Jewish Conference on Poverty Urges Community to Get Involved in Issue

An almost palpable sense of urgency permeated the air at the Jewish community’s first national conference on fighting poverty in America.

The conference, “Fighting Poverty: The Challenge to the American Jewish Community,” was meant to be a first step in getting American Jews involved in an issue from which they have been largely absent in recent years.

The national, multi-organizational meeting, held here Sept. 21-22, was designed to give Jewish lay and professional leaders an opportunity to discuss and develop strategies for fighting the growing problem of poverty in America. More than 150 people attended.

Diana Aviv, associate executive director of the National Jewish Community Relations Council and one of the organizers of the event, said she hoped the conference would serve as “a rallying point” for Jewish action.

Two years ago, when the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council invited Robert Greenstein, the executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, to address its annual plenum, he told participants that the Jewish community was “conspicuously absent” from the anti-poverty effort, and it was time for American Jews to embrace the issue.

The next year, in Portland, Ore., NJCRAC resolved to hold a national conference on the Jewish response to poverty. The result, said Diana Aviv, NJCRAC’s associate executive vice chair, was a coalition “transcending organizational structures to deal with this issue.”

NJCRAC co-sponsored last week’s event with the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. Planning committee members represented such groups as the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The conference was endorsed by over 25 national and local Jewish agencies.

Invoking biblical commandments, rabbinic directives and centuries of precedents affirming the Jewish people’s responsibility to care for the poor, conference speakers repeatedly called for the Jewish community to engage itself in the much needed fight against poverty.

“We, as the Jewish community, need to be out of patience” with our lack of power over the problem of poverty, said Gary Rubin, director of national affairs for the AJCommittee and conference planner. The Jewish community, he said, must be “intensive, active and influential” in the struggle to turn the tide of increasing poverty.

There was a strong sense that the severity of the poverty situation dictated that the time has come for American Jews to return to their historic position of champions of social justice and equality, for the sake of both the Jewish poor and the poor in general.

In 1991 the number of poor Americans hit its highest level in more than 20 years, with 2.1 million additional Americans falling into poverty, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Census data show that 35.7 million Americans — one in seven — fell below the poverty level in 1991.

“Unfortunately, there is more bad news ahead,” said Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “A further substantial jump in poverty is virtually certain in 1992, since the unemployment rate is now well above 1991 levels.”

The center attributed the growing poverty trend to a long-term decline in wages, a weakening of the safety net for the poor and the unemployed, an increase in single-parent families and the effects of the current recession.

The number of Jewish poor, too, is on the rise. In New York, for example, there are more than 144,000 Jews — one in 15 — living below the poverty line, according to the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.

Because of the increasingly desperate situation, conference organizers intended that the historical gathering be more than a pep rally to motivate Jewish leaders. Much time was devoted to discussing and planning programs in strategy- developing groups.

As stated in Rubin’s introductory address, conference goals included confirming Jewish commitment, to the cause, articulating strategies that will have impact on the poor and devising means of implementing those plans.

“Nothing can be more important than the success of this conference,” said Arthur Naparstek, a professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Cleveland Commission on Poverty for the Cleveland Foundation.

Naparstek explained that the Jewish values of choice, community, balance and caring could be instrumental in providing those things most necessary to bring people out of persistent poverty: equity, security and sufficiency.

Naparstek and others identified community breakdown as the prime cause of persistent poverty in the 70 or so American cities suffering seriously from poverty.

Pointing to the shtetl as a successful model, Naparstek explained that effective anti-poverty programs must be community-based, making the most of available assets. He emphasized the importance of community control of credit and capital and the community ownership of programs.

There was a loud endorsement from many speakers of such investment programs as Job Corps, Headstart, welfare-to-work programs, making work pay better than welfare and raising the minimum wage.

Because it is so experienced in community-building, “extraordinary leadership can come and must come from the Jewish community,” Naparstek said.

Rubin said the Jewish community has a “direct interest” as coalition partners with blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Catholics and Protestants in fighting poverty.

In her closing remarks, Aviv told conference participants that it was their responsibility to educate and reinvigorate the Jewish community.

“We must reduce the resistance” of the organized Jewish community through task forces, agendas at board meetings, and visits to successful community programs, Aviv said. She also called for replicating this conference on a smaller scale throughout the country, establishing timetables for action and writing articles to spread the word.

“The more the issue is discussed, the more likely it is that people will be interested,” she said. “Make sure everybody knows that we don’t accept the current state of conditions,” Aviv exhorted. “Make sure the poor are not cut out of budgetary and fiscal concerns.”

Participants and organizers seemed invigorated by the conference. Rose Mossberg, conference participant and director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island said she found the event “very productive.”

“The timing was very much on target,” she said. “We’re all looking for constructive ways to address the problems and it’s important for us to get an idea of what’s going on in other communities.”

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