From temporary structures to permanent solutions: How Jewish nonprofits lean in to address poverty

by Jon Hornstein, Program Director

Empathy is a core theme of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that begins this Friday evening. Many Jews who observe this holiday dwell in temporary structures — called sukkahs — for seven days to remember when their ancestors did the same in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt. For this reason, many have made connections between Sukkot and homelessness.

While living in a sukkah does not replicate homelessness, it helps us empathize with our fellow kin in humanity who are struggling to make ends meet, and consider ways we may support them. Sukkot is therefore an appropriate time to address the third and final question in our blog series on Jewish poverty: What might the Jewish nonprofit sector contribute to the broader fight against poverty?

For centuries, the Jewish community has harnessed its experience as a marginalized people to better the lives of all. U.S. Jewish service agencies and hospitals were originally created to serve refugees who were fleeing antisemitism in Europe or barred from receiving services. As mainstream institutions began accepting Jews, these agencies expanded their commitment to serving all in need.

Fighting poverty in both the Jewish and broader community is not a zero-sum game. In fact, many of the Foundation’s grantees that focus on addressing Jewish poverty are doing both. When we learn to empathize with many different communities, our capacity for understanding, and for service, only grows. Here are three ways the Foundation’s Jewish nonprofit partners are working to address poverty throughout the United States:

Expanding Access to Affordable Housing: Weinberg has a long-standing commitment to helping people obtain stable housing, which provides a foundation for leading a healthy and productive life. Many Jewish nonprofits contribute to this effort, collaborating with government and community partners to increase access to housing for all, not just within the Jewish community.

One example is Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI), a housing and community development organization serving several northwest Baltimore neighborhoods. While many of CHAI’s 16 housing communities for older adults provide kosher food and foster connections with the local Jewish community, the organization sees its Jewish identity as much broader. The nonprofit recently demonstrated one of its core values — “acting Jewishly requires us to consider and respond to the needs of the community around us” — by developing two multifamily housing communities that will serve low-income families in Park Heights, a majority-Black neighborhood with a median household income less than half the state median of $95,000. In addition, CHAI’s chief executive officer, Lisa Budlow, regularly convenes representatives of 20 Jewish organizations committed to expanding affordable housing.

Responding to Emergencies: Jewish agencies were founded to welcome refugees facing persecution. Responding to crises is in their DNA. With the rise in mass shootings and natural disasters, emergency response has become an even larger part of the work of the 170 member organizations of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, another grantee.

One recent emergency close to home for us at the Weinberg Foundation is the devastating wildfires on Maui, which tragically took nearly 100 lives and displaced thousands of individuals and families. Among the grantees we have funded to respond to this crisis is Jewish Community Services of Hawai‘i. With the support of the Foundation and other partners, the organization had already been working to expand its services across the islands. This has now enabled it to play a pivotal role in relief efforts on Maui. Today, working in partnership with four Maui-based Jewish nonprofits, Jewish Community Services of Hawai‘i offers case management, financial assistance, mental health services, and other support for those affected by the fires, both within and beyond the Jewish community.

Joining Coordinated Efforts: No nonprofit can address challenges as big as homelessness or natural catastrophes alone. Many Jewish organizations form partnerships with fellow nonprofits to jointly address poverty in their community. One example is the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies’ national employment initiative, which launched in January 2022. With support from the Foundation, 19 Jewish nonprofits joined forces to create Project EM, a virtual platform that provides workshops and customized job-placement support to job seekers all over the country, including in areas where a Jewish Vocational Service agency does not exist. Of the 2,913 individuals who received career counseling through the platform in 2022, 49% did not identify as Jewish. Working together better positions Jewish agencies to serve anyone in need.

On this Sukkot, let us strive to practice empathy — in a sukkah or otherwise — as an important step toward fighting poverty in all the communities we aim to serve. Chag Sukkot Sameach.

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