Amid Passover Celebrations, Some Jewish Brooklynites Struggle

Volunteers pack up food packages at a popup Passover food pantry in Brooklyn (Photo by Claudio Papapietro)

Passover, which celebrates a delivery from suffering and slavery, is a festival of feasting and reflection. But for many Jewish Brooklynites, this is not a time of plenty, The Jewish Daily Forward reported.

“Poverty is a major, if often overlooked, problem facing the Jewish community,” the Forward explained. “And Brooklyn is ground zero for Jewish poverty in New York.”

This Passover, which began on Friday and ends in the evening of April 14, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty will distribute almost 2.5 million pounds of food to New York families, most of them Jewish, at the Kings Bay Y Jewish community center, in Sheepshead Bay. The Forward visited the pantry and spoke to some of those seeking help.

Rebecca speaks four languages and has four degrees. She also has four children, no job and a house that is about to slip into foreclosure.

“I could be on the street soon, with four kids,” said Rebecca, a 44-year-old divorcée, as she loaded two bags of Passover food into a friend’s car outside a pop-up food pantry in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.

Rebecca, who asked that her surname not be used, was one of dozens of Jews who arrived at the food pantry on March 30, many pushing shopping carts on an unseasonably warm and sunny spring day. They headed over to a collection of big blue shopping bags filled with a dozen items, including matzo, pickles, gefilte fish, applesauce and mayonnaise. Each one was also given a 10-pound bag of potatoes.

Poverty is widespread in Brooklyn’s Jewish community, and in the recession, it has affected many formerly middle-class Brooklynites.

Peter Brest, chief operating officer of the Met Council, said about 225,000 people in New York City’s Jewish households live at or below 150% of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that means a household with an annual income below $27,150 in one of the most expensive cities in America.

An additional 85,000 people in New York scrape by just enough to live slightly above that level. Even outside the city limits, there are pockets of Jewish poverty, with 36,500 Jews living in or near poverty in the suburbs surrounding New York.

Roughly one-third of all Jews who are poor live in Brooklyn, according to the most recent Report on Jewish Poverty, which was published in 2004 by UJA-Federation of New York and the Met Council. A new report is expected in the coming year.

According to the study, 84% of New York City’s Jewish poor are either members of large Orthodox families, Russian speakers or elderly Americans.

Being forced to ask for help can be painful, said some of those at the pantry last week.

“I am ashamed and humiliated that I even have to accept help,” said one American Jewish woman, 64, who telephoned later to ask that her name be withheld.

“Food stamps don’t last the whole month,” she said. “This is my last week, and they’re not due again until the seventh [of April], which means the holiday would have begun and I wouldn’t have been able to get this food, because I am out of my stamps.”

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