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Why the Jewish Poor Get No Respect

It’s interesting even to be raising the subject of Jewish poverty: So much of the world reflexively associates Jews with wealth, and in some cases great wealth, the sort that leads to ugly displays of conspicuous consumption and one-upmanship at lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties. To some, Jewish poverty may seem like an oxymoron, or even a joke. And yet, as any community leader can tell you, it is a real a very serious phenomenon. Just a couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old son and I spent the morning loading boxes of food through a wonderful local program called the Jewish Relief Agency and then delivering them to Jewish seniors in the area who depend on these deliveries to help them have enough to eat over the coming month. That morning, volunteers delivered nearly 2,200 boxes to needy Jewish families, and that’s just in one small corner of Philadelphia.
Many of the families to whom we delivered are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where hundreds of thousands of needy Jews still live. But poor Jews can be found everywhere, in this country and abroad. The problem is that these Jews are often out of sight–those assumptions about Jewish wealth create a stigma that keeps poor Jews off the radar and even allows us to fail to see them before our eyes.


The one exception to this out-of-sight-out-of-mind rule for poor Jews is Israel, where the poverty of the ultra-Orthodox is well-known and inescapable, as Rabbi Stern writes. While his post has an element of a blame-the-victim mentality, it’s not unwarranted. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews regard the State of Israel as theologically suspect at best and blasphemous at worst: Israel is supposed to be founded when the Messiah returns, not by people acting on their own to do the Messiah’s work. Therefore, they view it as a positive to accept government payouts and even to defraud the government because they are helping to undermine it, not so different from the fundamentalist polygamous Mormons we’ve been hearing so much about lately who take the same stance, referring to taking government payouts as “bleeding the beast.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews would say they are contributing to Jewish well-being by keeping the primacy of study and fear of God at the center of their lives. But by draining taxpayers resources on principle and not contributing to the country on principle, it is not surprising that they inspire the kind of ire seen in Rabbi Stern’s post. It is of course important to realize that most of the other Jewish poor are just like people in need anywhere–in desperate straits and trying to scrape by as best they can on limited resources. They deserve our attention, our concern, and our assistance.

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laura t mushkat

posted November 9, 2007 at 3:00 pm

I find that many Jews who are in the same boat as me try to stay away from Jewish people when they are poor. So many Jews think and act as if poverty was a disease that if they hang arround you they will catch it. Many of these are people who are young 40s and lower, who knew you when you had money. Thinking that you were once like them and now have financial problems scares them. It is probubly no only Jews who act like this but Christians seem to be more in touch with the local poor. Jews like money that goes to Israel or “over there”.
I must say however that there are good qualities as well in Jews. They give scholarships to poor Jews so they can be members of the various houses of worship, they give scholarships to children for both sunday and hebrew school as well as hebrew day schols. They work with other agencies or by themselves to help Jews who are elderly get to mealsites and often sponsor them. Maybe these things will lead to other things Jews can do to help their local poor. I hope so.

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posted November 9, 2007 at 4:07 pm

Please spare me from the suggestion that we concern ourselves with and provide assistance to the ulta-orthodox. We, as Jews, have the ability to choose how we wish to live (free will) and if our choice is to not work and depend on others, so be it. However, it should not require (that the rest of us support) conduct we find abhorent. Quite frankly, the Haredi who don’t work, don’t serve in the Israeli army, and don’t do anything other than study only deserve our contempt.
I am more than willing (and do so financially) support Jewish and other institutions that provide assistance to those genuinely in need; but certainly not those who won’t help themselves.

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posted November 10, 2007 at 10:57 am

I agree wholeheartely about the ultra-orthodox. In Israel their influence is so counterproductive that they could cause the total destruction of Israel. Fundamentalism is fundamently wrong and anti-G-d-like. The ultra’s will ruin Israel just as the ultras are causing world wide chaos right now in the Middle East and in the USA.

