For those of us still recuperating from a turkey and pumpkin pie torpor and the ensuing blitz of shopping and sales, the holiday season often fails to elicit any meaningful discourse on appreciation and thanks. Instead, it seems the principles of Thanksgiving — introspection, community, and thankfulness are diminished by the increasingly commercial scope of the holiday. To put the breadth of the Thanksgiving holiday into terms of consumption: an estimated 45 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving Day and $11.4 billion in sales are generated in the following (aptly named) Black Friday.
As a community, American Jewry has much to be thankful for. Still a novelty in the spectrum of Jewish history, America’s commitment to the freedom of worship and protection of minorities gives American Jews an unprecedented, free environment in which to practice their Judaism. Several indicators reveal that American Jews’ gratefulness ought to stem from more than religious freedom. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2011, Jews ranked first relative to other Americans in a “wellbeing” index, determined by several variables including Life Evaluation, Emotional Health, Physical Health and Work Environment.
Moreover, despite recent economic hardships, a recent report adds yet another reason for American Jewry to be grateful — financial stability. A study by the Jewish Data Bank reveals that the median household income of Jewish Americans is well beyond that of the average American’s at $81,000 and $104,000 for households that include children. While a host of statistics reflect the relative position of comfort present in the greater American Jewish community, they reinforce a narrative about American Jews’ success that fails to address some of the most critical and pressing issues facing the community.
For starters, many of the strong suites of local Jews only mask the persistent inadequacies. Statistics on Jews’ relative affluence fail to properly portray the extent of local poverty. The stubbornly high unemployment rate in Los Angeles of 11.2 percent, consistently high cost of living relative to other cities, and exorbitant cost of maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle (for those who elect to) make affording basic necessities a nightmare for many local households.
Data sets tracking the scope of poverty in the community prove illusive. However, various organizations working to alleviate some of stresses placed on low-income households reveal a startling reality. In the last three years, the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, an initiative under the Jewish Family Services, has seen the number of households it caters to increase from a constant 4,000 to nearly 12,000. With three food pantries in the greater Los Angeles area, SOVA (a name derived from the Hebrew for “eat and be satisfied”) offers a host of services ranging from free groceries to legal advocacy.
Other niche organizations offer aid and services to a more specific group of people. Founded in 1977, Tomchei Shabbos has grown to cater to approximately 1,000 Jewish individuals, providing them with a weekly supply of groceries. Countless other local organizations seek to address poverty in the Jewish community through food assistance, affordable loans, and access to medical care.
Ultimately, gratefulness requires an intimate understanding of where one stands vis-à-vis their community. Certainly, the Jewish community on the whole has a great deal to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Yet, an appraisal of the state of the Jewish community exposes a level of poverty that should serve as a reminder of our struggles.
In an interview with Ha’Am, Nancy Volpert, the Director of Public Policy for the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, took some time to address local poverty — those most critically affected by financial hardships and some of the programs JFSLA has undertaken to support the impoverished.
1. It seems very easy to get out of touch with communal needs in Los Angeles, how extensive of an issue is poverty in the local Jewish community?
“Poverty does exist in the Jewish community here in Los Angeles, especially among the elderly with fixed incomes and increasing costs-of-living. JFSLA’s focus is not only on the Jewish community, but the larger community as a whole. We serve people of all ages, ethnicities, religion, and backgrounds. The impact of the economic downturn and state budget cuts are still being felt across the community.”
2. How many people does JFSLA help annually and what is the average scope of help JFSLA provides?
“We serve 100,000 clients each year, each with unique needs that we seek to meet as a social service agency. As such, there’s no one “average” scope of help. We provide a wide range of social services including care management and other services for older adults, mental health counseling, assistance for victims of domestic violence, food assistance, and social and clinical support for survivors of the Holocaust. While there’s no “average” scope of help, one of JFS’ greatest strengths is being able to look at the entire client. For example, an elderly person who is medically fragile may also need assistance in other areas of his or her life. Our highly-trained social workers will ensure that person receives the entire spectrum of care, from meal delivery or groceries, to transportation to doctor’s appointments, as well as assistance with accessing available benefits and community resources. Additionally, we are able to offer seniors access to social programs, fitness programs, and educational programs at one of our senior center locations. JFS approaches each person as a whole individual, often with multiple needs, rather than as a client with one specific issue to be addressed.”
3. What special plans does JFSLA have for thanksgiving?
“There were Thanksgiving celebrations at many of the JFS program sites, including a special Home Delivered Thanksgiving meal for home-bound older adults, and Thanksgiving meals at each of our shelter sites. In addition, at JFS – SOVA Community Food & Resource Centers, volunteers and staff provided 2,200 families with turkey and all the fixings so that they could celebrate the holiday at home with their families.”
4. Do you feel that there are adequate resources going towards poverty programs in the local Jewish community?
“Again, our focus is on providing social services to the entire community throughout the Los Angeles area. It is certainly a more challenging environment with respect to providing services. Government funding is more scarce than before, and foundation grants that helped pay for programs are changing their funding formulas.”
5. How has the state of the economy taken a toll on those in need of financial assistance?
“JFS has seen a significant increase in the demand for services as a result of the economic downturn. For our JFS – SOVA program alone, we’ve seen nearly a tripling in the number of clients we serve since 2007. While that’s an alarming statistic to be sure, it’s why JFS is here, and has been since 1954: to provide needed services to the individuals and families in the Los Angeles area who, for whatever reason, be it the economic downturn or any other changing circumstance, require assistance to live the fulfilling lives to which all of us are entitled.”