Dec. 3, 2004
7 Days: Food, glorious food


As many Americans struggled this week to shed the extra pounds they put on last Thursday eating turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day-and then leftovers for a week afterward-there were more than a few people in this wealthiest of countries struggling with something much more basic and urgent: finding enough food so as not to go to bed hungry.

Jews are no exception.

In New York City alone, there are an estimated 220,000 Jews living at or below 150% of the $19,000 federal poverty level for a family of four, according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. And with a growing poor Orthodox population and last decade's influx of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union, poverty in Jewish New York has risen as general poverty in the area has declined, according to a recent study conducted by the UJA-Federation of New York.

It's hard to get Jews excited about poverty in America when the poverty of Jews in places like Israel, Ukraine and Argentina seems much more urgent. But an empty stomach in New York is no different than an empty stomach in Odessa, and with the cost of living rising in the city known for being one of the world's most expensive places to live, this has meant a growing number of Jewish families on lines at food pantries, on welfare and in publicly subsidized housing.

It also means more Jews falling through the cracks.

"The Jewish community is almost schizophrenic about this issue because on the one hand there are periods of time when there is greater interest in it, and then it disappears because of the weight of issues of the Middle East and anti-Semitism," said William Rapfogel, executive director of Met Council. "There's something sexier about going on a mission to the former Soviet Union, Sudan or even Israel than going to Brighton Beach, Pelham Parkway or any neighborhood in New York where there are Jews in need."

Jews with means in New York long have been at the forefront of battling poverty abroad. Ruth Messinger, president of the New York-based American Jewish World Service and a former mayoral candidate, has been sounding the alarm to help refugees fleeing the genocide in Sudan-even as the issue has dropped from the agenda of some of the other Jewish groups that months ago pledged their aid to the cause.

Next month, members of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany will meet in New York to discuss what is likely to be tens of millions of dollars in new allocations next year for Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

But here in the Big Apple, poverty and hunger persist. Next month, Met Council will release a study it is conducting on Jewish poverty in the New York area, and officials say the news does not look good. And after an election that saw New York swing heavily toward the Democrats, it's unlikely the Republican-controlled Congress will come to the rescue.

So as the weather turns cold and the huddled masses yearning to be free huddle together simply to keep warm, New York's Jews will look to their local institutions-synagogues, social-service groups and federations-to fill in the gaps and fill up their plates.

It's one more reason, perhaps, not to throw out that turkey in the freezer.