Brooklyn's Orthodox community is still 'the capital of Jewish poverty'

Study shows needy families often live alongside wealthier residents and are embarrassed to ask for help.

October 12, 2006 22:50
Brooklyn's Orthodox community is still 'the capital of Jewish poverty'

hassidim 88. (photo credit: )


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Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, director of Oneg Shabbos, a food distribution organization that caters to Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, tells the story of an elderly man who recently came to the New York City borough from Khust, Russia. The man, in his sixties and a respected member of his community, was seen picking food out of garbage cans in the Borough Park neighborhood because he did not know where to turn for help. A recent study shows that he is not alone. Not only is poverty high in Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, but many people who need the most help are either too embarrassed to ask, or unaware of the programs available to them, according to a study conducted by City Harvest, a New York NGO that picks up excess food from restaurants, caterers, cafeterias, and other suppliers, then delivers it to those in need. The study, which was released last week and focused on centers of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn such as Borough Park, concludes that poverty within those communities has a distinct character and needs to be addressed with this in mind. Earning the trust of those communities is key to any effort to fight poverty, the study concludes. The new study emerged out of a report conducted in 2004 by the United Jewish Appeal and the nonprofit organization Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which said Brooklyn had the "most severe Jewish poverty" in New York City - with 156,200 poor people, or 69 percent of all the city's Jewish poor. The study found that 30% of all Jewish households in Brooklyn lived in poverty. Though the numbers have not been updated, William Rapfogel, executive director of MCJP, said it was safe to assume that the poverty rates remained largely the same. "Since September 11, there has been a significant improvement in employment for all New Yorkers, but at the same time the birth rate within the Orthodox communities is high and people live longer, which means there are more elderly, and therefore more poverty," Rapfogel said. "The two balance each other out." Brooklyn, he said, remained "the capital of Jewish poverty." According to the 2004 study there were roughly 220,000 Jews living at or below the federal poverty level out of the one million Jews living in New York City, according to the MCJP. To be classified as poor by the federal standards, a family of four must have a combined annual household income below $16,050. This figure does not consider the cost of housing in New York, nor does it consider the high cost of kosher food or day school education, according to Rapfogel. Poverty among traditional Jews is unique for several reasons, due in large part to costs associated with yeshiva tuition, kosher food and large families, the City Harvest study found. Many of the poor in this community are not eligible for benefits because their salaries place them above the poverty line. But even for those who are eligible for help, shame and sometimes ignorance of "the system" are often obstacles when it comes to seeking help. Another 100,000 New York City Jews are classified as "near-poor," according to the 2004 study. Ironically, the near-poor are often worse off than the poor, said Rapfogel, because they are not entitled to government benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid. The Jewish poor are not concentrated in slum neighborhoods. Frequently, they are middle class people who have been challenged either by domestic problems such as divorce, the death of a parent or spouse, or employment difficulties. Families who do qualify for aid are often embarrassed to ask for help, or are unaware of the programs available to them, according to the study. Many families in need of emergency food live side by side with wealthier community members. This proximity tends to increase embarrassment and often means the problems remain hidden, the study shows. "People are very conscious of their reputation," said Deutsch the director of Oneg Shabbos. Specifically, they worry about being able to marry off their children, or their reputation in the community, which has greater weight within certain tight-knit communities. Therefore, most of Oneg Shabbos's food deliveries are done after midnight, Deutsch said, so that no one sees who receives aid. Poverty has greatly increased since he began his organization 10 years ago, he said. "When I started, we delivered to 10 families, now we are feeding 1,000 families a week," he said. "I refuse to turn anyone away." City Harvest alone gives out 1.5m. pounds of kosher food a year out of the 20m. pounds they distribute each year. While the study found there is a clear need for improved access to kosher emergency food, it said that the kosher agency system had not acknowledged that emergency food aid alone was not enough to address both short and long-term needs. According to the study: "Among the strongest consistent messages in this regard is that while much emergency food is received by two-income families (i.e. working poor), emergency food is also seen as a way to support those whose course it is to study Torah." "The community is realizing that they can't continue not working," said Rapfogel. MCJP has been working to train traditional Jews and place them in jobs. It is only in the last 20 years that men have chosen to study Torah instead of work, said Rapfogel. He attributes this trend to the affluence of the Jewish community. "Unfortunately they thought the affluence would go on forever, but it became evident that this was a folly." One way to address the problem of the high cost of living within the Orthodox community was through job training, said Deutsch, who encourages the people in his community to learn a trade. He recommends trades such as plumbing, electrical work and especially contracting. "We are a unique community because our population is always growing, so the housing need is always growing," he said. Learning a trade means members of the community don't have to spend years in college to earn a living. Even for those not studying in full-time yeshivas, Jewish education is one of the greatest costs that Orthodox families face. The cost of yeshiva education is a "big financial drain" on families, said Mayer Mayerfeld, the Kosher Community Project manager at City Harvest. The average cost of a yeshiva is $4,000-$6,000 a year per child. A Modern Orthodox school costs roughly $12,000-$15,000 a year. While the price may be low compared to other private schools, family size drives the cost up significantly. Government aid does not help cover tuition, something that Mayerfeld said many were trying to change. The separation of church and state bars religious schools from receiving government funding. But there may be a way for yeshivas to get aid for the secular part of their curriculum. "In the coming years, we will see the repeal of laws blocking aid," Mayerfeld said. This could trim tuition costs by up to 30%-40%, he said. The City Harvest report gave several recommendations on how to address poverty within the Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, focusing on increasing "food access," which includes providing more food, but also addresses the kinds of food that are needed. Specifically, the report suggests more access to fresh fruits and vegetables, kosher meat and dairy products. This is based on evidence that there is a growing problem with obesity and nutrition-related diseases within the Orthodox communities, as there is in many low-income communities. Additionally, the study recommends increased outreach and education centered in and around yeshivas to earn the community's trust. Among some of the possibilities that City Harvest foresees are nutrition and cooking instruction classes that could be geared to the specific needs of the community. Above all, the study acknowledges that one of the greatest challenges for any external agency that tries to address the community is building trust. "This community exists purposefully outside the mainstream and is insular by design," the study says. "As a result, there are certain barriers, attitudes and fears that must be taken into account, both within the community itself and among the community toward outsiders who seek to help." City Harvest says they have already begun to address some of the needs by helping local organizations establish kosher food pantries using a grocery style format, and getting yeshivas involved in addressing hunger, nutrition, and poverty issues.

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