The "New Poor," What We Can Do: Beginnings of Responses

I wrote you about the plight of many many thousands of people in our churches, mosques, and synagogues who have been disemployed or had their homes taken away by the decisions of global banks, giant corporations, and governmental failures.

Below you will find some vivid and thoughtful comments from several rabbis and other spiritual leaders about ways to meet the needs of the “new poor.”

What can we do to heal the wounds afflicting many of our congregants and some of our clergy of all faiths?

I am sending you reports and suggestions that responded to my original letter to the listserve of Jewish-renewal rabbis. (The writers gave permission to reprint them.) Two of them also wove in thoughts about the basic economic difficulties facing rabbis in the present configuration of the world economy and denominational structures. I have taken out those passages to share with you later as a separate matter.

Besides the following reports on the “new poor” and meeting their needs, I welcome other thoughts--yours!--from all corners of the religious and spiritual worlds. My next essay will include my own thoughts about acts of healing at the “personal” and “society-wide” levels.

With blessings on your own work toward justice and dignity for all--Arthur

Re Arthur Waskow's very timely suggestion that we revivify the custom of Hebrew Free Loan Associations, etc: If anyone has experience with that, could you please make some of the information available to us?

I would like to amplify that suggestion, and reintroduce the traditional "gemach"--the abbreviation of g'milut chassadim. Many of the more traditional Jewish communities still have these functioning gemachs. They are storehouses where people can borrow items they need for a time, then return them, in good condition, to be re-used. Examples:

  • a gemach supplied with long folding tables, folding chairs, table linen, 30+-cup coffee urns, etc., for events.
  • wedding garments for both genders and many sizes, to be worn, cleaned and returned
  • cribs, cradles, changing tables, intercoms, etc. (Once, we would have included glass baby bottles...)
  • maternity clothes
  • children's clothes
  • medical supplies needed temporarily, like canes, shower stools, risers for toilets, portable commodes, grabbers, wheelchairs
  • seldom-used household items, eg, vacuum cleaners, rug shampooers, electric drills and skill saws, paint pans and rollers, etc.

You get the idea.

Blessings on all your keppelach,
Eve Ilsen

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner wrote:

Thank you so much to Reb Arthur for raising the issue of the“middle class” poor in our own communities. I serve a small Reconstructionist communty in Arlington, Virginia. EVERY month I give out supermarket gift cards (donated by other members of the congregation) and I write at least $500/month in Discretionary Fund checks to individuals in the congregation who cannot buy food, medications and pay basic utility bills.

These are “middle class” members who have been laid off from their jobs and have now become part of the long-term unemployed. They have gone through all of their savings, sold all unnecessary belongings, some have even defaulted on mortgages and now live in tiny apartments.

Other members of the community slip supermarket cards into my pockets before and after Shabbat services and periodically, I make appeals for more contributions to my Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund—my small community (75 families) keeps giving.

Soon, we will be having a bat mitzvah celebration that will be entirely pot luck—this was not the practice before--because the beloved family that is celebrating cannot afford a catered kiddush lunch—and everyone’s having a great time figuring out what to bring to make this a truly yummy feast. No shame, just joy and chaverschaft.

Folks are finding “jobs” that need to be done in their homes so that they can hire their fellow members — filing, fix-it projects, tutoring the kids, you name it—dignity is the word. We must all help one another in these very difficult times.

Then Rabbi Howard Cohen wrote:

I've had experience running something very similar to a Hebrew Free Loan. The clergy in my town, Bennington VT, started an emergency assistance fund in the '70's in response to the first oil embargo/crisis. The idea was to be able to provide a bit of assistance to get people over the hump of the suddenly very high fuel costs.  

For 25 +/- years the Food & Fuel Fund doled out 10 - 20 dollars worth of assistance to people who asked. Then Bill Clinton began dismantling the social welfare system.

That's about when I was asked to take over managing the Food & Fuel Fund. (It was a volunteer position picked up by one of the clergy.) Demand grew and grew and grew. I won't bore you with all the ins and outs of the metamorphosis of the fund, suffice it to say it went from distributing $2,000 - $4,000 a year to distributing over 50K annually! 

For about ten years it was my honor and shame (because I was able to do so little when there was the potential to do so much more if only people were more compassionate and generous) to distribute assistance to thousands of people. Some times these were loans with people signing non binding agreements to repay it. (Every actual loan was in fact repaid, which is not to say every distribution of assistance was a loan.)

More often than not they were just direct payments to landlords, power companies and the like. Btw, everyone who received help was thoroughly screened for need before they got it. I worked very closely with many social service agencies to make sure that public funds were used first and so that we didn't undermine the way other programs were working their clients.

The responsibility was taxing, rewarding, discouraging, uplifting, depressing, inspiring all at once. It was also time consuming. I could easily exceed my allotted space describing what I learned running this fund.

And Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, Ph. D., followed up--

I appreciate this post for its forthrightness and commend Howard for sending it. In relation to the way that the Hebrew Free Loan societies work, you need to be connected to people with money in order to get money. The people with the most need do not meet the criteria of the traditional/ non-traditional loan institutions.

What Howard describes is in large part what is needed in many communities. However, the challenge is time--to help just one person find a job/ get off the street if they have become homeless is enormous. The social service agencies, Jewish/ non-Jewish at this moment in time, are overwhelmed. The financial base that supported the informal funds that Howard mentioned has eroded as has the base for Jewish Family or Communal Services.

The situation described by Arthur of a woman in need and the response she received in my experience is a result of fear. The fear comes from many places--common ones:

One: “Perhaps I will be in the same situation, so I will deny the reality--she must have done something/ been somebody/ who got herself in this situation."

Two: “If I acknowledge this, I have to do something to help. I don't want to do something because I am overwhelmed, incapable, or committed elsewhere.”

Three: “I feel helpless and thus, don't know what to say, so I will say nothing.”

Let the widows and orphans beware; our world no longer seems to see their welfare as the benchmark of a good society. Any of us can easily fall into these categories of need--many of us are one paycheck away and unemployment, a car accident, cancer, a fall in the bathroom, a parent with Alzheimer's, or a child with autism can change our financial well-being in a moment. And don't even get me writing about ageism on both ends of the spectrum--for those entering the work force and those at the end of their career paths.

However, I recommend hope and faith to sustain us. With the whole spiritual toolkit available to us, including mussar [a process for generating ethical behavior] and tikkun olam [action to heal the world], we have the ability to forge a new framework in which to thrive as leaders of the Jewish people.

Dear readers--Let me say again that I welcome and will share with all of us your thoughts, from all corners of the religious and spiritual worlds. Please write!--our shared creativity may in fact give birth to new solutions.

My next essay will also include my own thoughts about acts of healing at the “personal” and “society-wide” levels.