Monday, January 21, 2013

As We Grow So Does the Poverty in Our Midst

Typical street scene in a NY Chasidic neighborhood - photo credit: The Forward
One of the facts of life about the Jewish world is that the vast majority of Jews in this country are not observant. At least by Orthodox standards. I don’t recall the exact figures but to the best of my recollection  Orthodox Jews comprise about 10% of the Jewish population.

It is also no secret that non Orthodox movements are shrinking. At least according to the latest figures in a survey about New York’s  Jewish demographics conducted by the UJA. While New York is not the totality of the Jewish population in the world – it is certainly the largest by far. I would go so far as to say “As New York Jewry goes – so goes the Jewish Nation” to use a popular phrase one said about General Motors and the United States.

And yet while the population of New York’s non Orthodox Jews seems to be shrinking - the population of New York’s Orthodox Jews is growing.  By leaps and bounds. The overall increase in the Jewish population from 1.4 million to 1.5 million comes in spite of a decrease of heterodox movements. That means that the increase is due entirely to Orthodox growth – mainly in the Chasidic enclaves of Boro Park and Williamsburg.

The proportional increase in observance is surely something for us to be proud of. Or is it?

Well… yes and no. On the one hand, as an Orthodox Jew who believes that observant Judaism is the will of God - it is good to see a larger proportion of the Jewish world becoming observant. While Jewish outreach groups have had something to do with that, I think the greater reason is the huge increase in birth rate among Orthodox Jews - especially in those Chasidic neighborhoods. In and of itself – that is a good thing.

On the other hand, as those neighborhoods grow, so does their poverty rate.  Here are some hard statistics that are reported in the Forward:
The Jewish population in the Hasidic neighborhood of Boro Park grew 71% over the past decade...
Economic conditions in Williamsburg, an Hasidic neighborhood, are even worse than in Boro Park. In Williamsburg, 78% of households earn less than $50,000 a year. Over half qualify as poor under federal poverty guidelines.
These Hasidic neighborhoods stand in stark contrast to the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, where incomes remain high. So high, in fact, that young families are moving farther north to find apartments – a trend illustrated in the study’s findings…
As Orthodox identification grows, identification with the Reform and Conservative movements is shrinking across the area. That’s most visible in places like the Upper West Side, where the percentage of people identifying as Conservative dropped from 25% to 20% between 2011 and.
While it is true that other non Orthodox populations in some other neighborhoods are more stable in their growth, I don’t think that in any neighborhood they outpace Orthodox growth rates.

The poverty this is generating is not a good thing. This morning here in my Shul in Chicago there were no less than 10 Meshulachim asking for charity - all of them ultra Orthodox – mostly Chasidic (at least in appearance). This has become a fairly common occurrence.

Now there is no shame in poverty. Nor is it necessarily devastating to a family to live modestly – which in some cases means living below the poverty line. But I do attribute shame to a community that tolerates it by limiting livelihood options.

One has to examine why there is such poverty. It’s true that having a lot of children often means that even a relatively decent income will still force families to live in near poverty-like conditions. Especially if one considers the cost of education. A family of 9 or 10 children is not uncommon in these circles. Even with scholarships parents are squeezed for every discretionary dollar they have.

It is a fact that there are families that can raise wonderful children under these conditions (And I know quite a few). But it is also a fact that poverty breeds dysfunction… and a high OTD rate. (I know a few families like this too). It is no secret that monetary issues like the inability to pay simple household bills is a huge Shalom Bayis problem and that families have been broken up over them.

And yet, this problem seems to lack any realistic solution in certain circles.

Why is that?

In the non Chasidic world of Yeshivos the culprit is clear. As the Jewish community continues to move to the right, the idea of working for a living is increasingly falling out of favor. The push to learn full time coupled with the elimination of – or severely diminished - secular studies programs in high schools (not to mention the eschewing of higher education) and the disparagement of the Bal HaBos as second class citizens all contribute to the high level of poverty. All while insisting that one must have as many children as possible.

Most of the Chasidic world, whose population is encouraged to work – is nonetheless hindered by the fact that secular education is minimal, higher education is virtually forbidden… and finding a job in the outside world discouraged.

That the English language is considered “Tameh” (spiritually unclean) and only to be used as needed - means that their communication skills are limited. In fact Yiddish is the first language learned in that community and the most commonly spoken. English is learned as a 2nd language.

None of this is conducive to finding a good job. Menial jobs are available – but that usually comes with menial pay.  And the pressure to have large families is even greater than it is in the Yeshiva world. It should not take a mathematician to realize why the poverty situation there is so great - and growing fast.

How do these families survive? In some cases there is family help. There are also wealthy entrepreneurs among them that give a lot of charity to organizations that distribute those funds as efficiently as they can. There are also free loan funds funded by those same entrepreneurs.

The people of these poor population centers are encouraged to take full advantage of all federal and state the poverty programs like food stamps. And that breeds fraud. How many of these large families hide income in order to qualify for these programs?  

But even if there is no fraud at all, is this the way God wants His people to live? I don’t think so. And yet as the poverty will surely continue to increase – perhaps exponentially -the leaders of this community seem to be doing precious little about it.

Poverty exists in all communities. Even in Modern Orthodox ones. The difference is that in Modern Orthodoxy there is no paradigm that eschews getting a good education and thereby getting a better job.

And the truth is that as the ideological pendulum continues to swing rightward among the Charedi elite – there has already been a shift away from it in practice by the moderate non Chasidic Charedi world as many of them do get the education they need to find better jobs. That’s why places like Touro College are so successful.

This is true in the Yeshiva world. But in much of the Chasidic world, the continued characterization of an outside world that is evil and to be avoided; the insistence by Chasidic leaders on not speaking English too well; and the desire to remain isolated will surely prove to be disastrous. While there may be an increase in wealthy entrepreneurs among them - the increase in the poverty rate will surely be exponentially greater if everything continues as is.  And as this survey indicates, Chasidim are the fastest growing group in all of Orthodoxy.