by Liat Deener-Chodirker
Every year at the Passover seder, Jews across the world celebrate our liberation from slavery, enjoying meals of abundance while eating matzah, the bread of affliction. In America in 2015, many Jews live very comfortable lives, and this holiday is a time to remember that affluence is not universal.. Rather than allowing ourselves to remember the Passover story as something safely and comfortably in our past, the seder itself ensures that we critically reflect on what forces impede freedom, as we vocalize the invitation—albeit often rhetorical—“all who are hungry, let them enter and eat.”
This invitation has been subject to many interpretations over the years, and one question that frequently arises is whether it should be understood through the lens of universalism or of particularism. When we invite the hungry to enter and eat, are we referring to every individual who is hungry, or to the Jew who is hungry?
If we were to view this invitation from the perspective of a particularist, it is an invitation for all Jews who are hungry to come and eat. Contrary to the conception of Jews being longstanding members of the American upper-middle class , poverty is an issue that has historically affected Jewish households across the country. The study Socioeconomic Differentials Among Religious Groups in the United States found that in 1956, a little more than one-fourth of American Jews had incomes under $3,000—an amount that equates to just over $25,000 today. Today, 20% of Jews across the country report an annual household income of under $30,000, according to a recent Pew Research survey. These numbers are concentrated among individuals who are more likely to be able to live on that income, primarily under the age of 30 or older than 65. However, it is significant to note that 16% of Jews ages 30-49 also have a household income below $30,000.
One place where poverty within Jewish households is particularly high is in the eight-county area of metropolitan New York City. A report conducted by the UJA Federation of New York in 2011 found that560,000 of the 1,538,000 Jews in New York are living in poor and near-poor households in this area. This means that one in five Jewish households in the New York area is poor; 45% of Jewish children in the area live in these households.
The fact that the percentage of Jews living in poverty in New York is a full 12% higher than it is in the country as a whole is primarily accounted for by the unique demographic makeup of New York Jews. In New York, there is a large population of Russian speaking seniors, 33,900 of whom are poor. Many of them immigrated to America with few resources, and have had an exceptionally challenging time securing work due to language and cultural barriers. New York is also home to the country’s largest concentration of Hasidic households and communities. In the vast majority of these large families, only one person is working full time, but their professional opportunities are severely constrained by minimal access to secular education.
Because of the demographic makeup, it is apparent that the high levels of poverty within Jewish households cannot be generalized to reflect the entire Jewish population within America. However, the reality is that surveys or reports investigating Jewish poverty on a national level are scarce. It is much more common for Jewish organizations to conduct reports into poverty as a whole, or to distribute local resources to individuals in need, Jews and non-Jews alike, within their community. One thing we can deduce from the UJA report is that poverty within Jewish households does exist. So the question must be asked: Why is Jewish poverty such a taboo topic?
Perhaps the apparent tendency within the organized Jewish community to regard the issue of poverty as a universal one and ignore Jewish poverty stems from the internalized stereotype of the American Jew as successful and upper middle class. Perhaps it is because of an ingrained mentality that Jews have overcome adversity in this country. Melanie Fineman, the Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, suggests that the reason we do not discuss poverty solely in relation to Jews who are living in poverty is because our religion requires us to help the stranger, regardless of their religion.
With a more universalist approach, we we invite everyone who is hungry, regardless of religion, race or any other characteristic, to join us at our seder . This interpretation reflects the understanding that while we are responsible for our own brothers and sisters, to truly understand Jewish values is to understand that those values also mandate that we help the non-Jew. As Fineman said: “Our Jewish values teach us to advocate for all who are in need. Just as we were once slaves in the land of Egypt, we know from our own history that we must stand up for marginalized communities.”