Readers' Letters on the "New Poor" in our Congregations

As we grow into Passover, tonight, the seventh night, according to tradition, was the dread-filled moment at the Red Sea. The Imperial Egyptian Army behind us, the roiling seas before us: Dare we step into those waters?

According to tradition, YHWH, the Breath of Life, did not pour forth the Wind of Change to roll the Sea aside until one Israelite—Nachshon ben Amminadav—freed himself to walk into the waters.

Not till the Sea was up to his nose and he was on the verge of drowning did the Wind of the world, the Ruach Ha’Olam, force the waters back. It took a human activist for God to become fully Active.

So this seems a good time to share with you some of the responses that came to my earlier sharings on the quandaries of “the new poor” within our congregations. 

Each of these letters—these stories, poured out, often in tears, from the rock of reality — is fairly short; but together, they make up a longer than usual message.

I will also be posting a closely related action plan that came out of  the second national gathering of active folk of “Occupy Faith”— 100 people from 16 cities around the country. The action plan is for grass-roots story-telling about economic injustice, gathering into action in Washington DC in January.

Here come a few of the letters. The first is from the rabbinical student whose story and whose tears first surfaced this “new” question facing us all. (In facing the unexpected challenge of “the new poor,” let us not forget the “old poor.”  In parts of America, there has been a “Great Recession” for at least a decade.)

Blessings of shalom, salaam, soul–healing, wholeness, peace!—Arthur


Rabbi,

Although I haven’t been able to find all of my own words on this subject to share, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to you for having taken up this idea. You found expression for what I was feeling that day at Ohalah in a way that I couldn’t because I was (and am) too close to it.

The same day we met, I shared what happened with my Rabbi. After we got back, he wrote me expressing concern about what was going back and forth on the list. He wanted to make sure that my current congregation wasn’t what I was discussing. The following is an excerpt from my reply. I don’t know if any of it is usable for you, but it is the most I have been able to put together so far.

I only spoke up in the moment to illustrate the disconnect between the high theoretical talk in the room and what my experience has been. I was merely asking people to look and have compassion for people who have had severely changed or reduced circumstances that are sitting right next to them. Our loss of income for eighteen months has drastically altered the course of our lives and our children’s lives. Whatever we thought we could do, we can no longer do. While we have tried to make the best of it, the sadness of it can get overwhelming. I struggle with consequences every single day. The crisis doesn’t end with a new opportunity. If it weren’t for family, we wouldn’t have made it. We still rely on them. We are lucky and a lot of people aren’t that fortunate.

There is no safety net for formerly middle income American families. We aren’t eligible for any kind of formal public assistance. The very things people do to be good citizens become a liability in that situation. My experience was that it felt like I was dissolving into so much sand. I still feel like that sometimes. When I look at my girls and know that we will not be able to support them to the academic success that they really deserve, it breaks my heart.

Jewish communities should have a response to this growing situation. It has been a deep spiritual challenge for me to remain committed to my Judaism. It’s probably been the biggest leap of faith I have ever made. It should also concern community leaders on a practical level. The future of synagogue Judaism relies on new families and continued contributions. Without helping to lift current members out of their despair and to cultivate relationships with unaffiliated members who need spiritual sustenance, vital connection opportunities are being lost. As the face of American Judaism changes over the next decade because of the economy, those human connections could be the difference in a lot of lives.”

Thank you for maintaining my privacy. I think i would like to continue to remain anonymous because who I am doesn’t add anything to the discussion at this point. My role appears to have been that of a spiritual irritant. I’m fine with that. The fact that talk is happening is more than I could have hoped for. I honor you for being true to your promise. You are a model for all of us.


Dear Rabbi Arthur,

My one request is that you not frame it so much as a ‘poverty’ issue and not treat it as temporary. What we are witnessing is a return to the working class for Jews who thought they could float above. The shattering of the middle class myth is a wonderful long term blessing. Imagine, for example, if it really made a difference in community life? If…. There were enough committed, observant, community oriented but proud poor and working class Jews to take back some power from those with money power and yichus power?” —Charles Lenchner


RE: Part 2: “New Poor”: Solutions to their/our Plight?

