Reaching all who are hungry: The case for focusing on Jewish poverty
The vast majority of poverty in the Jewish community mirrors the broader population: single-parent households, people with disabilities, people struggling with unemployment and commuter-college students.
“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.”
These are the opening words of the Passover story in the Haggadah, the traditional guide to the Passover Seder. One of the most celebrated customs among American Jews, the Seder is a ritual feast that marks the Jews gaining freedom from slavery — and it begins with a reminder to include those who are in need. In that spirit, Passover is an opportune time to shine a light on the persistent ills of poverty.
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The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is dedicated to meeting the basic needs of people who experience poverty in general and, more specifically, within the Jewish community. Throughout my five years of leading the Weinberg Foundation’s work on Jewish poverty, I often get asked: Why focus on Jewish poverty? Shouldn’t we care about everyone who is struggling, regardless of identity?
Yes, we should — and we do. In 2022, over 30% of the foundation’s grantmaking supported the Jewish community in Israel and the United States, while the remaining nearly 70% went to nonprofits serving a range of people in need in both countries.
Yet poverty in the U.S. Jewish community has unique dynamics that warrant individualized attention. Here are four reasons for having an explicit commitment to addressing Jewish poverty — one for each cup of wine at the Seder:
- Dispelling problematic myths. More than one in five U.S. Jewish households earn less than $50,000 — about 200% of the federal poverty level for a family of three. But narratives about the Jewish community don’t match reality. For example, in a forthcoming landscape analysis, Moore + Associates has reviewed 125 TV shows since 2008 with a major Jewish character. Just eight of those shows included a Jewish character who struggled financially. That’s about 6% — far less than the 20% of households that struggle with poverty.
In addition, stories about Jewish poverty tend to focus on specific groups — primarily, the ultra-Orthodox community and older adults. But 89% of Jewish households earning less than $50,000 do not identify as Orthodox. The vast majority of poverty in the Jewish community mirrors the broader population: single-parent households, people with disabilities, people struggling with unemployment and commuter-college students. Dismantling misconceptions about Jewish poverty allows us to tell the range of stories that represent the Jewish community. And telling the whole story is a necessary step to fighting poverty wherever it exists.
- Recognizing the intersection of an individual’s Judaism with poverty. The most obvious case is Holocaust survivors. About 275,000 survivors remain worldwide, and over 50,000 are here in the United States. While these numbers are sadly declining, those who are still with us are the most vulnerable and financially strapped.
In addition, individuals who have decided to leave ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities often end up completely isolated and without the education, skills and experience needed to find stable employment. And finally, many who live in poverty are members of observant communities that require kosher food, which is more expensive and harder to find — a barrier to low-income families especially during Passover.
- Making inclusion a core value of the Jewish community. What kind of Jewish community do Jewish nonprofits and philanthropies want to help create? Do we want a Jewish community that is accessible only to Jews of a certain income bracket? Of course not. Most Jewish leaders would say they want to build communities where all belong, including Jews of color, people with disabilities and people experiencing poverty.But this is easier said than done because participating in the Jewish community can be expensive — from synagogue membership to tuition for Jewish summer camp.
To make belonging a priority, Jewish communities need to fully see and support those among us who are struggling with poverty. This doesn’t mean simply offering scholarships. Communities need to rethink their programs across the board to ensure they are accessible to low-income families. One example is at Hunter Hillel: A 2019 survey found two-thirds of CUNY Hillel-affiliated students were working at least one job while attending school, and 44% were experiencing food insecurity. These students typically are unable to fully engage in Hillel given the dueling demands of school and family. With philanthropic support, Hunter and other CUNY Hillels now provide food assistance, counseling, case management and job training, with the goal of enabling all students to participate in Hillel programs, not just those who can afford it.
- Addressing antisemitism. To combat antisemitism and other hate, the foundation and many other organizations invest in ensuring the safety and security of the Jewish community and building bridges of understanding with other communities and faiths. One of the most prevalent antisemitic tropes is about wealth. For example, one recent study found 43% of American Jews said they had heard someone say “Jews care too much about money” in the past 12 months.
Jewish organizations need to have serious conversations about wealth and income. These conversations are sensitive in nature and require careful facilitation. But the goal should be serving all who want to engage in Jewish life, regardless of their income. Perhaps by having these discussions, we can help signal that Judaism is indeed for everyone.
At your holiday table this year, I hope you invite neighbors who are hungry to come and eat with you, so that everyone can celebrate Passover.
Chag Pesach Sameach — a happy Passover to all.
Jon Hornstein is a program director at The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and leads the organization’s grantmaking in the U.S. Jewish community.