Despite centuries of unfavourable and damaging financial stereotyping, the Jewish people have always gravitated towards social justice and philanthropy.
Powerful edicts like the biblical mandate to ‘pursue justice’, and the oft-quoted sixteenth century Kabbalist directive of tikkun olam (‘Repair the world’) have culminated in countless foundations, scholarships, bursaries and subsidies provided globally by the Jewish community today, and benefiting society as a whole. The historical record has repeatedly demonstrated that charity is not only in our Book, it is in our blood.
However, despite this culture of altruism, poverty remains a fact of life for many in the Australian Jewish community. The illuminating GEN 17 report, a landmark Australian Jewish population survey completed last year, has revealed that approximately one in five community members believe themselves to be ‘just getting along’ financially. Of even greater concern, over one in twenty Jewish Australians are stated to have recently experienced material deprivation – that is, these community members have been forced to go without food or medicine, simply because they could not afford it.
This predicament is closely linked to the Jewish migrant experience in this country. Many Jewish-Australians overcome unspeakable tragedy and enormous hardship to settle in Australia.. And while these immigrants that enrich and diversify our community, in most cases, it is also these same families that experience the most severe financial difficulty. As an example, almost half of Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union to Australia are said to maintain an ‘inadequate income’ and approximately forty percent are apparently unable to afford adequate housing for themselves or their families.
Jewish poverty is certainly not concentrated in Australia. A recent study by the UJA Federation of New York has determined that in the last twenty five years, Jewish poverty in New York has almost doubled, with Russian-speaking senior citizens and children amongst the worst affected, likely as a result of inability to qualify for social security payments, due to a lack of work history in the United States.
Earlier this year, reports from the United Kingdom indicated that many British Jews continue to be priced out of the residential suburbs, where their ancestors had previously lived for generations, and which naturally contain the most Jewish facilities including schools, synagogues, and kosher shops And in Europe, the Joint Distribution Committee has been assisting a number of Jewish communities financially in the wake of the region’s economic dysfunction.
Interestingly, tzedakah (‘charity’) is not traditionally viewed in Judaism as a benevolent or magnanimous act. Rather, it is viewed as an act of righteousness and justice – a solemn duty. It should then be no surprise that over a third of Jewish persons surveyed for GEN 17 stated that donating money to charity was an integral part of their Jewish identity. Jewish poverty is therefore not seen as merely the problem of a marginalised few, but as a communal struggle, and we battle it as one.
Medieval Rabbinical authority Maimonides once famously stated that ‘the highest degree [of tzedakah], exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists the poor…by accepting him into a business partnership, or by helping him find employment’. Not only do we have an obligation to assist the poor and unfortunate, but to help them become self sufficient. In this vein, the Jewish Communal Appeal has recently established JBridge, a loan based system which assists Jewish families with tackling the challenging expenses of Jewish day schools. The organisation also facilitates an Observership Program, whereby young professionals in the community are given boardroom experience, may which contributes greatly to their future success. Separately, B’nai B’rith, Jewish Care and Jewish House all provide rental assistance to those in the deepest need. Evidently, the New South Wales Jewish community are on the right track and more initiatives such as these will surely at least begin to tackle the communal challenge of Jewish poverty head on.
When asked what within the Australian Jewish community they would change, over a quarter of GEN 17 respondents suggested to ‘reduce divisions between wealthy and impoverished Jews’. And a significant percentage of those surveyed stated that a prime barrier to their communal participation was financial. This issue has clearly permeated the Jewish communal consciousness and it is our duty to address it. While communal leadership may not yet have the answers that cure Jewish poverty once and for all, our community’s focus and reliance on tzedakah will unquestionably form a meaningful part of any viable solution.
Like our ancestors before us, we must pursue this issue with a generous spirit and an innate sense of justice. Only then will our community be truly rich.