This month, two different research studies have been released that shed light on the realities of American Jewish life … and Rhode Island Jewish life.
The Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a very highly respected independent body that conducts research on a range of public issues. On October 1, the Center published a major study of American Jews. In the course of close to 150 pages, the “Portrait of Jewish Americans” presents statistics and analysis of Jewish American population estimates, intermarriage and other demographics, religious beliefs and practices, trends in American Jewish identity and more.
The Overview of the study, available on the Pew website (pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/), reveals a few statistics that feed into some widely held assumptions about Jewish Americans and a few other statistics that challenge other of our assumptions:
Jews have high levels of educational attainment. Most Jews are college graduates (58 percent), including 28 percent who say they have earned a post-graduate degree. By comparison, 29 percent of U.S. adults say they graduated from college, including 10 percent who have a post-graduate degree.
Fully one-quarter of Jews (25 percent) say they have a household income exceeding $150,000, compared with 8 percent of adults in the public as a whole. At the same time, 20 percent of U.S. Jews report household incomes of less than $30,000 per year; about six in ten Jews in this low-income category are either under age 30 or 65 or older (Pew Research Center, Portrait of Jewish Americans, Overview).
We are none of us surprised that Jews have “high levels of educational attainment.” We are proud of our “People of the Book” moniker and have expanded the term to embrace all kinds of books … not just the book.
Common wisdom and statistics connect educational attainment with higher income, so we may complacently acknowledge that 25 percent of Jews report a household income exceeding $150,000.
I don’t expect, though, that we would have anticipated that 20 percent of Jewish American households are reporting incomes of less than $30,000.
The second study, released this week and reported on the front page of today’s [“Jewish] Voice,” prevents us from shrugging off the Pew’s 20 percent as Jews who must live someplace else. “Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity Among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island” commissioned by The Jewish Alliance and executed by the Steinhardt Social Research Center of Brandeis University brings those Pew statistics home: economically and socially vulnerable Jews are not “there” but “here.”
The book of Devarim/Deuteronomy challenges us with the following verse: “Because there won’t stop being an indigent in the land. On account of this I command you, saying: you shall open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your indigent in your land.” (15:11)
There won’t stop being an indigent in our land … indeed, in the millennia that have passed since our people first encountered these words, there has never stopped being an indigent in our land. And, as God has expected, our people have opened our hands, taken care of our “brothers” in need.
But we’ve lost sight of the vulnerable here in our own corner of New England, and it has taken the researchers of the Pew Research Center and Brandeis’ Steinhardt Center to shake us out of our complacency and refocus our attention and our concern on those in our own Jewish community who are struggling to maintain the most basic of lifestyles.
The Deuteronomy verse broadens the scope of our concern beyond the needs within the Jewish community, for we are exhorted to care for the indigent in our land, not just the indigent among our brothers. So, at a time when even the most comfortable among us are experiencing diminishing discretionary incomes, we must prepare ourselves to meet the needs of our “brother,” of the economically vulnerable within the Jewish community and the needs of the “indigent in our land”– the needs of our non-Jewish neighbors who are succumbing in even greater numbers and greater percentages to poverty.
It is going to be very easy to feel put upon: everyone is asking for help. Jews need help. The elderly need help. The undereducated need help. The overburdened need help … why do we need to respond to all these appeals for help?
Because we can.
Because our tradition expects us to.
Because God commands us to.
It is going to be very easy to feel frustrated. After all, supporting food closets and discretionary funds and the most traditional forms of support for the needy do nothing to address the factors that contribute to poverty. These programs address emergent needs for food or heat or a warm coat. But these programs do nothing to alleviate those needs in six weeks’ time or six months’ time or six years’ time.
So God suggested we prepare ourselves for the recurring problems of those in need: “There won’t stop being an indigent in your land …” We must curb our frustration as the need recurs, until we join with others in addressing the causes of poverty.
Richard Elliott Friedman writes in his commentary on this verse: “It seems to me that the problem arises because everyone takes this verse to mean that there will never stop being indigent people. But it simply says “there won’t stop.” I take that to mean that poverty will not just come to stop on its own one day – without any action by humans … there will be no poverty only if people act to end it.” (Commentary on the Torah, pgs. 614-15)
I invite your determination: Instead of feeling put upon, let’s declare our determination to create a stronger and more responsive community by working together. Instead of giving in to frustration, let’s declare our determination to address the deepest societal issues that sabotage so many families and individuals in our land and among our brothers.
On behalf of the twenty-five members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island: I invite you to contact any of us if you are in need or if you want to join us in addressing need. If you have ideas about how best to address poverty or want to learn from others how best to address poverty, you can find us at rabbisofgreaterrhodeisland.org.
Perhaps we can transform Richard Elliott Friedman from scholar to prophet by bringing an end to poverty by acting together to end it.
Rabbi Amy Levin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Rabbi at Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich and Presi-dent of The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.