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posted November 10, 2007 at 12:52 pm

Todah rabbah for bringing attention to the issue of poverty in the Jewish community… It’s an important topic that must be discussed- openly- in order to raise awareness of the problem. Although there is a strong emphasis placed on charity in the community, many needy (affiliated ) Jews feel marginalised when they face financial problems and need to ask for help; I’m sick of the sterotype that all Jews are exceptionally wealthy (and don’t get me started on the issue of price gouging at Pesach!). Poverty isn’t an embarrassment, it’s a problem that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

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posted November 10, 2007 at 5:08 pm

I agree with this… Jews have a tendency to be close-knit. It is easier to entertain as Jews in a Jewish community when we have money – most of our celebrations revolve around not only attending shul, but EATING. Notice I don’t say, “FEEDING”. Despite the fact that we are told to leave our doors open on Pesach for the poor and hungry to enter and share in our Seder, how many of us actually end up with a perfect stranger at our tables (not including the new guy your sister is dating this year or your Bubbie’s canasta partner)? How many families do we PERSONALLY know who are hitting rock bottom and can hardly keep food on the table – much less kosher food, which is jacked up in price, no matter what time of year? It is a serious issue, one I can attest to. Last year my family and I had to shop at the discount store and it was so disgusting, I felt ashamed. Not the store so much as the quality of the food. And this isn’t because I or my husband are not working – it’s because the economy is affecting EVERYONE – EVEN JEWS! Aside from food, what about healthcare? Do you know how many Jews cannot afford health coverage, now? I know I couldn’t when I had to buy private insurance. And again – I am part of the community that works. I teach. I am an educated person. I am a Jewish woman with a husband and two young children. But don’t worry – I am sure we’ll get by. Oh – and to the person who donates to help keep Jewish children and families in their congregation and Hebrew School, Todah Rabah. It is wonderful that you do this. Just don’t – please DO NOT – stop there. I have seen this situation happen to other Jewish families and it rarely gets better. Not because of donations being given, but because we, who need, are ashamed to ask. And those who can give, may not. EDUCATE your community.

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posted November 10, 2007 at 8:31 pm

There is a stereotype that all Jews are rich, good with money, and/or highly educated or heavily credentialed. This makes being a working class Jew yet another way to be marginalized or regarded as a failure as a Jew. If you were a good Jew, the reasoning seems to go, you would have accomplished more and you’d have lots of money – therefore God must be against you, you must not be good enough. But that’s the plight of the poor anywhere – people project and assume everyone poor brought it upon themselves. Blame and charity are mutually exclusive.

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posted November 11, 2007 at 6:22 am

Boy do I have things to say on this topic! My Grandparents/Great Grand-parents came from Russia, near Poland around 1916ish. They worked very hard. My mother’s parents did well and became what I would consider Lower-upper class in our middlesized midwest city in Ohio. My Father worked very hard also and gave us a great upper-middle class home. (Please excuse the way I describe things, I am a Sociology major, having been a case manager for many years.
I had a great life. Married, had 3 great children, the oldest a graduate of a Jewish Day/High School and now working on her PHD. Mom needed help at times with money and her parents helped her. I needed help and my family helped me. Now my extended family and my immediate family start to die off, it seems like 1,2,3. My husband of 23yrs became ill and left, and I became disabled in 1996. My 27yr. old daughter cares for my 15yr old son and my 23 year old son lives near them doing the best he can! I got involved with not 1, but 2 local cash loaning places in our town and have been for 5 years-continue

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posted November 11, 2007 at 6:39 am

Our local Chabad loaned me money interest free, but I did not want to tell them after 2 times I need more. I never missed a month paying back! I went to the Jewish Federation and was totally embarressed. They only send monies out of the country to people in need, not just Israel, but also Pakistan, etc. They say they help the needy in our community–I was asking for an intrest free loan, not a handout. They said they feed the elderly and have programs for them and that uses all the money. I guess to heck with the homeless or people like me who are just trying to make ends meet and catch up. They were even nasty about it. I asked the Rabbi’s of each Temple/Syn. to see if any of their well to do members would anon. give someone an interest free loan for $1,500. They wouldn’t even ask! I was raised conservatived, however I love the Temble service. Thank G-D our Educ. Dir. finally became ordained, SHE is a wonderful person and is staying on. I go to the Chabad about once a month or so. I could never be that religious but I honestly love the Rabbi’s there and many of the congregants. What hurts most, next to my own Temple not helping me is the Jewish Federation not wanting to help there own and being so hard headed and mean about it!!!!

