A few years out of the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he was a political science major and an active volunteer in several campus activities, Jeremy Levine works every day at the Manhattan headquarters of UJA-Federation of New York, helping to coordinate many of the anti-poverty programs the philanthropy supports.
He’s initiated a college-application program for high school seniors from indigent families and earlier this year worked on the Pick it Up for Purim campaign that delivered kosher food packages to thousands of needy Jews in the Greater New York area.
Levine, 24, is one of 14 young volunteers from AmeriCorps who are spending the year at UJA-Federation, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and other local Jewish agencies that offer aid to poor members of the Jewish community.
Under the auspices of UJA-Federation, the Jewish organizations brought in the AmeriCorps volunteers — the two-decade-old federal program, which operates under the Corporation for National and Community Service, sends more than 80,000 people each year to work at a variety of nonprofits and similar organizations — three years ago in recognition of a demographic problem that was noticed anecdotally and confirmed quantitatively last week: Jewish poverty is rising dramatically.
According to a “Special Report on Poverty,” the last of three reports based on a 2011 study of Jewish New York conducted by UJA-Federation in consultation with Met Council, one out of five Jewish households in the New York metropolitan area is poor.
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“The scale of Jewish poverty in the eight-county New York area — the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester — is immense … overwhelming,” the report stated. “More than 560,000 people live in nearly 200,000 poor and near-poor Jewish households.” That figure, which “represents a doubling of the number of people living in poor Jewish households since 1991, despite only a 14 percent increase in the Jewish population,” includes 48 percent of Jewish children in the region who live in poor or near-poor households.
In the last two decades, the percentage of the poor as a part of the overall Jewish community has grown from 12 to 20.
“The numbers largely confirm what we’ve seen happening in grass-roots Jewish communities, making clear to us that this wrenching situation is only growing in scope,” said William Rapfogel, Met Council’s executive director. The report “confirmed the increases in clients needing food and assistance with affordable housing, cuts in services to the elderly due to government cutbacks and especially [the need for] help with careers, both for unemployed and underemployed.”
The report, whose findings were obvious over the last decade to local agencies that serve the poor Jewish population, will not lead to an “immediate” creation of new or altered anti-poverty programs, the participants in a conference call last week that announced the results of the study agreed. But the now-confirmed extent of Jewish poverty will lead to an examination of the current programs, they said.
Met Council, said Rapfogel, is considering a “dramatic expansion” of its food programs, especially the Masbia kosher kitchens that serve free meals to the indigent, and expansion of its programs that serve poor elderly Jews. It is too early to offer specific details, he said.
UJA-Federation, anticipating the findings, started to “redesign” its network of anti-poverty programs in the last decade, said John Ruskay, UJA-Federation executive vice president. That includes, he said, the invitation to volunteers from AmeriCorps, and before that, from VISTA, the federally funded Volunteers in Service to America.
While Jewish poverty has assumed a place of greater importance to communal leadership in recent years, it continues to be an uncomfortable subject for many members of the community, said Rapfogel. “There are still some people in the Jewish community who see poverty as a taboo subject.”
The report, which defines “poor households” as those earning less than 150 percent of the 2010 federal poverty guidelines (annual income of $33,000 or less for a family of four), offers no surprises: the bulk of Jewish poverty here is concentrated in families of fervently Orthodox (haredi) Jews, especially chasidic, who have large numbers of children and minimal secular education; and among families of emigrés from the former Soviet Union, especially the elderly, who are often dependent on government assistance.
Those two groups constitute 43 percent of the total poor Jewish households in Greater New York; non Russian-speaking “senior households” make up 16 percent, and “unemployed or underemployed households” 13 percent.
The Bronx and Brooklyn account for some 60 percent of the total number of poor Jewish households in the area; the areas with the largest percentages of poor Jewish households are Williamsburg, Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Coney Island and Brighton Beach/Sheepshead Bay, all of which are home to large numbers of haredim and/or émigrés.
“The poverty is growing in the suburbs as well,” said Scott Shay, chair of the Jewish Community Study.
“The greater increase in the rate of poverty among people in poor Jewish households compared with [overall] Jewish households may be attributable to the growth in the chasidic community, which includes the largest households,” the report states. “The greater increase in poverty among people in poor Orthodox households (93%) than the increase in poverty among Orthodox households (60%) over the last nine years,” since the previous, major Jewish community self-study, “suggests that large, poor Hasidic households are the reason for the extraordinary increase in people living in poor Jewish households in the New York area.”
Since 2002, according to figures in the report, the percentage of poor Jewish households here with five or more children has doubled from 9 to 18.
The study was based on 5,993 telephone interviews with randomly selected Jewish households — those that include one or more “Jewish adults ages 18 and over” — in the eight-county area. It authors were Jacob Ukeles, Steven M. Cohen and Ron Miller.
Jeremy Levine, who lives in West Hempstead, L.I., began his AmeriCorps service at UJA-Federation six months ago; other AmeriCorps volunteers were placed at Met Council and various Jewish centers and community councils, concentrating on work with poor Jews.
Levine, who worked briefly in real estate after graduating college, applied for AmeriCorps because he’s “always been very big on volunteering.” During the Purim package-delivery program, for example, he visited local sites in advance, and helped pack and load the packages at UJA-Federation headquarters.
The volunteers’ service supplements the work of other volunteers, whose other responsibilities prevent them from devoting their time to anti-poverty activities, said Susan Kohn, executive director of volunteers and leadership development at UJA-Federation.
The philanthropy will apply to renew the UJA-Federation’s ties with AmeriCorps, whose three-year contract ends later this year, Kohn said. The government pays the volunteers’ salaries; participating agencies are responsible for benefits and other non-salary expenses.
The volunteers do both hands-on work, dealing directly with indigent individuals, and executive-level work, designing programs and training other volunteers, Kohn said. Their work has expanded both the number of people served by local agencies and the amount of government benefits they are receiving, she said.
The involvement of the AmeriCorps volunteers has served as an effective, proactive step against local Jewish poverty, Kohn said. “We’re going to continue to invest in it.”
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