Ending poverty

Rachel Sumekh looks to boost Jewish Funders Network’s efforts to fight poverty and hunger

'Affinity group' project executive strives to educate JFN members about poverty and coordinate efforts to curb it

On the last morning of the Jewish Funders Network conference on Tuesday, Rachel Sumekh stood at the lectern at a session titled “Moonshot: Ending Jewish Poverty.” It was standing-room-only in the hall, packed with philanthropists and others connected to the Jewish funding world, for this final session of the gathering. In it, she shared statistics about the percentage of American Jewish households experiencing poverty: One in five are designated as “financially insecure,” meaning they have an income of less than $50,000.

Sumekh, the founder and former CEO of college hunger organization Swipe Out Hunger, is now the new project executive for JFN’s National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty. She recalled speaking to a philanthropist who said she’d grown up in poverty and that even today the sight of abundant food provokes awe and disbelief. Another attendee told her about a husband and wife who had individually called the community hotline for help, each unaware the other had too, which Sumekh said indicated the deep stigma that financially insecure people, especially those over 40, still feel about seeking assistance. These stories and the way the session was received left her energized for the work ahead.

“The session’s strong turnout gave me hope that funders are ready to place bets on hopeful, systemic ideas that aim to solve some of our oldest problems,” Sumekh told eJewishPhilanthropy.

In 2010, Sumekh and a small group of her college friends worked with the University of California, Los Angeles administration to donate their unused meal card swipes to food-insecure students. This effort became Swipe Out Hunger, which was founded in 2013, with Sumekh as its CEO. By the time she left the organization in 2022, the organization had accumulated 550 university partners, passed bills in six different states and helped serve more than 5 million meals to students. Sumekh became a national voice in addressing hunger and poverty, presenting at conferences and fundraisers, and earned recognition by the Obama White House, Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list and the Forward 50, to name a few.

In college, Sumekh said she couldn’t reconcile seeing a group of hungry students when there was enough food in refrigerators on campus to feed them, which she said exemplifies the motivations behind her work. “I can’t tolerate the alternative the moment I see a pathway forward,” she said.

As project executive of JFN’s National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty, she is drawing on her Swipe Out Hunger experience and skills to increase education around Jewish poverty and mobilize more of JFN’s 581 members to address it, Sumekh told eJP.

“During the pandemic, people really acknowledged that there was poverty,” Sumekh said, noting that many people received support from community agencies as well as the federal government. “There was so much money coming in, and so much money going out to people because their jobs were paused, everything was in shambles.” The question now is “how do we have our society recognize that even though the pandemic is over… people were not okay to begin with. They were struggling,” she said, noting that many of the external supports that propped them up during the pandemic, like student loan forgiveness and stimulus payments, have ended.

The affinity group also views mental health services and its affordability as part of the poverty issue, Sumekh said. “I think there’s a really important moment in time right now. Coming out of the pandemic, for us to really raise the people’s recognition of how much people are barely making it day by day,” she said.

There are funders who are conducting research and funding solutions to the poverty problem, Sumekh said, noting the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation’s pioneering research and ongoing commitment to the issue. She also named the Jeff and Shari Aronson Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies as some of the funders directly addressing this issue.

The National Jewish Human Services Association (NJHSA), an international membership association of more than 150 non profit human service agencies in the United States, Canada and Israel, also works to alleviate poverty, Sumekh said.

“I’m talking to them as much as I’m talking to funders,” Sumekh said. “A key part of this project will be elevating really impactful programs on the ground, to the greater community to give hope that there are pathways forward.”

Beyond deepening education for funders around the subject, the poverty affinity group is “also working to lift up the work of the amazing community organizations, the Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Vocational Service [branches] across the country, which are doing amazing things,” Sumekh said.

In San Diego, for instance, Jewish Family Service in partnership with San Diego for Every Child, launched the region’s first guaranteed income project, with the goal of significantly reducing the experience of child poverty and lifting families out of poverty. Still, more attention and capital needs to be directed toward Jewish poverty, Sumekh said.

“In my mind, [there’s] a misalignment between what funders believe Jewish poverty is and how to address Jewish poverty, and what the nonprofit professionals who are addressing Jewish poverty need. I’m trying to build a Venn diagram: Where do we overlap? And where is there still stuff missing on both sides that we can provide education on?” she said. Sumekh is now working on this project about 20 hours a week, helping to bring a national conversation around Jewish poverty to the community. She also works as a consultant, helping philanthropic clients to make more of an impact with their giving and working to organizations that focus on programs and strategies.

JFN has additional affinity groups with specific foci: the Green Funder Forum, a social, environmental impact-focused group; the CANVAS arts and culture collaborative; impact investing; and, in Israel, the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality. Another JFN group, Honeycomb, is focused on developing a culture of giving for teens.

A first-generation Angeleno and American, Sumekh is part of Los Angeles’ substantial Persian Jewish community. “Being so close to the immigrant experience, in some ways, gives you the free rein to be whoever you want to be,” she said. When her Iranian-born parents met in the U.S. and got married, the family relied on SNAP, California’s food stamps program, as well as programs like those offered by Jewish Family Service, to help connect them with resources to serve their basic needs. While this was a common experience among Persian Jewish immigrants, “no one talks about it,” she said. But Sumekh certainly does.

“I really acknowledge the role that the community and public benefits play in helping people escape poverty,” she added. “I’m grateful for the perspective that I have as an Iranian Jew, which is kind of an outsider in the traditional Jewish mainstream space, that helps me relate to the topic of how do we support Jews who are facing poverty.”

At least a third of JFN’s members have indicated interest in learning more, Sumekh said, and her job is to move interested folks toward deeper education and decisive action.

A Los Angeles Jewish community study published last year found that 16 percent of Jewish households reported their financial situation was somewhat or much worse than it was before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the majority of Jewish households reported being financially comfortable, 19% reported either being unable to make ends meet or just managing to make ends meet. More than half — 57% — of those earning under $50,000 perceive themselves as struggling. So as various Jewish communities embark upon their own demographic surveys, Sumekh said she hopes they will incorporate survey questions about financial stability and poverty, because more data are needed.

She is also a past board member of IKAR, the Los Angeles spiritual community that is including 60 units of affordable housing in its building development plan. Sumekh said this decision was incredible, “until you remember that there are 50,000 plus people in our city that don’t have housing. And then you remember, that is 60 people who will have a bed and a warm shower and a safe place to live. And I always think of ‘dayenu,’ being able to say even if we’re able to house one person, dayenu, that is enough.

“In approaching issues like poverty, I have to hold both: I have to remember that every bed matters and there’s a million more people that need help, so we must continue to dream,” she said.