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laura t mushkat

posted November 11, 2007 at 11:29 am

I am shocked at what the person above has said about the Jewish Federation in her area. It is possible they would not give money. They do many other things however. I lost all my money and have to move to be near by children and find a place. The Federations in MA have been more then helpful and bended over backwards to help me find answers to things I needed to know now and later. My local Federation has helped many in our area with multiple problems. They have started a regional transportation program for those Jews in need of getting to doctors, medical care, food sites, and places like the library and all types of shopping. If you need help they try to find out how best to do that.
NOBODY gives loans. They know darn well that unless there is a change they would have to keep giving them out. This includes Jewish and gentile places. There are many things Federations do and their help in the offices are not voulunteer for the most part. Try specific problems-like clothing or medical problems and they can help.
Housing is often something they can help you with. Catholic Charties and the Jews work hand in hand to help everyone in our area, but not with cash.

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posted November 11, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Two of the issues I have with Jewish ethics is that one, there is no work/thrift ethic in Judaism and two, that Judaism makes no distintion between the deserving poor (ie the sick, disabled and the working poor), and the non-deserving poor (those who just don’t feel like working).
The poor I want to support are the deserving poor, and there would be fewer poor if more people felt this way. I would also like to return to the days when people believed that work, in and of itself was good, and that not living on your credit card ws a good thing.
But there is nothing in Judaism that backs me up.

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posted November 11, 2007 at 4:20 pm

It took the Chabad movement to create the Jewish Relief Agency. It should be a lesson for the more liberal branches of Judaism and the secular Jewish organizations. I tried to get help the Jewish agenicies in Philadelphia, but there was endless paperwork and the sliding scale fees were too expensive for me to afford when I was unemployed. At least that was my personal experience. I can’t comment about other communities.
My local NPR Station broadcasts the BBC World Service. A BBC reporter was interviewing a Somali businessman. The Somali businessman said that Somalis were called “the Jews of Africa”. The intrepid BBC reporter broke in and said, “because Jews are naturally good a business.” I was stunned. Jews are not naturally good at business. They simply had to create their own businesses because they faced so much discrimination that they had to start their own businesses.

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posted November 13, 2007 at 9:43 am

I have sadly discovered the past 7 years that the myth that “all Jews are rich” comes from Jews ourselves.
I have fallen on bad economic times and have found no help from the Jewish community – quite the contrary in fact. When I go to any event or even to services in a shul, I am approached for donations, which I am unable to give at this time in my life.
It is to the point that I avoid Jewish life that includes a shul so I can save myself the embarrassment of being approached for donations by people who cannot accept that I cannot afford to donate when I myself do not have food to eat every day.
The Jewish Federation, to which I donated when I had better economic conditions told me to get my family to help me and then slammed the phone down on me. There are wealthy people in my family and I hear them talk of how much they donated to this group and that. It seems to me that the Federation has a policy that families should help one another but neglect to tell the donor there that they will not help any person who is related to people of wealth. This could, quietly contribute to breaking families apart.
Torah teaches us to help a person whose pack is slipping of his donkey. It also says to assist before the donkey falls completely and cannot be lifted up. I think we may be failing with these commandments.
I see Jewish people of great wealth giving money to many places, but poor Jewish people are off the radar. Poor and invisible in plain sight. And if my example is any indication – not seen at all. I do not have it in me to go to a shul or a function where Jews are and be asked for a donation and suffer the embarrassment of saying no and being laughed at when I explain that I am in need of charity now myself.
Nobody but other Jews assume I have wealth just because I am Jewish. And so it is that I have come to realize the myth that *all* Jews are wealthy is something we ourselves create and it seems, many fully believe. But this is not the case – not at all.
To answer your question Rabbi – yes, poverty is an issue with people who are born Jewish.
In the past a person could help out instead of pay – for a shul membership for example. Not so now, the shul has hired help, the community cannot trade services like in days gone by. To be a part of the Jewish community now, we have to pay. I see shuls closing for lack of membership – but they redo the decor of the places and have a full staff, and seem blind to how many Jewish people are poor. And because of the poverty, poor Jews are cast out of the community because after all, there is the myth to uphold, that all Jews are rich with money.
I hope this will change. We are spiritually rich because we have Torah, but this does not translate to material wealth for everyone, all the time.

