent Russian-speaking immigrants. 

The recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are living mostly in far-out Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods like Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Flatbush, Canarsie, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Rego Park. Other neighborhoods that host significant numbers of Russian Jews are Washington Heights, the long-time center of Ashkenazi life of upper Manhattan, and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. 

The differences between established Jewish centers like the Upper West Side and neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens transcend finances, and, as we will see, can complicate Jewish organizations’ attempts to work with recent immigrants. 

Upon immigrating from Leningrad to Queens with her family ten years ago, 22-year-old Masha Lisak “discovered that the secular American Judaism was very different than the secular Russian Judaism,” she said in a phone interview. 

Despite receiving a flurry of postcards from Jewish organizations, she almost never went to the events. 

Feeling more Jewish than Russian in the former Soviet Union, yet more Russian than Jewish in the United States, recent immigrants like Lisak are rarely tempted by what organizations like the Jewish Community Centers (JCC), UJA-Federation of New York City and other have to offer. 

The only Jewish group Lisak remembers her family being involved with was Workmen’s Circle, the secular organization with roots in Yiddish immigrant politics and culture. Their English classes, she recalls, were “far more helpful” than the holiday and cultural parties thrown by the JCC. 
From Babylonia to Bukharian Broadway 

Lisak’s Russian family is in the minority in her neighborhood. Jews from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia and Chechnya comprise the majority of the population. According to a New York Times article by Julia Moskin, from January 18 of this year, there are over 40,000 Jews from Uzbekistan, who are known as Bukharian Jews, living in Queens, which is 90-95 percent of the entire community. 

“Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi (the two major groups of Diaspora Jews),” Moskin writes, “the Bukharians say that their lineage goes directly back to the Babylonian captivity, before 500 B.C. ‘Our people are the ones who did not return to Jerusalem afterward, but remained in Asia,’ said Peter Pinkhasov, a paralegal at a Manhattan law firm who immigrated with his family from Tashkent in 1993.” 

The members of this isolated Central Asian Judeo-Persian community now live in Rego Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, Queens, and have established 108th street as “Bukharian Broadway,” a strip packed with kosher restaurant. Bukharian Jews are overwhelmingly uneducated, poor, Orthodox and lacking in English. Their needs are deep, but they are notably absent from most network of local Jewish organizations. Lacking representatives, programs or voices in all major Jewish organizations and media, the Bukharians survive from their own strength of will. 

Shelly Goldman of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), a New York City, membership-based social justice organization, described a phenomenon known as “double migration.” Thousands of individuals and families in New York immigrant communities emigrated from their places of birth (the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, et al), to Israel, and then from Israel to the United States. 

“The double culture shock” Goldman said in a phone interview, “makes it especially hard for some immigrants to acclimate to life in New York.” Finding a job, eating, finding affordable health care, and getting an education can become almost insurmountable obstacles, and though financial help is sometimes available from the established Jewish community, solidarity may be lacking. 

Institutions Working for Change 

As the needs of poor in realms like English-language education, affordable housing, health care, and childcare are rising, the Jewish community is attempting to rise to the challenge. A host of organizations, seemingly contradictory in mission, seek change. 

Organizations like the UJA-Federation of New York City and the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan are devoted entirely to meeting the resource needs of Jewish communities. 

Laurie Pine, the director of communications at the UJA-Federation, reported in a phone interview that the organization raises over 130 million dollars a year. She describes it as an “umbrella for one hundred agencies in New York, Israel and the former Soviet Union.” 

As a fundraising
organization, much of its work in the Russian community is done through its Russian division, which raises funds that are then distributed to organizations aimed at education, Jewish renewal, legal aid, and financial assistance. The UJA-Federation’s work is not with the day-to-day lives of the people in communities they support, but with people and foundations who wish to donate money. Their work stems from recognizing the material needs of the Russian immigrant community, and their approach is to go through the powerful to ultimately distribute money to the needy. 

The perspective of UJA-Federation, Goldman asserts, is consistent with the traditional fundraising approach of the Jewish community. Whereas Jewish tradition discusses fundraising “from wealthy members to distribute money to poor members,” JFREJ tries to “imagine a larger social change possibility.” 

Like JFREJ, UJA-Federation works with the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations (COJECO), which “strive[s] to represent and advocate for Jewish émigré needs, concerns, and priorities to the established New York Jewish community,” according to their mission statement. Though UJA-Federation and JFREJ have differing approaches and missions, both work with COJECO to learn more about the community’s needs. 

Committed to “working with all Jews on an equal footing,” JFREJ’s Jewish Immigrant Justice Campaign sets out not to distribute funds, but to “listen very closely to what the immigrant community members say the need, and to work as equals to get it.” Part of their approach entails facilitating conversations within Bukharian and Russian Jewish communities, and to work with them in forming groups that will fight for changes they need, like expanded, affordable child care. 

Though often seem as opposing forces, UJA-Federation and JFREJ have missions that, in the case of the Russian Jewish émigré community, can compliment each other. The cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity of Jewish experiences demands the big institutions of the Jewish world follow the lead of grassroots organizations which speak from and for their own communities. 

JFREJ is just one of many organizations using Jewish funds in fighting classism, poverty, and discrimination in the Jewish community. For example, the Food Bank for New York City in 2003 provided approximately 4.5 million pounds of kosher food to kosher community food programs. There’s also the impressive Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York City, which uses almost its entire budget (98%) of $20 million directly on anti-poverty programs and services. Others include Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, Jewish Community Action (Minnesota), Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, the Jewish Fund for Justice (NYC), Jews United for Justice (St. Louis), Jews United for Justice (Washington, D.C.), Jewish Youth for Community Action (Berkeley), the Progressive Jewish Alliance (Los Angeles), The Ark (Chicago) and many others. 

And this brings us back to the question of class. Does class determine how Jewish we are and how Jewish we can be? Of course we want to say no. It may be uncomfortable to believe our cultural spaces and ritual practices are guarded by entry fees, housed in the wealthier districts, or rarely accommodating to non-European Jewish practices, that what it means to be Jewish may be stained by class as much as any other factor of Jewishness. 

Looking back on my life as a Sephardic/Ashkenazi mutt growing up in San Diego, it would be impossible for me to afford any of the Jewish schools I started attending 20 years ago. But despite the chasm between that life and the life of Bukharian Jews in America, and the pressing need for immediate change, there is plenty opportunity for the Jewish world to address its own poor, now.

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