Jewish Poverty and Hunger: A Wake Up Call For Collective Responsibility

Screenshot: John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

By Dr. Reuben Romirowsky

Historical definitions of “community”- based on “Klal Yisroel (the whole Jewish people)”- have grown outmoded and are not as enticing to current donors, as evidenced in the annual decline of both donors and annual giving to Federations nationally. The Jewish continuity and Peoplehood agendas which ascended to become the core priority for the Jewish community also de-prioritized organizations that deal with the poor and vulnerable, relegating them to operate with far fewer resources than what is needed. Organizations that are beneficiary agencies of Federation allocations must garner far more outside support, in order to adapt to the multitude of significant challenges they face in providing services to the poor. A way to address both issues (the re-invigoration of the Jewish communal system and the need for heightened awareness of crises such as poverty and hunger in the Jewish community) may, however be at hand. Millennials – the next generation of philanthropists – are searching for impact, meaning and purpose, and have the potential to positively impact Jewish philanthropic networks, with their heightened focus on communal responses to the increase in poverty in our community.

The Jewish community’s strong response to international crises has reinforced how the Diaspora communal responsibility resides in a global neighborhood and has been fueled by the philanthropy of major donors who built and then supported vital communal institutions within the national Federation system. Often, however, the American Jewish community has overlooked crises in our own backyard, especially in the case of crushing poverty and hunger – not intentionally, but as a result of low visibility and even lower awareness on the communal level. Widespread food insecurity and impoverishment are almost never reckoned with as a pernicious and ongoing condition within the Jewish community itself – one that needs funding to support the ongoing programs and services rendered by organizations that serve the needy of the community. Jewish philanthropy has not had a signature, transformative initiative to galvanize the community around this issue. But that is where the next generation of Jewish philanthropists may be able to change the conversation, and contribute to a new definition of “community” in the process.

Several trends over the past 20 years that have directly impacted the potency and relevance of collective responsibility, including the role of the internet in redefining the idea of “community,” moving way from direct person-to-person connections, with communal institutions like a Federation or a JCC often serving as a central institution; the aging and passing of major donors, who were raised on the primacy of collective responsibility, and the rise of the next generation, who may be philanthropically inclined, but see themselves as part of multiple communities, and are not fully trusting of the traditional communal institution; the fragmentation of giving options that often do not focus on unrestricted giving; and the lessening of Jewish identity among the younger generation.

Anxiety over the future of Jewish identity and communal giving has made the question of engaging millennials a major strategic challenge for every organization. Research tells us that millennials may reject old frameworks, but the notion of Jewish collectivity as expressed through community and social activism resonates with them (Kuperard, Olson, Fisher Bloomfield, Peoplehood Papers: Engaging Millennials, CPJE, 2016); the search for meaning is central to their engagement.

Millennials have already responded enthusiastically to the Jewish value of “Tikkun Olam” (“repairing the world”), albeit in a more secular, universalistic lens. To bring together older donors and new, younger philanthropists, however, we must redouble our efforts to refocus communal giving and responsibility, especially with regard to local issues and problems.

Our future success lies in understanding better what people are looking for, and finding ways to meet their needs and aspirations. We must focus more emphatically on the quest for meaning and purpose, on making a real connection to people who live in our community. People need and want to make a difference and to see that change in action.

Which brings me back to the issue of poverty. A study commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York in 2011 shed light on the scale of Jewish poverty in New York City in stark terms: 1 in 5 New York area Jewish households is poor, including 45% of children in Jewish households. (Jewish Community Study of NY, UJA Federation of NY, 2011). An independent assessment conducted by Wellspring Consulting in 2016 on food insecurity in New York stated that Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty – the leading service response to Jewish poverty in the city – would need an extra 2.1 million pounds of food/month to fill the unmet need of the Jewish households. Met Council already provides 7.4 million meals annually, to over 125,000 people living in New York City. But so much more is needed.

Poverty and food insecurity – and the intersecting issues that contribute to them – must be elevated in our community conversation. There are significant dollars sitting on the sideline in the Jewish and general community, mostly because the public has not been sufficiently educated, mobilized, and empowered to truly make an impact. In New York, the UJA-Federation of NY, in celebration of its Centennial year, has made poverty, hunger and joblessness the centerpiece of their community initiatives. Met Council is proud to be a partner with UJA-Federation of NY, to provide more food and vital services to the most vulnerable in our community. We can do more, if more people, from all segments of our community, become part of the “Klal” that has eluded them up to this point.

As the world Jewish community experiences tensions and division amongst itself, looking at basic human needs that remain unfulfilled within our communities can be source of opportunity to unite us, and to help re-ignite the primacy of thinking and behaving collectively. Today’s organizations whose missions are to address the local issues related to mental illness, abuse, poverty and hunger remain largely under-resourced. Severe pressure is being put on local agencies due to market forces and major cutbacks in government funding. Only private philanthropy can help narrow the gap, and infuse new dollars into sustaining vital programs and services. With the new generation of millennial philanthropists engaged, and with the increased awareness of long-time donors to this new set of priorities, the Jewish community has a chance to come together for the good of Tzedakah right in our own city and towns. The root of the word Tzedakah is “Tzedek”- justice. Giving to the cause of responding to poverty means standing up to the fundamental and unacceptable injustice of letting our neighbors suffer with their crises of everyday life.

Dr. Reuben Romirowsky is Chief Development Officer, Met Council on Jewish Poverty.
Dr. Romirowsky has spent his entire professional career in Jewish communal service, as a CEO of a JFS agency, as well as working with JFNA and local Federations.