Fighting Jewish Poverty: Today Is That Rainy Day

A large crowd of people wait outside a food pantry at St. Bartholomew’s Roman Catholic Church in Elmhurst, Queens. (May 2020)

By Deena K. Fuchs

In a famous scene from Mel Brooks’ classic film, “Young Frankenstein,” one character says, “It could be worse. Could be raining,” only for a downpour to immediately begin.

That’s what it was like for the most vulnerable among us when the Covid pandemic hit this spring: An already difficult situation became dramatically worse. While no sector of society has been untouched by Covid, individuals who were struggling with poverty, and the agencies that serve them, have been hardest hit. Meanwhile, furloughs, layoffs and the drying up of federal stimulus resources have pushed ever-growing numbers of people into poverty, and a shrinking tax base leaves the government less able to help.

Despite the lingering misperception that Jews are all well-off, many members of our own Jewish community are struggling right now. And Jewish agencies have been at the forefront of addressing the crisis, serving Jews and non-Jews alike. Human services agencies, food pantries, nonprofits serving older adults and other vulnerable populations, volunteer programs, federations and Jewish family service agencies, were there delivering food, transitioning services online, providing emergency financial assistance and helping with navigation of critical resources.

Now is the time for all of us who are able to – even if we previously limited our Jewish giving to other important spheres – to step up. But we recognize that it can be difficult to know where the need is most acute, or what are the most effective interventions, especially if you haven’t funded in this area before. That is why the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty, a collaborative of funders, Jewish Federations, direct service providers, researchers, media outlets, and advocates coordinated by the Jewish Funders Network and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and established in 2019, has just published six funder briefs outlining the needs in key sectors and offering concrete suggestions for how donors can help.

The briefs, available for download here, summarize the needs and investment opportunities in addressing food insecurity, housing, jobs, older adults, mental health, and systems.

But there are three common denominators across the six fields. First, we must allow agencies and nonprofits the flexibility and immediacy that are vitally important in this climate of deep uncertainty and overwhelming need. This means continued emergency support to ensure that food pantries can remain stocked, direct service agencies can provide immediate assistance to cover utility bills for a family in need, and PPE can be purchased for staff on the front lines.

Second, frontline direct service organizations need support for necessary transitions, like retraining staff to address new and changing community needs. For food pantries this means support for implementing wider scale food delivery programs, and for making necessary adjustments in food preparation, packing and provision.  For agencies providing a range of in-person services and programs, this means support in transitioning these services to virtual platforms, including creation of robust virtual senior centers to address issues of isolation for vulnerable older adults.

Third, we need to invest in the long-term sustainability of human service organizations, which have pivoted and ramped up at lightning speed during the pandemic, but often by draining reserves, working at maximum capacity, and stretching existing resources. With continuing uncertainty about increasing economic insecurity, these organizations need support for infrastructure, staffing and long-term planning.  They will require support to assess and rework programs as needed as well as support to scaffold newly transitioned or expanded programs for the long term.

Our funder briefs, which emerged from months of National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty virtual convenings and briefings with leaders in the field (watch many of these sessions here), are just part of our work to address poverty during and after the pandemic. We’re developing a national agenda and plan to end Jewish poverty, and are bringing together local communities, giving them the tools and know-how to work together more effectively on these issues. On Monday afternoon, at the Jewish Federation of North America’s GA, we’ll be leading “More Urgent Than Ever: Confronting Jewish Poverty in the COVID Era,” a session on place-based efforts to combat poverty, followed on Tuesday by a half-day FedLab track training local task forces. We’d initially hoped 10 communities would assemble anti-poverty task forces and bring them to FedLab; instead, more than 35 communities are participating.

Some of you may be thinking, “But aren’t human services the government’s responsibility?” Yes and no. Whether or not you believe government should play a greater role in addressing poverty and human services – and most of us committed to ending poverty believe it should – the fact is that there currently are gaping holes in our government safety net. With Covid shrinking the tax base, governments have ever-fewer resources available, and there are certain projects that can’t move forward without private philanthropy. (Learn more about the intersection between government and philanthropy in this video.)

Jewish poverty didn’t begin when this pandemic hit, but we are hoping that by highlighting the needs, bringing together communities, and guiding donors who want to help, we can ensure that the most vulnerable members of our community emerge from this crisis with the support and resources to build a better future.

Deena K. Fuchs is executive vice president of Jewish Funders Network.