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.