Earlier this month, my family gathered for a festive Chanukah celebration. We shared a delicious meal, exchanged gifts and enjoyed the warm light of the Chanukah candles.
Yet for many in the Jewish community, Chanukah felt different. With not enough money to spend on gifts, put holiday food on the table or even pay the heating bill, these families went without special festivities, something that would have been unimaginable for many of them only a few years ago.
We have long been aware that some 250,000 Jews in New York, including more than 50,000 children, live below or marginally above the poverty line. But the ongoing economic recession has expanded the definition of those in need. Gone are the days where we can easily distinguish between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Instead, as families continue to be impacted by job and asset loss, some who used to give to others now find themselves on the receiving end.
Data from UJA-Federation of New York’s seven multi-service Connect to Care centers — established in April 2009 to provide coordinated financial, employment, legal, and emotional counseling to those affected by the recession — illustrates this startling picture. Of the more than 30,000 individuals who have been helped since the initiative’s inception, 14 percent previously earned more than $120,000, and another 25 percent earned between $75,000 and $120,000. Said another way, it could happen to any of us.
Connect to Care is far from the only group doing important collaborative work in our community today to deliver critical help. Many other fine groups are also focusing on aiding people in need.
With the end of the calendar year so near, now is the time to embrace efforts to help, whatever your cause or organization. Many people wait until late December to make their philanthropic decisions in order to have a clear picture of how much they can give and to take advantage of the associated tax benefits. I would like to suggest another reason for giving now, and that is simply the emotional high that comes from knowing that in this cold and dark season, we can make someone’s life a little brighter than it was the day before.
It is imperative for those of us who can to step forward and follow one of the great principles of Judaism, “kol yisrael arevim ze la ze,” all Jews are responsible for one another. It is our collective responsibility to take these words to heart and to make life better for those who are suffering. The situation of needy Jews and others is a call to conscience.
The elderly, Holocaust survivors, immigrants, the poor, and otherwise vulnerable individuals have long relied on assistance from others for their everyday survival. At the same time, we must also help those who recently became Jews in need. For the parents who can no longer afford the childcare that enables them to go out and look for work each day, we must provide daycare scholarships; for the laid-off executives who face foreclosure on their homes, we must provide financial and legal services; and for former breadwinners who need treatment for depression because they cannot cope with the struggle just to feed their families, we must provide supportive counseling and spiritual care.
We cannot do this without the collective help of those who can. Our tradition has a long history of communal philanthropy. Stories are told of the tzedakah collectors in Eastern European towns who would go from house to house with a pushke, (a can for collecting coins). Those who could contribute coins did so, and those who needed coins were able to take some. Although our systems of philanthropy are more sophisticated today, the underlying concept still prevails. Those who are able to donate must do so in order to ensure that there will be enough for those who need. As increasing numbers in our community have come to rely on coins from the pushke, it is essential that we increase the number of people who are putting coins in.
There is no time better than just before the close of the year to become one of those contributors. In the last week of 2010, it is my hope and prayer that those who can will respond to this call to philanthropic action. I urge us all to recognize that, although we too may be facing difficulties, there are others who are confronting even greater challenges, and that our actions have the potential to ease their burdens. The gift of philanthropy is likely to be the most important gift you give this season. n
Mark Medin is senior vice president of UJA-Federation of New York.