JFCS Kosher Meals on Wheels program in San Francisco delivers hot, nutritious meals to homebound seniors who keep kosher. (Photo/Courtesy JFCS)
JFCS Kosher Meals on Wheels program in San Francisco delivers hot, nutritious meals to homebound seniors who keep kosher. (Photo/Courtesy JFCS)

Panel on Jewish poverty will shine a light on a hidden topic

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Poverty in the Jewish community often goes unseen. It’s something that Robin Mencher, CEO of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, knows firsthand.

Robin Mencher
Robin Mencher

One of the first things Mencher did when she took the job in 2021 was volunteer to deliver free Shabbat meals to those in need. She didn’t expect how close to home it would bring her.

“I will tell you that I delivered two meals within a mile of my home,” she said.

Statistically, it’s true that U.S. Jews are relatively well off as a group. But many — especially older adults and immigrants — struggle to make ends meet, with some who feel shame over asking for help and others who don’t ask at all.

Bringing these issues into the light is what New Lehrhaus, the Berkeley-based Jewish adult learning institute, plans to do with its upcoming panel discussion on poverty in the Bay Area Jewish community. The virtual seminar will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 8. Register here.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

“There’s a lot more poverty than people imagine in the Jewish community,” said Rachel Biale, New Lehrhaus co-founder.

In general, Jews in the United States are affluent. According to the 2021 Pew survey of American Jews, about one in four reported family incomes of $200,000 or more. By comparison, just 4% of U.S. adults meet that threshold.

But the numbers can mask the stories of Jews dealing with poverty. In that same survey, more than a quarter of respondents said that in the prior year they’d had difficulty paying for medical care, rent or mortgage, food or other bills and debts. And 10% reported annual household incomes of less than $30,000. (Among U.S. adults, that number is 26%.)

Rabbi Steven Chester
Rabbi Steven Chester

Steve Chester, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland and a speaker at the Lehrhaus event, remembers congregants who lived below the poverty line.

“I believe much of the larger Jewish community, both here and nationally, does not know nor understand that there are Jewish poor,” he said. “Most of us believe that Jews are financially secure and do not realize there are poor among us.”

According to a 2019 analysis of poverty in American Jewish communities, funded by the Maryland-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, 10% of Jewish households in the Bay Area reported less than $50,000 in yearly income. A greater number of Jewish communities in the U.S. were in the same income bracket (in Columbus, Ohio, for example, it was 49%), but comparisons are problematic, as cost of living varies across the U.S.

There are also certain groups of Jews more likely to have financial troubles, including those over 65, people without higher education, people with disabilities, single women, immigrants and non-white Jews — demographics that mirror U.S. trends, Mencher said.

“A certain percentage of the elderly, including many Holocaust survivors, live in poverty,” Chester added.

There is a plethora of services for local Jews in need, from JFCS/East Bay’s Jewish Safety Net program to Hebrew Free Loan and S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. But there’s also a stigma in accepting help, especially for people who may have been financially stable earlier in their lives and feel embarrassed about the loss of affluence.

There are lots of psychological barriers to people seeking help.

“It’s tricky,” Mencher said. “There are lots of psychological barriers to people seeking help, particularly in a Jewish context.”

The Feb. 8 panel, held in partnership with JFCS/East Bay and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, also will include sociologist Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College, an expert on Jewish demographics, and Brittany Couture, who heads the Jewish Safety Net program at JFCS/East Bay.

Mencher said the program served 79 people last year, including financial assistance over $65,000, and added that her organization is reaffirming its stance on a core Jewish value.

Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” she said. “All of the Jewish community is responsible for one another.

Biale said New Lehrhaus programming often responds to issues in the news or on people’s minds, but this was an important exception just because it’s a problem that doesn’t get a lot of press.

“This one is kind of the opposite,” she said. “It’s not a hot topic.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.