The "New Poor": A Troubling Discovery

In January 2012, I took part in the annual gathering of Ohalah, the association of Jewish-renewal –oriented rabbis. In a workshop that Rabbi Michael Lerner and I co-led on “Transformative/ Emancipatory Judaism.” The conversation unearthed a couple of deeply distressing facts.

One was a report by a rabbinical student, who in tears described what had happened to her as a synagogue member when her husband’s job was abolished, they needed to access food stamps, and they could no longer afford synagogue dues, fees, etc.  In a “mainstream Conservative” synagogue, she said, her plight was ignored and she was treated with contempt.

What further distressed me was that among the rabbis in the room, very few responded to her situation or her tears.

Two of the rabbis said they would in their own congregations try to meet the direct needs of such “newly poor” members, but were totally uninterested in addressing the social/ political/ economic causes of mass disemployment and what to do about it at the society-wide level.

One said that even if there were some “new poor” in his congregation–-he wasn’t sure--he was too busy creating “spiritual Highs” for his congregants to invest the time in studying economics so as to know what to do in the larger world.  

It turns out that our “new poor” colleague is one of many many thousands. Out of her agonies of body and spirit , I want especially to call to our shared attention the many members of our own congregations – synagogues, churches, mosques -- who are among the “new poor”--

Who because they have been disemployed, may now need food stamps to eat; who can’t afford their mortgages, let alone congregational membership dues; who are ashamed to be known as poor inside their religious congregations (as gay men and lesbians were tightly closeted thirty years ago).

What are the teachings of Torah and of our hearts about addressing their (often secret) pain? 

Can we both meet the immediate and painful pressures she and tens of thousands like her are facing, and also act in spiritually rooted political ways to dig out the roots of their distress?

That is what we did during the last 30 years  by committing ourselves both to directly making sure gay Jews are treated as full members of our own communities, and by fighting for gay rights in society as a whole.

For example, should we be developing new versions of the free-loan societies and the landsmanschaft communities that our grandparents used, to help each other deal with the poverty of being immigrants and the poverty of the Great Depression? Should we also be doing today’s equivalent of what our grandparents ALSO did--organizing unions to make change happen?

When I wrote the Ohalah list describing what had happened in the workshop, I got responses that made clear how inadequate most of our congregations are in dealing with the present economic disaster.

In my next letter for The Shalom Report, I will share with you some other troubling reports and some suggestions for action, both at the “personal” and “political” levels.  Both, it seems to me, are spiritual necessities.