Good article, thanks! It reminds me of the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 22, here we see an angry “Great I AM” telling His prophet to give a very REAL MESSAGE. IT could and should be repeated BY A PROPHET OF Yahweh TODAY! —Jim McIntyre


Thank you Arthur,

I think that just as denying that there are poor among us, we must also fight denial that there is no longer a “middle class” in America. There are only the 1%ers and the rest of us workers, blue and white and pink collar.

Peace,

Bert Schultz


I too have had such distressing responses from Jewish organizations, while undergoing a divorce- lost my house, couldn’t pay for the Jewish Daycare, etc and filed bankruptcy—

Did any Jewish organizations help? No—they told me to get money from my parents- who died when I was young. Even in Rabbinical School, there was no rachmones [“motherly compassion”] for these types of situations.

Tell me, what values are we teaching? It has left a sad imprint on my entire life — so much so that I had little to do with organized Judaism for the last 40 years (and as a Rabbi?).

My son witnessed how I was treated, and wants nothing to do with Jewish organizations.

Seems we still harbor the misinformation that Jews don’t go through economic crises or if they do, it is somehow their own fault.

The Red Cross came to my aid 35 years ago and paid my back heating bill! And all I have ever received from most Jewish organizations is request for money! When I picked myself up and was able to get a job—yes, I gave tzedakah  [charitable gifts of money for the sake of social responsibility]—but NOT to Jewish organizations. Some statement—huh?

Michal Mendelsohn


This touched me very strongly. As a divorced parent years and years ago with 3 kids in College — … I used the Free Loan system, but I needed to show that I could pay back the loans, which I did. This reminded me that I must support the Free Loan society here in NY.

I will contact my Rabbi to see if I can make a donation to her discretionary fund for this purpose only. In fact, I will cc her on this email. I am definitely not a big donor, but this is important to me, and I agree the orthodox and specifically Chabad are probably the ones to whom people in need can turn.

If you have a specific fund for this, I will make a small directed contribution to that as well. People should not be ashamed or treated as outcasts for situations like this. I keep saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Diane Buxbaum


I’m surprised to read this because I’d hoped that New Age superficial “spirituality” hadn’t infected Judaism, too. While in-depth knowledge of Eastern thought is good, too often New Age offers an easy excuse to concentrate on oneself rather than on social problems, and Chris Hedges isn’t the only one to have noted that liberals in Christianity, UU and even Quakerism have been tempted into what I call “the fundamentalism of (former) liberals”.

Having lived in NY City in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, I wasn’t surprised to learn that at least some of the Orthodox have held to ancient Jewish teachings in helping each other—and strangers—in need.

The better sort of Medieval Christians admitted that the Jews they knew were more generous, by and large, than Christians. I’m remembering numerous Scriptural social justice injunctions—and will send one of my two “collections” on a range of social justice issues.

This is from the Protestant K.J, version of my childhood, gathered from about age 14 to 18. There are many more I could add. The other collection is from my 1970s translations from the Latin Vulgate, which served (and occasionally misled) Christianity for hundreds of years. …

In Biblical days Judaism gave the world ideas such as sharing one’s wealth, gleaning, jubilee debt-releases, and the conviction that God wants us to be responsible to those less fortunate and that any other behavior is not moral, but I’m not sure much thought was given in ancient times to changing the underlying conditions that caused poverty.

It’s not so easy for congregational polity religions like Judaism, UU, UCC, and Quakerism to gather together funds to support those in need, but other more personal & loving kinds of aid can fill in some gaps.

While living in expensive Ridgewood, NJ during my divorce I kept my job but it was low-paying and I lost the house. For several months my teenage son and I lived in an attic with a bedsheet on a clothesline separating our beds. The attic belonged to a Ridgewood UU church member, who charged rent for the attic but gave me free garage storage. The church helped in other ways, being excused from pledging, private ministerial counseling, friends and sermons that gave me hope. I also felt sympathy from everyone—and no exclusion because of my poverty, even in that very upscale town.

