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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘poor’

The ‘Chicken Lady’ Who Helped the Poor Dies at Age 90

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Bracha Kapach, wife of a scholarly rabbi from Yemen and more widely known as the “Chicken Lady,” died Tuesday morning in Jerusalem at the age of 90.

She earned her nickname because of her individual charity effort to make sure that poor Jews would have chicken and other foods for the Shabbat and holidays. The charity fund drew support from many contributors who did not know the true identity of the “chicken lady,” who was married since the age of 11 to Yemenite Rabbi Yosef Kapach, who died in 2000.

They moved to Israel in 1941 and became the only couple to have been individually won the Israel Price. Rabbi Kapach was awarded in 1969 for his scholarly work on Jewish thought, and his wife Bracha won the prize in 1999 for her charity efforts.

Shortly after the re-establishment of the State of Israel, she founded a textile firm that gave employment to dozens of women. Besides her providing food for the poor, working out of her home in Jerusalem’s Nahalot neighborhood near Mahane Yehuda, she also arranged summer camps for underprivileged children.

How to Give

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Listen to these stories. Behind them lies an extraordinary insight into the nature of Jewish ethics:

Story 1. Rabbi Abba used to bind money in his scarf, sling it on his back, and place it at the disposal of the poor (Ketubot 67b).

Story 2. Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood into whose door socket he used to throw four coins every day. Once the poor man thought, “I will go and see who does me this kindness.” That day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as the poor man saw them moving the door (to leave the coins) he ran out after them, but they fled from him and hid. Why did they do this? Because it was taught: One should throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly put his neighbor to shame (Ketubot 67b).

Story 3. When Rabbi Jonah saw a man of good family who had lost his money and was ashamed to accept charity, he would go and say to him, “I have heard that an inheritance has come your way in a city across the sea. So here is an article of some value. Sell it and use the proceeds. When you are more affluent, you will repay me.” As soon as the man took it, Rabbi Jonah would say, “It’s yours is a gift” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:1).

These stories all have to do with the mitzvah of tzedakah whose source is in this week’s parshah:

“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11).

What we have here is a unique and still remarkable program for the elimination of poverty.

The first extraordinary fact about the laws of tzedakah as articulated in the Oral Tradition is the concept itself. Tzedakah does not mean “charity.” We see this immediately in the form of a law inconceivable in any other moral system: “Someone who does not wish to give tzedakah or to give less than is appropriate may be compelled to do so by a Jewish court of law” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:10). Charity is always voluntary. Tzedakah is compulsory. Therefore tzedakah does not mean charity. The nearest English equivalent is social justice.

The second is the principle evident in the three stories above. Poverty in Judaism is conceived not merely in material terms: the poor lack the means of sustenance. It is also conceived in psychological terms. Poverty humiliates. It robs people of dignity. It makes them dependent on others – thus depriving them of independence which the Torah sees as essential to self-respect.

This deep psychological insight is eloquently expressed in the third paragraph of the Grace after Meals: “Please, O Lord our God, do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people, but only on Your full, open, holy and generous hand so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation for ever and all time.”

As a result, Jewish law focuses not only on how much we must give but also on the manner in which we do so. Ideally the donor should not know to whom he or she is giving (story 1), nor the recipient know from whom he or she is receiving (story 2). The third story exemplifies another principle: “If a poor person does not want to accept tzedakah, we should practice a form of [benign] deception and give it to him under the guise of a loan” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:9).

Maimonides sums up the general principle thus: “Whoever gives charity to the poor with bad grace and averted eyes has lost all the merit of his action even though he gives him a thousand gold pieces. He should give with good grace and with joy and should sympathize with him in his plight, as it is said, ‘Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?’ [Job 30:25]” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:4).

This is the logic behind two laws that are otherwise inexplicable. The first is “Even a poor person who is dependent on tzedakah is obliged to give tzedakah” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:5). The law seems absurd. Why should we give money to the poor so that they may give to the poor? It makes sense only on this assumption – that giving is essential to human dignity and tzedakah is the obligation to ensure that everyone has that dignity.

The second is the famous ruling of Maimonides that “the highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is when a person assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7).

Giving someone a job or making him your partner would not normally be considered charity at all. It costs you nothing. But this further serves to show that tzedakah does not mean charity. It means giving people the means to live a dignified life, and any form of employment is more dignified, within the Jewish value system, than dependence.

We have in this ruling of Maimonides in the 12th century the principle that Muhammad Yunus rediscovered in our time, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize: the idea of micro-loans enabling poor people to start small businesses. It is a very powerful idea.

In contradistinction to many other religious systems, Judaism refused to romanticize poverty or anaesthetize its pain. