Showing care and concern for our entire community: A call to address Jewish poverty

By Rachel Garbow Monroe, President and CEO
Originally published by eJewish Philanthropy

“May the dignity of your fellow be as dear to you as your own.”

For me, this verse from Pirkei Avot has always been the essence of the work of many funders committed to serving the Jewish community. But for years, the existence of poverty in our community was either dismissed or ignored. In fact, 36% of Jewish Funders Network members still do not support a single nonprofit focused on poverty in the Jewish community, according to a recent survey of more than 100 members.

The question is, why not?

Perhaps it is because, until now, we had little to no data to prove it exists. Today, however, we have the data — we know poverty exists in and is affecting our community.

Where we started

In 2019, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation reached out to dozens of leaders at Jewish federations, nonprofits, foundations and other leading national and local organizations, asking them to share whatever data and research they had on Jewish poverty in the United States.

The information those leaders provided, along with insights from Pew Research Center, Jewish federation community studies and others, resulted in a report of preliminary findings presented at a national conference on Jewish poverty in San Francisco. That gathering also featured a series of conversations among experts on the subject, including researchers, direct-service providers, federation leaders and philanthropists.

In partnership with the Jewish Funders Network, the Weinberg Foundation launched what is now called Together Ending Need (TEN) — formerly the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty. This collaborative effort aims to standardize data collected through community studies about low-income Jews; change the narrative on Jewish poverty in the United States; and convene funders, institutions and direct service agencies to address this challenge.

To further strengthen our knowledge base, Weinberg and others have also made intentional, ongoing investments in data and research.

Where we are now

Close to five years later, I am proud to say that, collectively, we have made measurable strides toward tracking better, more aligned data on poverty in the Jewish community.

Thanks to a new study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, done in collaboration with the Jewish Federations of North America, we now know:

  • Nearly one-fifth (19%) of U.S. Jewish households either cannot make ends meet or are just managing to make ends meet. For households with someone who has a health issue or disability, that figure rises to 30%.
  • Women in the Jewish community are more likely to struggle with economic instability than men. Over 40% of single parents, primarily women, report being financially vulnerable, including an inability to cover a $400 emergency expense.
  • Others likely to struggle with financial instability include individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ Jews, Russian-speaking Jews, Jews of color, and those who identify as Orthodox (though it is important to note nearly 90% of Jewish households earning less than $50,000 do not identify as Orthodox).

And this study is only one such effort among many. Thanks to recent research from TEN and other partners exploring how Hollywood and the media characterize Jews and shape public perception, we also now know more about what fuels myths about Jewish poverty. Consider this: Wealthy Jewish characters in film and television are 10 times more common than Jewish characters experiencing poverty, yet more than a quarter of Jewish households struggle to cover the cost of medical care, housing, food and other necessities. This is a significant disparity.

Later this year, a Tulane University study will shed more light on the causes of economic instability in the Jewish community, as well as people’s experiences with programs and services and the challenges they face in trying to move out of poverty. 

Where we are going

We have come a long way in five years, but we all can and should do more. Here are a few steps we can take to that end:

  • Continue to share and learn about the latest data, research and resources. Our funder and nonprofit gatherings are important opportunities to learn about current challenges and how best to tackle them. For example, a poverty summit last month with 15 Jewish funders in New York showcased best-in-class programs and services, such as Commonpoint Queens, allowing attendees to hear from program participants and dig into the data. During this year’s PowerNET conference, 40 funders from around the country (up from 20 last year) came together to discuss issues related to Jewish poverty at an investor summit hosted by the Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies and TEN.
  • Use data to inform our strategies and initiatives to engage the entire Jewish community. While many funders support expanding access to Jewish life and fostering a sense of belonging within our community, they do not always consider the unique needs of low-income Jews who share the same desire to engage and connect. For example, 46% of financially vulnerable Jews say they feel connected with the Jewish community, compared to 58% of the overall Jewish population, according to a survey by JFNA and The Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. And since Oct. 7, over one-fifth (21%) of Jews who are financially vulnerable have experienced increased feelings of loneliness or distance from their community, compared to 13% of the overall Jewish population. This kind of data helps us pay attention to the challenges facing all of the Jewish community.
  • Help change the narrative on Jewish poverty. We must continue challenging and dismantling stereotypes about the Jewish community as it relates to poverty and other key issues, including race and ethnicity. TEN is one of several efforts leading this charge; the more that funders embrace and share data and stories that capture the multifaceted nature of the Jewish people, the more we can dispel misinformation and myths.

We are committed to continuing this journey together until everyone in the Jewish community may live with dignity. Now is the time. To those who have been with us on this journey, thank you! And to our philanthropic colleagues who may be interested in learning more, we hope you will consider joining us.

Photo: During a May summit focused on Jewish poverty, funders toured New York’s Commonpoint Queens, a Jewish nonprofit that provides job training and other services.

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