Yesterday during the Joys & Concerns part of the church service one of the finest and most-loved members of UUCR, a middle-aged African-American woman social activist, told of her own plight and burst into tears. Many of us knew she hadn’t been able to find another job after being laid off about 2 years ago and now she is divorcing an abusing husband, being forced out of her house, and terrified by the estranged husband’s stalking.

Unlike some other members of the church who’ve lost their jobs she will have no home, apparently has no helpful family, and is at the end of her savings. After the service several of us immediately offered what we could—and six women offered their spare bedrooms, which she may need to use in rotation if her life doesn’t soon improve. Those like me who can’t do that, plus others, volunteered to help her pack up her things—mostly books—and put them into free storage in one woman’s volunteered garage.

That should help with the immediate crisis, and we will help her get legal counseling too, but it doesn’t do anything, as you say, to cure the underlying causes. However, it was gratifying to see that more than half of the volunteers were members of our Justice Council and that a few of us belong to the Granny Peace Brigade. All were women, although some were married to men. The lack of male volunteers—who no doubt will show up to help our dear friend pack and move—may have been because men hesitated to offer a place to live to a woman.

Jenny Hanniver


Hello all,

I was in attendance at the workshop that R. Arthur describes. I was also very moved by the person who spoke out. I have been thinking about what concrete steps to suggest. Here are a few and I LOVE  the idea of gemachs!

1. Establish as part of your congregational bylaws that no one will be turned away due to lack of funds. Make this a principle. Use respectful discernment in figuring out what this would mean and look like. Many of our congregations can use all kinds of “sweat equity”. All can have a payment plan arrangement.

Understand that often those with the least amount of material resources are ALSO those with the least amount of time or other resources, such as single mothers, or chronically physically challenged folk, so do not make assumptions. However, folks may surprise you in what they CAN contribute and this is important for their dignity.

Work with the person to figure out what makes sense and how they can contribute.

2. We need to change the way we even discuss these issues. R. Arthur makes a good start with “disemployed.”  The whole society has been infected with a Protestant notion of “deserving” poor. ALL people DESERVE a basic way to live —- to have a roof over their heads, warmth, water, medicine, to have enough to eat, to be connected with other human beings.

This is our Jewish teaching repeated again and again—you know the quotes “Do not harden your heart to your kindred”, “Do not oppress the widow and the stranger,” etc, etc.

3. If each rabbi and each person reading this list would commit to directly helping just ONE person, including going with them to the Social Services office, we will all quickly see that systemic changes need to happen. The system as it exists now, requires that anyone receiving aide, actually be destitute before receiving any help and they lose that help the moment they have any kind of job.

Even gifts are considered “income” and can jeopardize their meager assistance. If they are homeless, and you take them in, they are  immediately taken off the list for any housing assistance. Once, with a former foster son who was homeless and for many reasons cannot live with us permanently, we were told that he could receive either a security deposit or the first month’s rent if he found a place to live and brought in his lease to prove it. We found him a room in a house to rent and I paid the security deposit so he could have a signed lease to bring into HHS. When we came back, they asked: Has he already moved in?

Because if he has…then we can no longer help him!

So, I actually do not support making people go through HHS alone before we offer any help. Go with them, preferably if you are a white privileged male, wear a suit, remain icily calm ( very hard to do!!)  and claim to “represent” the person. My husband has been able to get help for folks under those conditions.

4. Try living on what folks who receive SSI and food stamps are supposed to live on.

5.Use congregational connections to get folks jobs. A long time ago, when contacting a local rabbi, that actually happened for my husband. It is a huge mitzvah.

6. Do raise funds for the Rabbi’s discretionary fund! Do contribute to the Rabbi’s discretionary fund!

7. Do work for political, social change! This is too big an issue to be solved only on an individuals basis. Survey your congregation. I think you will be surprised at how many people have someone in their family who struggles with issues of poverty. Everyone who knows someone intimately who is struggling can organize together, meet with our Congresspeople, etc. and propose ethical changes. This is a moral issue!