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matityahu birnberg

posted November 17, 2007 at 4:42 am

Let’s keep it simple. Organized Judaism is
largely uninterested in Jews without money,
at least in the United States. This is
totally aberrant with respect to normative
Judaism through the centuries. It is,
in my opinion, the sickness of the “American
Way of life” which has infected us Jews,too.
It seems to me that only the rabbis, who
still command a shred of respect, could make
a difference if we could take each one by
the shoulders, so to speak, and shout, “Wake
up!Wake others up, too! Take a chance that
you may offend a few — remind us all of our
legacy of sharing (even tithing?)and
not ‘…grinding the face of the poor’ among us!”

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posted November 17, 2007 at 2:11 pm

I am also one of the silent Jewish poor. Jewish Federation called me to solicit donations. I told the person on the phone that I couldn’t give anything because I myself was in need of donations. There was no offer of help from the person on the other end, just the click of the phone.
I have never been affiliated with a shul because I cannot pay the fees. I know you can go and plead hardship and they will sponsor you, but it is too embarrasing.
I work, I pay taxes and do what I can to survive. It is time the Jewish Community acknowledge that there is a problem and do something, instead of just talking about mitzvah and boxes for the poor in some obscure part of the world.

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K. Sean Proudler

posted November 23, 2007 at 5:21 pm

I think it is an enormous achievement for there to be such a thing as poor people. It takes a good deal of effort to ignore the poor and keep the money for ones self instead.
Personally, I could not do such a thing. I would probably shoot myself due to experiencing such a boundless degree of guilt in the long run. Just the thought that some wealthy people keep on living day after day, while others suffer so much, leaves me stunned and mystified.
Fortunately, I have been given the right to determine where such greedy and selfish people shall spend their eternity.
The truth sits everywhere. The selfish see not the truth due to confinement toward themselves. That is why they do not accept certain truths such as my identity that is noted here .
And so they continue with their current behavior.

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posted November 24, 2007 at 11:49 pm

I relate to so many of these posts. I am at a place in my life where I cannot afford to affiliate;
I have found Chabad to be very accepting.
If one really wants to make attending services an important part of their spirituality go directly to the Rabbi and share your situation.
You will not be turned you away. If for any reason you feel your acceptance is not sincere that is not the Shull for you.
Many want the numbers – committed people at the services – more than a wealthy Jew who never shows up yet supports the synagogue with donations.
Both are needed. Embarrassment can be replaced with humility — yeah it’s hard to admit – yet your story may have been their story at one time or may be theirs in the future – just be honest and make no assumptions. Once people get to know you , you will be valued and you do not need to be an open book to everyone.
Believe me a Rabbi wants a committed congregation first and foremost.
Your being there at services, your prayers, your input mean a great deal to the leadership. Yes, there will be a call for donations – that is par for the course, but that does not mean you do not matter, all you need to say is I have already talked to the Rabbi and he understands my current situation.

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posted November 25, 2007 at 5:26 pm

