I had to choose between buying Passover food and paying my bills

We need to move to systems of social welfare that provide assistance universally and, as Maimonides taught, anonymously
(Getty images)
(Getty images)

CHICAGO (JTA) — My Passover plans rapidly changed on the evening of March 11, when the entire University of Illinois system made the sudden announcement to move classes online for the remainder of the school year.

Due to the pandemic, I was already planning on not attending any in-person Seders, but that email meant that suddenly I had to scramble to figure out how to hook up and pay for internet in my apartment.

As a graduate student in social work, I know well the many ways that poverty deepens difficult situations like the one we’re all in together — and the many ways that our society is not set up to mitigate this. And as an observant Jew, I know that preparing for Passover can come with a price tag that’s out of reach for many.

This year, the money I would have spent on Pesach groceries is now being spent on ensuring I have a stable internet connection to complete my remaining coursework for the semester.

Students of all ages who don’t have internet access at home are struggling in the move to online learning. Some internet providers have offered free or affordable access for the moment, but  those options either didn’t serve my area or required that I show proof of financial need via enrollment in a program such as SNAP, the program once known as food stamps.

When I reached out to several of my professors with concerns that my college wasn’t acknowledging barriers to access concerns in online learning, I was told that the school was looking into obtaining laptops and hot spots for students who needed them. But I did not receive an email about a program where students could rent hot spots from the library until the day classes resumed after a two-week spring break, several hours after my first online class was held.

So during the break, I reluctantly had a technician install internet in my apartment — the same day my partner was laid off from his restaurant job.

The layoff added to the financial pressure I already felt as a graduate student. So instead of spending spring break furiously cleaning my apartment for Passover, I picked up a variety of writing assignments and odd jobs, including several freelance writing gigs text banking for a local candidate during the Illinois primary election. Meanwhile, I also continued to teach synagogue religious school students remotely. By the time I get paid for all these jobs, Passover will have come and gone.

Chicago is home to many Jewish charitable organizations that provide all kinds of assistance and services, including emergency financial help and for food in the form of multiple pantries and hot meals programs. But navigating them can be complicated, and the onus for doing so always falls on the people least able to cope with challenges.

I have been very lucky to have a quiet network of friends and co-congregants who have pitched in to pay for my light bill, offer gift cards to local restaurants and even help me get a winter coat, scarf and boots when I was unprepared for this Midwest city’s cold weather in the fall and winter.

However, many of those friends are now struggling themselves. Thankfully, when I finally reached out to several local rabbis I know and work with, I was provided with boxes of matzah, financial assistance and a fully cooked Seder meal. I expressed my deep appreciation for the help I have received, but I still feel deeply conflicted about having received this kind of assistance.

Relying on personal ties to community leaders and individuals with an ability to help isn’t a sustainable solution. Not everyone has these connections or would feel comfortable reaching out and asking for help. I’ve taught Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah multiple times, and students quickly pick up on why Maimonides valued anonymous giving and receiving of tzedakah: Your relationships with others, especially in smaller more insular communities, can change when you know who has given or received assistance.

While kosher food is frequently more expensive, it’s not a scarce resource in Chicago. And while faculty members at my college have said there is a limited number of laptops and hot spots available for students to rent, this scarcity is artificial. The university is sitting on an endowment of $2.81 billion, and the UIC chancellor makes $600,000 a year. The administrators at my own college of social work make the median salary for social workers ($49,000 a year) multiple times over.

If we wanted, we could reallocate resources and make it possible for every college student to have their internet access paid for, and for every person to receive enough food, without having to fill out pages of paperwork and disclose deeply personal information or have difficult conversations with friends or colleagues.

We need to move to systems of social welfare that provide goods and services universally and anonymously. Given our wealth of community organizations and deeply generous donors, all it would take to feed all Jews in need for Passover, no questions asked, is the communal will to do so.

We have a responsibility to create that future. After all, the Haggadah states, “let all who are hungry, come and eat,” not “let all who are hungry, come and eat — if you provide proof that you’re ‘hungry enough.’”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

About the Author
Elena Gormley is a writer, community organizer, Jewish educator, and a Masters of Social Work candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work.
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