In Anti-poverty Project, Group Enlists Leaders to Live on $21 a Week

Jewish communal executives and non-Jewish politicians will spend the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur living on a budget that would barely cover the price of an appetizer at a power lunch.

To kick off a yearlong initiative on poverty, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs is enlisting people to live for a week on $21 — the national average for food stamps benefits.

Among those participating are heads of local Jewish federations and Jewish community relations councils, as well as several lawmakers, including the only Muslim member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).

The poverty issue has essentially fallen off the radar screen for much of the Jewish community, said the JCPA’s executive director, Rabbi Steve Gutow.

“We are no longer connected to the communities from which the poor usually come,” Gutow said. “We’re not as close to the Hispanic community or the African-American community, and we need to re-galvanize that. Part of our strength as American Jews is that we have always been able to connect with different groups, and we need to get back to that.”

Jews are not immune to poverty. Between 8 and 9 percent of American Jews live below the poverty line, which in 2006 was $16,079 for a family of three and $20,614 for a family of four. America’s overall poverty rate is higher — and growing.

According to numbers culled from the 2006 census by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 12.3 percent of Americans live below the poverty line. Also, some 15.8 percent of Americans — or 47 million — were without health insurance. There were 2.2 million more uninsured children in 2006 than in 2005.

The numbers of uninsured and impoverished have been increasing since the 2001 recession, despite a rapidly growing economy. In 2001, when the economy bottomed out, 11.7 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line and 14.1 percent of Americans were uninsured. The median income for non-elderly household has declined since then from $56,062 to $54,726.

JCPA officials say they will try to engage local Jewish communities in more grassroots programming to address five areas linked to poverty: hunger and food insecurity, affordable housing, public health and environmental justice, health care and education.

Each month the JCPA plans on highlighting one poverty initiative tied to a Jewish holiday or event, according to the organization’s director of policy, Hadar Susskind. It will work with the local JCRCs to provide programming ideas, speakers and networking opportunities to help tackle poverty issues on the ground.

Local JCRCs are pleased that their national umbrella group is trying to re-emphasize the poverty issue in a Jewish landscape in which it is often overshadowed by efforts to advocate for Israel and combat anti-Semitism.

“It is intrinsically very high in our Jewish value system, but I think because it is an ongoing issue, we sometimes lose the focus,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, the director of the St. Louis JCRC.

While many JCRCs also struggle with keeping poverty on their agendas because they are understaffed and underfunded, the one in St. Louis has been among the more proactive. It has worked closely with eight other nongovernmental organizations and religious groups in an effort to get the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Missouri to adopt an initiative to combat lead paint poisoning.

In 2008, as part of the JCPA-led anti-poverty initiative, the St. Louis JCRC will focus on food security and health issues.

“There shall always be needy among us,” Gutow said, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 16. “Our tradition demands that we get up and do something.”

For his $21, Gutow said he would be subsiding in part on an inexpensive Morrocan dish called majadera rice made of rice, lentils and fried onions.

“You can forget about Whole Foods,” he said.

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