Boy, can I relate to this! I was raised in an upper middle class family and all was fine. When I married and had 3 kids things were still good, however the grandparents and parents were passing away, my husband became disabled and left us after 22 years of marriage and I became ill and had to go on disability in 1996. In 2000 my divorce was final and in 2002 I moved in with a female room-mate, who happened to convert to Judaism about 3 months ago! Anyway, money times are really bad, she also is on disability. I do belong to a Temple with a Rabbi who seems cold to both of us, but thank G-d we now have an assistant Rabbi, a young woman, who is very nice. Anyway I asked for a loan to pay for a Dental emergency-HE offered me $300., I needed $1500. This was My Temple and we paid regular dues, what we could. Next I tried the Conservative Synag. I was raised in, but they have a new Rabbi. He never knew my family, but if he ever looked around he could see all the major donations they had made to the Synagogue. I said perhaps a member would loan it to me—I would pay it back on a monthly basis, just like I told my Rabbi. He said he didn’t know who to ask. Next was Orthodox—My Grandparents had known the Rabbi’s parent’s well and belonged there also, they donated to them. His mother was my Hebrew school teacher. I gave him the same senerio about seeing who may give a loan to a person in need- guarenteed monthly payments—nobody, he also would not ask. I asked the Jewish Federation, who sends money to Israel, Russia, Africa, and says they help their own community–NOT! All they do is Senior lunches, speakers andrides to doctors or groceries for a minimal fee. Yes, I did get some help, but I didn’t want to ask AGAIN. Our Chabad! Rabbi K. had helped me 2 yrs. ago and knew I paid back as I said. I had been to some of their classes and liked it. The head Rabbi asked me to come to services there. I wanted to but I hate to were a dress and always wear jeans-I said I really could not come because I only wear jeans and he gave me $80.00 and said to buy a skirt and top…so I did. (A long denim skirt!) Anyway, I alternate sevives because I enjoys singing at Temple but I really care about the Rabbi’s at the Chabad!!!
Money has never been an issue, for classes or events “pay what you can, or don’t pay anything!”

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posted June 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Sad to see the attitudes so widespread. I am a single mother; I was unemployed five months in 2009, after the crash. There was no help, only — as someone else mentioned here — solicitations. I responded with blistering profanity and got an apology, but nothing more.

I take my daughter to shul; I do not pay dues. I send her to Hebrew school; I do not pay tuition. I take her and dare the rich Jews to throw her out, and so far they have enough shame not to.

I used to be much more grateful, much more apologetic, much more ready to say that when I had money I would send it — and in fact I did. Now? I’ve seen how they do. It’s a country club and to hell with anyone who can’t pay the fees. My daughter isn’t invited to play with other kids; I’m not invited to dinner. Occasionally I get asked to host an oneg, and it’s all I can do to stay polite.

I did not have time this year, but next year, during Mitzvah Day (nice, eh?) I will go with a sandwich board announcing needs of people in the local Jewish community, if they’ll let me be public with them, anonymously. I will go with a sign-up sheet and wander around and ask: Who wants to sign up for this one? Who for that? You’re hot to do mitzvahs, here’s your big chance. No, no, don’t “think about it”, pick one, put your name. No? OK: Doesn’t Want to Do A Mitzvah In the Community. Check. Next? We’ll see what we get.

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posted November 18, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Dear Rabbi is not all the seam in all the places. After 3 years in very poor conditions the Jewish in UK, Kick me out of the synagogue because I can pay the quotes. I try to get help for survive with my family and only 1 yewish family from USA and one from Netherlands make me some help. The rest of Jewish in UK never help me. Chabad House also never reply to my emails they are very busy I believe. Sorry but in any part of the world the jewish is a shame to our religion.

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posted November 24, 2012 at 10:10 am

My daughter and I are about to be homeless. We are not Orthodox, we are more Reformed. I am on Social Security Disability. We have no where to go.

My aunt (who always claimed that I was the daughter she never had) told me “people have to work hard for what they want.” I am disabled, I can’t work as no one will hire me. I went back to college to learn Graphic Design (something I can do from home). But soon I will have no home.

My aunt didn’t even offer us a place to stay until I can get some work to subsidize my disability.

Yes there are poor Jews but there are many more that turn a blind eye.

The prophet Isaiah (58:7) tells us, “Don’t hide from your own flesh” — our charity obligation is greatest to our relatives.

A needy person may be in need of charity, such as money or a place to live. The Torah commands us to give to the needy person “according to what he lacks”. (Deuteronomy 15:8.)

I’ve done the above for people when I was able. Too bad my “learned”, Orthodox family knows less about these things than I do. Could it be because I am poor and know what it’s like to be scared of having to live in my car? Could it be because I’m poor and have to eat pasta and margarine for the last 2 weeks of every month? Could these be the reasons they want nothing to do with me, for fear that my hardships will rub off on them?

Thank you for listening.
By the way, I live in Southern New Jersey, near Philadelphia. My email address is if anyone knows of a place for me to live.

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