At Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Michelle Stuffman, director of outreach, marketing and communications, said one obstacle in the way of organizations hoping to help Jews in need is the fact that no one seems to want to talk about the subject.
“There’s a lot of challenges in trying to identify what level of poverty or food insecurity or how that poverty takes form within the Jewish community,” said Stuffman. “It’s a combination of those who are in it who don’t want to say and those who are willing to say and go to their rabbi, but the rabbi won’t tell anybody.”
In addition to the pride and ego that many must put aside when they ask for help, needy Jews, said Stuffman, are in a unique spot.
“Because we have been the recipient of so much persecution over the history of the Jewish experience, there’s a great desire to not show any weakness lest that weakness be leveraged into something more sinister,” she said. “We could imagine that many people don’t want to proclaim a weakness in the Jewish community, that the Jewish community has been impacted. We have to be strong, and we have to be self-confident, and we have to take care of ourselves because historically no one else would do it.”
The Catch-22, she added, is that many Jews don’t know the extent of the need in their own community. In a community that takes pride in supporting and protecting its own, many are slipping through the cracks, but those who can help don’t know the help is needed, a notion that JCS’s Gradet seconded. In many ways, Stuffman theorized, a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” prevails throughout much of the American Jewish community.
In New York, where the largest Jewish population outside of Israel resides, poverty is a massive problem in the Jewish community, said Rena Resnick, external affairs coordinator at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
“With more than 500,000 people living in poor and near-poor Jewish households in New York City, the prevalence of Jewish poverty is alarming,” she said. “The near-poor population — of which there are 175,000 Jewish New Yorkers — live on household incomes just above that number, which is small consolation, given that it renders them ineligible for federal benefits.”
Resnick said immigrants and seniors living on a fixed income are among the most common people the Met Council helps. The organization’s case workers, she said, are trained to infiltrate even the most insulated communities to get help to those who need it.
In New York, there are many food pantries and kosher soup kitchens needy Jews can turn to, but in Baltimore there are no specifically kosher pantries. Instead, those in need of food assistance can find it through organizations that hand out grocery store gift cards or other groups, such as Ahavas Yisrael that make it their mission to help people in the most subtle way possible.
Eli Schlossberg has been helping people in need through Ahavas Yisrael for more than 30 years. In fact, JCS estimates that his organization spends roughly the same amount on emergency assistance it does, meaning the Jewish community in Baltimore required some $5.2 million in aid this past fiscal year.
Not affiliated with any one organization or business, Ahavas Yisrael prides itself in its discretion. Once a week volunteers head out into Baltimore with bags of kosher food and deliver it to struggling families. This, said Schlossberg, is to ensure the dignity of the clients the organization helps. Similar reasoning went into JCS’s 2001 decision to close its food pantry in favor of grocery store gift cards that allowed people to shop as they would if they were using their own money.
Many of the people Ahavas Yisrael helps, Schlossberg said, are reluctant to ask for help. Many have been givers all their lives and are uncomfortable to find themselves on the other side. Often, they are referred to the organization by clergy or a neighbor who approaches Ahavas Yisrael out of concern of their own.
The people Ahavas Yisrael helps are unique in that they keep kosher and, often, insist on sending their children to private day schools to receive a Jewish education. With day school tuitions in the range of some college tuitions and the price of kosher meat as much as 20 percent more than non-kosher varieties, the families Ahavas Yisrael helps must make tough choices every day.
“You’ve got to sacrifice, but people are willing to do it,” said Schlossberg.
Even though the poorest Jews in Baltimore aren’t living on the street like they might be in other places, said Gradet, the problem still prevails in Jewish Baltimore. What has allowed families to stay in their homes, not holding signs on street corners, she said, has been the help given by the Jewish community, something she worries about when she hears people talking about how the economic situation has improved and the jobs have returned.
The imperative to help one another, asserted Gradet, doesn’t just stem from the Golden Rule. It’s an extension of the concept of justice.
“Not everybody is born equally and life doesn’t treat everybody equally,” she said. “So in order for there to be fairness and justice we’re all supposed to give.”
Many of the clients Jewish Community Services sees, said executive director Barbara Gradet, are already in critical need of assistance, at risk of eviction or having their electricity shut off, by the time they walk through JCS’s doors. After losing their job, many hold out as long as they can, collecting unemployment while they hunt for a new job until their benefits run out and they become desperate. While in past years, out-of-work Marylanders had about 16 months’ worth of state and federal benefits to live on while they worked to find new employment, today’s jobless Marylanders have access to just six months of unemployment benefits.
When federal long-term unemployment benefits ran out in January, some 25,000 Marylanders who had been out of work for six months or more were left without the safety net they had been relying on. Since then, that number has only grown.
Several attempts have been made in the succeeding months to restore those benefits, but all have failed. Making matters worse for those who find themselves unemployed for 26 or more weeks is the fact that many employers are less likely to hire candidates the longer they have been unemployed. A study by one Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher using fabricated resumes similar in all respects except length of time unemployed showed those out of work for just one month were three-and-a-half times more likely to get called for an interview than those out of work for six or more months.
Additionally, Gallup published a poll in June that showed an average of one in five Americans unemployed for a year or more either have recently been or currently are being treated for depression. That rate is double the findings for those out of work for five or less weeks.
— Heather Norris