Facing Poverty

Dear Neighbor,

Living in a frenetic city like New York, with homeless people found on nearly every street corner, it’s remarkably easy to become desensitized to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Sure, we may share a dollar or two when the spirit moves us, but much like the occasional gifts of tzedakah we send to our favorite philanthropies and mosdot, the recipients of our generosity tend to be hidden away from our day-to-day reality. Indeed, much in the same way city-dwellers no longer hear the city’s blaring sirens and honking taxis, most of us no longer see the poor among us.

As an Orthodox Jew who is highly educated and, until recently, considered “upwardly mobile,” I suspect my perception of the poor was fairly typical. Once or twice a year, I would contribute to the pushkahs of various tzedakah organizations that my children would bring home from school. From as far back as I can remember, I have been conditioned to place a few coins in the pushkah during Shacharit. Similarly, I would contribute during Neilah, and make the occasional donation to charity when I received an aliyah. I would proudly contribute to my shul’s campaigns prior to Pesach and other holidays. And like so many of my friends, my generosity was often limited by the sticker shock of living life as an observant Jew (especially the high cost of yeshivah tuition, summer camp and my hyper-inflated mortgage).

My understanding of poverty is radically different these days. Being on the receiving end of tzedakah for the past eleven months as an unemployed Jewish communal professional has not only grayed me prematurely, it has also afforded me insights that might not have occurred to me otherwise. I offer this window into my life not to elicit sympathy (although a few job offers would be nice), but rather as a follow-up to an article I published in a local Jewish newspaper almost a year ago, which included a few important prescriptives to address the scourge of poverty in the Orthodox community.

In the article, I suggested a four-pronged approach. First, I recommended that our day schools and yeshivot need to take a more proactive role in guiding our children toward careers that are capable of supporting an Orthodox lifestyle. Even if there’s merit to raising our children to believe they can be “anything they want to be when they grow up,” which is not my personal philosophy, there’s nothing noble about encouraging our children in their pursuit of professions that are either beyond their reach or will have them living from paycheck to paycheck.

Being on the receiving end of tzedakah for the past eleven months as an unemployed Jewish communal professional has not only grayed me prematurely, it has also afforded me insights that might not have occurred to me otherwise.

Second, many of our children would be better served attending a trade school or para-professional program after high school instead of a liberal arts college—they should graduate with a marketable and monetizable skill.

Third, and I suspect this was the hardest pill for most to swallow, the wealthier among us should consider forgoing annual vacations and extra indulgences and instead send generous checks of support to their community’s yeshivot, rabbis’ funds, and tzedakah organizations that assist the needy. Due to the unfortunate predicament I find myself in, I have a newfound appreciation for the need to keep these institutions well-funded.  

Fourth, our shuls should organize their membership to take an active role in helping the unemployed. Perhaps each shul should start a LinkedIn page that its members should be encouraged to join. Unemployed shul members could then refer to the LinkedIn page to find other shul members employed in the same industry.

In the months that have passed since the article was published, I have submitted countless résumés to would-be employers and have gone on a mind-numbing number of job interviews. Despite my best faith efforts, I am still an unemployed Jewish communal professional with nothing more to show for two decades of selfless devotion to the klal than a résumé laden with professional and educational accomplishments. I would consider leaving the New York area, but Jewish communal jobs are still more plentiful here. It is in this spirit that I offer another insight that centers on a highly publicized event in my community, which boasted of a novel solution to the unemployment and under-employment crisis in the Orthodox community.  

Taking my seat alongside hundreds of other college-educated men and women of nearly every age who flooded the standing-room only event, I listened for a full hour and a half as panelist after panelist extolled the virtues of working in the tech industry. The panelists, each of whom held senior management positions at top tech firms such as Google, LinkedIn and Adobe, spoke of the high salaries, the many perks they enjoyed, the relaxed work environment and the free kosher lunches and dinners they were served. As the event came to a close, the facilitators invited those of us in attendance to sign up to attend one of three intensive twelve-week technology boot camp training programs they were offering that would provide the intrepid among us with the necessary skills to acquire a lucrative (this word was repeated frequently) career in the technology field . . . all for the ever-so-small price of $16,000! Gasp! The sticker shock cut the crowd like a knife. Perhaps the technology boot camp would deliver on its promise, but it surely wasn’t an option for a great many of us who are struggling to get by.  

And so, my Orthodox brothers and sisters, I offer my fifth insight.  

Rather than allow businesses like the one described above to prey on the vulnerable unemployed, we need to take a page out of the handbook of Girls Who Code, the much-celebrated nonprofit that aims at increasing the number of women in the high-tech industry. Founded in 2012, Girls Who Code, believing that computing skills are a critical path to security and prosperity in today’s job market, offers free technology boot camps to high school girls. At present, there are more than 150 Girls Who Code clubs across North America, and the organization aims to engage one million girls by 2020! Equally impressive, the organization receives significant corporate donations from firms including AT&T, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon. By December 2014, 3,000 students had completed the Girls Who Code program, 95 percent of whom went on to major in computer science at university.

The wealthier among us should consider forgoing annual vacations and extra indulgences and instead send generous checks of support to their community’s yeshivot, rabbis’ funds, and tzedakah organizations that assist the needy.

We need to replicate this program for the Orthodox community. We need to develop free or low-cost boot camps in technology and other well-paying trades that offer the promise of a brighter economic future for those of us who are willing to commit to the intensive educational regimen. We must not delude ourselves into accepting for-profit alternatives. And we must not confuse this initiative with those sponsored by degree-granting colleges and universities. I suspect most of us who would participate in such a community-sponsored initiative have already paid a considerable sum for degrees that took us nowhere.

Only a few years back, the Jewish community was in convulsions when the financial industry tanked and many of our white-collar brethren were unemployed. Although it’s all but forgotten today, many shuls quickly cobbled together web sites to assist their congregants in posting and locating jobs. At the same time, many Federation-funded agencies offered résumé-writing workshops, cash assistance and mental health assistance for those who were suffering from depression and despondency. Most of these initiatives are all but gone today, despite the steady stream of studies sponsored by local federations and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty showing the ever-increasing pervasiveness of poverty in the Jewish community. Certainly, little is being done of any consequence for the middle-class.

It’s time to come together and help chart a new path that will help those of us who are falling through the cracks.

We can’t hold on much longer.

Although this article was submitted anonymously to protect the author’s identity, the author shared that he lives with his wife and children in New York. To reach the author or to send feedback, e-mail the Jewish Action office at ja@ou.org.    

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This article was featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Jewish Action.
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