Poverty: Calling for Meaningful Jewish Attention

By David Eisner

(An installment in the series Spotlight on Poverty, a partnership between JFN and eJewish Philanthropy.)

Poverty too often appears as a cause, effect, and perpetuating factor in various social crises, including failures in our systems of health, education, food distribution, housing, and other social services. Social ruptures of hatred, blame, and fear toward groups based on race, ethnicity, and other forms of identity often further exacerbate these crises. However poverty comes to be, it is attended by a vulnerability and loss of power that opens the door to other crises, failures, and ruptures that make the cycle worse.

I’ve pushed at the monster of American inequity from many vantage points over 35 years – leading business coalitions that worked to expand digital access rather than exacerbating economic divides; managing foundations that invested in growing nonprofit capacity to address issues of inequity; serving as a White House appointed, Senate-confirmed agency head, distributing billions of federal grant dollars to nonprofits and communities leveraging AmeriCorps and VISTA volunteers to strengthen safety nets and interrupt generational cycles; and, today, heading Repair the World, offering thousands of Jewish young adults meaningful service opportunities to address urgent needs experienced in their own communities.

Even though so much energy is required to achieve even limited success addressing poverty, the work of Repair the World has fueled in me a sense of renewed optimism and purpose; a revitalization that comes from tapping into the energetic idealism of young adults together with the urgency of Jewish moral values. Along with Repair, the amazing work that Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps has been leading for decades offers both inspiration and direction for this.

There is an enormous opportunity for the Jewish community to bring new energy, power, and cohesion to the work of our nonprofit sector and, especially, of our philanthropy, to address the needs against which our neighbors and often our community are struggling.

First and foremost, taking this opportunity would make a critical difference at a critical time in the lives of others, and the benefits to the Jewish community would be enormous as well. Struggling to navigate our own demographic changes, to heal rifts of leadership, to bridge generational and geographic divides, we have a truly classic opportunity to recapture our sense of efficacy and community by turning from our self-absorption, and, instead, living out our “light unto nations” purpose. Hillel said the entire Torah rests in the scripture that others should not be treated as you, yourself would not wish to be treated.

Repair the World is experiencing this as a vital moment for our Jewish community to live out our purpose to be a light to the nations, to recognize the holy in all people, to make the places we live better for our presence.

Here are some lessons that we learned that may serve Jewish philanthropists seeking to engage more deeply in anti-poverty work.

  • Nowhere does implicit bias require deeper listening and humility than when philanthropists address poverty. Reducing the chasm between haves and have-nots is an act of valor for philanthropists, who, by definition fall uniquely on the “haves” side of the gulf. This doesn’t necessarily taint their motivations, but it does assure practical and moral conflict in addressing the very dynamics by which the wealth was acquired, and can create instincts that the philanthropists “know better” than the communities suffering poverty about what they need.
  • Relationships first. No amount of work addressing urgent needs or bringing change can yield fruit without holding deep relationships with the people and nonprofits in the communities that are at the epicenter of the challenge. And, in the end, it is the relationships with both organizations and the individuals who lead and participate in their efforts- not the issues or the investments- that drive transformation for everyone deeply involved in the work.
  • Think long-term and act with urgency. The old and new testaments each assert that the poor will always be with us – and we are ordered to be generous, open our hand, never refuse, and more. This reflects the deep dichotomy that the issue of poverty may be immutable, but the journey of individuals, families and communities into, and, more importantly, out of poverty rests in our hands.
  • Address urgent needswhile working to change the system. The need for bringing systemic change to a justice system that seems driven to incarcerate generations of men of color cannot be overstated. Neither can we overstate the need for caring adults to mentor youth whose parents are incarcerated. The likelihood is 75% that a child with one incarcerated parent will spend time in jail themself – a statistic ruthlessly tied to the huge majority of such children who live in poverty. However, when that same child has a volunteer mentor for one year, that likelihood is cut in more than half. Investments to address the system will save future generations – however, they can only succeed over a great arc of time and in partnership across multiple sectors. Meanwhile, investments in effective nonprofits that recruit, train, support and oversee these corps of volunteers will have a real impact on real people, right now.
  • Mistakes are lessons and failures accelerate success. I still shudder recalling my visit to a DC public school in 1996, where I found administrative offices cluttered with dusty servers, screens and CPU’s – all technology that, as head of America Online’s new foundation, I’d sent them nearly a year earlier. We believed that we could “help” overburdened, under-resourced schools create new digital pathways for student success; however, that year not many students actually benefited from the tens of millions of dollars worth of hardware, software and digital access accounts from America Online and other companies. The lesson was painful and expensive – and it was repeated many times over before philanthropists identified the right formulas for supporting installation, training, and integration into educational curricula. Today, however, access to internet technology and training is supporting many schools and students to realize educational aspirations that would otherwise be unachievable – and the early failures were as essential in getting there as the persistent effort.

Victories against poverty come depressingly slow, and are often offset by even larger defeats; relentless acceleration in the pace of change, fueled by technology and globalism are driving economic displacement and volatility, fostering environments that capture vulnerable families in the cycle.

Our Jewish community has people, resources, values and experience to make a big difference with work that desperately needs doing. And, it seems to me that the opportunity to tackle this work comes at the perfect time for our community to reach beyond our insular challenges and support some holy work.

David Eisner is President and CEO of Repair the World.