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January 11, 2016 7:46 am

Jewish Poverty in Manhattan Exists and Needs Our Attention Now

avatar by Rivkah Rothschild

The Chabad building in Midtown Manhattan. Photo: Google.

The Chabad building in Midtown Manhattan. Photo: Google.

Poverty among Jews in Manhattan is a reality — just one whose proportions few are aware of.

For example, are you aware that Selfhelp estimates that there are 7,150 Holocaust survivors living in Manhattan, and that 52% of them are poor? That’s 3,718 poor Jews. But I’m not finished.

There are an estimated 133,000 Jewish households in Manhattan, based upon the 2011 UJA Jewish Community Study of the New York City area (“Study”). Based on the data collected, the study estimates that 10% of Jewish households are poor or near-poor, which translates to 13,300 low-income Jewish household in Manhattan. Using the average of 1.8 members per household, that means there are an estimated 24,000 poor Jews in Manhattan.

When I say “poor or near-poor,” I mean people that live under, at, or somewhat above the Federal Poverty Level. The Federal Poverty Level is the minimum amount of gross income that the Department of Health and Human Services believes a family needs for food, clothing, transportation, shelter and other necessities. The level varies according to family size and gets adjusted annually for inflation. For example, in 2015 the Federal Poverty Level for a family of two was about $16,000 per year, or $1,330 per month. But those standards apply all across the country — and I don’t have to tell you how expensive it is to live in Manhattan.

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Because our image of Jewish Manhattan is one of affluence and influence, many Jewish poor families can easily slip through the openings of a not-very-tight or safe safety net.

Do you perhaps optimistically think, as I once did, that Jewish poverty is improving? Think again. Jewish poverty is growing. That’s right; time is not the cure, as poverty has become more widespread since the 1990s. According to the UJA-Federation, Jewish poverty levels have increased 48% since 2005. According to the Metropolitan Council, the number of poor Jewish households has increased 100% since 1991.

So what should the Jewish community of Manhattan do about this blight right in its own backyard?

The largest food bank in America is located in Houston, Texas, with a 300,000 square-foot facility bank-rolled by the Arnold Foundation, a foundation that seeks high-impact recipients of its largesse in order to make transformational changes in society. That means that along with giving $10 million for the facility, the Arnold Foundation asked for data to help it determine where putting its formidable resources could have the most impact on eliminating poverty. The food bank reported that joblessness and chronic health issues were some of the root causes of hunger. It also found that many households were experiencing hunger because they chose to pay rent rather than buy food.

Among the many ways to help the poor — job-training, help securing government benefits, educational opportunities, access to the justice system, food assistance — it is ameliorating hunger that is the most compelling. The reason is that food is a basic requirement of life, and one that recurs every morning and evening, and, without food, helping the poor to get job-training or an educational opportunity is meaningless. So, even if the Arnold Foundation’s philosophy was to solve the “moral inefficiencies” of society through funding research to identify and develop high-impact programs and eschew ‘feel-good philanthropy’, providing food in the here and now stayed high on its priority list.

In Manhattan, on-going food resources for Jewish households include the following six (in Brooklyn, the food resources for Jewish households number roughly 23):

Chabad Relief Project (“CRP”) has a volunteer event every four to six weeks to pack and deliver a full box of staple kosher food items to the doors of 200 Jewish households in Manhattan.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun has a soup kitchen that serves a kosher lunch on Thursdays.

Dorot is an agency that serves persons over 60 years old who are either homebound or recently home from the hospital, with frozen kosher meals, and also supplies any senior in need with a cooked Shabbat meal.

The Jewish Council of Washington Heights runs a kosher food pantry that is open from 11 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Park Avenue Synagogue distributes a kosher pantry bag on Fridays from 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Temple Shaaray Tefila’s soup kitchen serves a kosher lunch to the first 100 people to arrive from noon – 1:00 p.m. on Wednesdays.

To encourage community leaders to devote more attention to alleviating nutritional insecurity, CRP has created the “Letaken Olam” award to be given annually to a Jewish Manhattanite who has made food insecurity his/her focus and made a significant contribution to combat it. The award will be presented at CRP’s monthly food drive on January 19, that is being co-sponsored by Fifth Avenue Synagogue and CRP. The event will include teens and pre-teens who plan to come and pack food boxes with their parents who are members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue.

If you know of someone in Manhattan who needs a box of staple food delivered to their door every 4-6 weeks, please contact CRP.

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