Rain Zohav, ALEPH Rabbinic student.


Dear Rabbi Arthur:

Some of us have always had limited resources, so in order to do one thing, the other has to be sacrificed.Temples don’t run on “full inclusion” or “full participation”, yet have standard membership fees, etc, and dress codes, etc, limitations for participation, even if you had the “dues”… What possibly can be addressed, is, what is “full inclusion”? Is singing a Debbie Friedman song in the “audience” full inclusion?Or has she whet our appetites for something more? And what about adults that want to learn more than their alef bet? What good is a membership if you are not satisfied with ones education level?  And what about discretionary sliding fees? Its a step to undo the years of the haves and have nots…but, alas, now that these places need money, they care about the have nots? Maybe that’s why my teachers/rabbi, etc is from elsewhere. They have learned to think out of the temple box.  Please keep anonymous. Thank you.


I agree with your premise of helping each other outside of the government. However taxing the wealthy is counterproductive. The government is the problem. Giving more money to the government will leave less available for Tzedakah and Tikun Olam.

There are 168 hours per week, 40 hours to work and 40 hours to sleep. That leave 88 hours to live and learn and study. You and your organization are living under the misunderstanding that the government is smarter than the people. We do not need a European socialism ( that is bankrupt). If the government keeps a safety net for the truly poor and disabled and stops trying to be there from cradle to grave assistance… we can be more self-sufficient and we will all be abiding by the true intention of the United States Constitution. America has been the most successful country in the world. Why should we dilute the country for the sake of a few million lazy people. (A generational learned behavior.)

David Miller
Certified Public Accountant


My email below responds to your request for new creative solutions to the plight of the new poor.

At the Kallah this past summer, I had the pleasure of studying with you and introducing you to Houses for Change, the national campaign I created to address this critical issue. I would be thrilled if you shared Houses for Change with your readers.

In the past 14 months, more than 17,000 kids throughout the country have created their own Houses for Change collection boxes.  Imagine the impact if thousands more families created their own Houses for Change boxes as a result of learning about this project through your Shalom Center network.

Keep up the great work you are doing.

Mark Wasseman
Creator and Coordinator
Houses for Change

Houses for Change is a national campaign to engage communities in the plight of the new poor–-hunger, homelessness and aloneness. It is a grassroots educational crafts project, inspired by the Jewish tradition of the tzedakah box.

Using arts supplies and their imagination, participants decorate pre-ordered Houses for Change boxes to look like houses, take their boxes home and in the following weeks fill them with loose change. On a selected date, families bring their filled boxes back to the organization that arranges the project for a communal donation to any homeless organization, food bank or related charity.

Houses for Change is sponsored by Family Promise, a non-profit organization that mobilizes communities to help homeless and low-income families. In the past 14 months, more than 17,000 kids in over 125 cities have created their own unique Houses for Change boxes.

On the website www.familypromise.org/housesforchange there are details about how to organize this project and an online store to order the inexpensive, undecorated Houses for Change boxes.


Please make sure to share a link to the wonderful congregation work already underway with Interfaith Worker Justice, headed by Paul Sherry in the DC office entitled “Unemployment and the Economic Crisis Toolkit.” Their staff may be able to offer tidbits about other Jewish congregations already engaged in this work.

Resources can be found at http://www.iwj.org/template/page.cfm?id=201 including a congregation tool kit, a guide to rights for unemployed people, reflection piece and prayer.


My Conservative synagogue has never turned anyone away from membership or Hebrew school or High Holiday services because of insufficient funds, and among my out-of-town friends, none of their synagogues has done so either that I know of. (We have one impecunious long-time member who is disabled and living solely on social security disability, and we put her at zero dues, but she said she wants to feel she is contributing something, so we upped her dues to $5 annually.)

Any shul that does not have this policy is a disgrace, a hillul Hashem [hollowing-out of the life in God’s Name, leaving only the lifeless bark pretending to be sacred].

Marvin Peyser
Torrington, CT

Universal: