On October 17th, the international community will mark the 21st annual UN Day for the Eradication of Poverty. On this same day on the Hebrew calendar, the 23rd of Tishrei 5775, Jews around the world will celebrate the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah.
The Jewish community experience with poverty mirrors the broader Canadian reality. Almost 15% of the Canadian Jewish population, including one in five children, lives below the poverty line. But poverty within the Jewish community is as elusive as it is pervasive: it remains largely hidden.
When the research paper “The Poor Among Us” was published 30 years ago, it noted that “the Jewish poor are a minority among Jews because they are poor, and are a minority among the poor because they are Jews.” Today, the challenge of the invisibility of Jewish poverty persists.
Jewish individuals and families living in poverty attend our day schools, worship in synagogues, and participate in community activities. They are our seniors; single parent families; and families with dual working parents. They may struggle with mental and physical illness. Like all of us. They are our neighbours, friends and family's overall health and welfare as well.
Sara is a now a single parent, since her husband cleaned out their bank accounts and left a few weeks earlier. She rises each morning to find something inexpensive pasta to put in her children’s lunch boxes, turn up the heat so they won’t be cold when they wake and get them on the public bus to daycare and school. That nice guy at JCFS helped a lot with the bus passes when she had to sell the car, with a gift card to the grocery store to get her through to her first payday, and helping her find a hand me down snowsuit for Jason. She’s learned to save on things like shampoo by using a drop of dish soap and it seems to be working. She never imagined shampoo was a luxury item.
She’s hoping to stay in her home and not displace the kids. And so far she’s ok. Sara was a nurse but re-licensing is too expensive and shift work requires a babysitter which she can’t afford, so she’s grateful to her kind boss for the secretarial day job. With her parents in a retirement home far away and a sister on limited income, there was no family to rely on. It was fortunate that the Jewish community was there to help. The people at her synagogue were wonderful to invite them for Shabbat dinners and give them rides to events. They were probably even going to be able to stay at Gray Academy with their friends.
Sara was resolved to make it somehow and she knew she had her community behind her!
What can we do?
t acknowledge. We need to sensitize and educate ourselves. We need to develop community-specific responses to the needs of our members living in poverty. We need to invest in our youth and support our seniors. We need to hold governments accountable and ensure that they create, fund, and deliver adequate social and economic policies, programs and services to end injustices, including poverty, and prevent them, to the benefit of our communities as part of the greater whole. Strategies may vary city by city, or community by community, but fundamentally, we need to act.
Jewish Family Service agencies and the Jewish Federations across Canada have joined together to raise awareness surrounding this critical issue facing our communities. Coast to coast, we are committed to instilling an increased mindfulness of poverty in our vibrant and caring Jewish community. And we are committed to being part of a national solution.
Over the coming months, we will be outreaching to Canadian Jewish communities with opportunities to inform, engage and act. In the same manner that anyone can be affected by poverty, we all have the capacity to fight poverty and improve the lives of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
As the Federation Planning Committee plans the agenda for the new year, poverty reduction and supporting the most vulnerable will again be at the fore. Join us in the conversation.
A happy, healthy, prosperous new year.
Contact Faye Rosenberg-Cohen a 204.477.7422 to get involved.