For most residents of upmarket Jewish districts of London and other UK cities, inflation and the rising cost of living is about someone else, not them. Sure, the £700 hit to energy bills due in April, when the price cap goes up, together with the 1.25 percent new NHS and Social Care levy will hurt and we may have to turn the thermostat down a notch. But it is not a question of choosing between shivering at home or having adequate food.
Britain is not alone in facing higher prices. In Israel, which has enjoyed several years of low inflation, the annual rate climbed to 3.1 percent in January. That’s lower than the 5.4 percent in the UK and the 7.5 percent hit in the United States, but still a blow.
There is a rose-tinted tendency to see modern Israel as a prosperous, middle-income country with over-exuberant property values. But as the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development note, it has serious problems of social inequality, with the gap between the haves and have-nots among the highest among western democracies. This is partly accounted for by the relative poverty of large Charedi families, some new immigrant groups, Bedouin Arabs in the Negev and some uncomfortably poor Arab communities in the Galilee.
Inflation driven by higher energy prices is particularly insidious. Energy is a significant cost input for food processing and drives up the cost of produce on market stalls and in shops. And for the least well-off in any society, food swallows a larger proportion of earnings than those who are better off.
As comfortable Jews in the diaspora or Israel, embedded in our communities and their consumerist values, it is easy to close our eyes to poverty. It occasionally jumps out at us in the shape of a sullen figure asking for money on the streets of Golders Green or arriving at the weekend day minyan with a story of woe. It is only too easy to blot out. That is why Sabrina Miller’s article in last week’s Jewish News was so important. The cost of living crisis is not something just affecting other parts of society.
My late brother, Daniel, used to take part in food deliveries to elderly Jews in the Brighton area. He also made sure a local woman facing eviction from her family flat, having fallen behind with the rent, was relocated to Jewish sheltered housing.
The United Synagogue is playing a largely unheralded role in dealing with food poverty. It supplies nearly 200 families with weekly food packages in a programme that has cost £400,000 since it was set up in 2020. This may be a fraction of what is required as energy bills soar, carrying food prices upwards with them.
What the United Synagogue is doing is impressive. But, to address the crisis seriously, maybe the community – that means all denominations – could come together and establish something similar to Leket Israel, the country’s leading food bank.
It rescues healthy surplus foods from agricultural and food producers across the country and delivers them to the needy. By putting in place effective logistics and co-operating with other non-profit groups across Israel, it currently delivers nutritious food to 223,000 needy families each week.
Nothing on that scale is required to keep Britain’s own less well-off Jews well-fed as the bills drop on doormats. But with its great ingenuity, strong heritage in Britain’s food production and food distribution industries, there is no reason why our community could not help to create something bigger and stronger that could reach out and build better relations with needy corners of society. Just being more aware of the extreme privilege many of us enjoy and thinking more about the unseen hardship of all those around us would be a brilliant start.