Barriers to Participation: Poverty in the Jewish World

There is a persistent myth about American Judaism that has spread so deeply into our community’s collective psyche, that it may have harmed our ability to take action.

I recently returned from San Francisco, where I attended the Jewish Funders Network 2019 International Conference.  A large crowd from all over the world descended on the Bay Area, ready to gain new understanding of trends and challenges affecting our Jewish community.

In my role as CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp, I am regularly involved in conversations about increasing opportunities for positive Jewish experiences and long-standing Jewish identity. Of the myriad of significant issues facing the Jewish community, however, I was particularly struck by one that isn’t always at the forefront of our communal agenda:  the growing rate of poverty in the American Jewish community. The myth of American Jews as a “model minority” who in the 20th and 21st centuries have achieved overwhelming and uniform financial success is firmly held by those within the Jewish American world and anti-Semites alike—but it simply isn’t true.

While in San Francisco, I participated in a well-attended, illuminating convening by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation on the state of Jewish poverty in the US.  As I listened and digested information shared in several sessions mapping out the dire state of ever-larger portions of our community, I was able to more fully appreciate the growing plight of those struggling to make ends meet.  The problem touches people of all ages and backgrounds, from aging Holocaust survivors to individuals with disabilities, to single parent families.

Having gathered research from several recent studies and over 70 leaders with connections to the cause throughout the U.S., the Weinberg Foundation’s findings were a distant cry from common beliefs about uniform and prevalent Jewish prosperity. Close to 20% of the US Jewish population is living in or near poverty.

This population may well be prevented from participating in some of the most enriching aspects of communal life, including the one about which I am most passionate – Jewish camp – purely due to financial reasons.

Jewish poverty is a significant issue that deserves our urgent attention, and there is so much more we can do to uplift the most vulnerable members of our community. Part of this is raising awareness of the issue. I believe we must make it a communal goal not only to shatter this myth for the next generation, but to also instill in them the empathy to see it where it exists and the motivation to find better solutions to the problem, for our future and theirs.

We should feel a sense of duty to educate our entire Jewish community about Jewish poverty, especially as the issue may be closer to us than we’d think: the 2013 Pew Study states that “Jews with household incomes less than $30,000 are concentrated among young adults and those who have reached retirement age.”

Promising steps have already been taken to make a difference.  The Philadelphia-based Seed the Dream Foundation is offering a new matching grant program to help meet the urgent needs of Holocaust survivors living in poverty.  UJA-Federation of New York continues to find innovative ways to support the low-income Jewish households which are heavily concentrated in the region.

In my own work, I have seen Jewish camps step up to distribute several million dollars each summer to help families in need provide life-changing Jewish experiences for their kids.

I continue to be inspired by a unique program in Cleveland, Ohio, funded so generously by the David and Inez Myers Foundation, and run collaboratively by Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. The program not only fully funds a Jewish summer camp experience for multiple years, but also provides each recipient with a large duffle bag filled with all necessary supplies for the summer. This holistic approach to addressing the needs of low income, unaffiliated families to truly be “just another camper.” To ensure participation, the program works with each family to help identify the right camp, complete the application, and provide other needed assistance.

More than 120 Cleveland-area kids attended Jewish camp this past summer thanks to this generous collaboration. Could this special, sensitive approach be a springboard for similar initiatives throughout the country, helping Jewish communities comprehensively address and overcome the financial barriers to access and participation?

We should all work toward a day when we can say that the existence of Jewish poverty in the United States is a myth. Unfortunately, the struggles currently faced by many members of our community are far too real.

By embracing our collective values and tearing down financial barriers to become more inclusive, we can ensure every Jewish American has the opportunity to partake in the richness of Jewish communal life.

About the Author
Jeremy J. Fingerman has served as CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) since 2010. Prior to joining FJC, he had a highly-regarded 20+ year career in Consumer Packaged Goods, beginning at General Mills, Inc, then at Campbell Soup Company, where he served as president of its largest division, US Soup. In 2005, he was recruited to serve as CEO of Manischewitz.
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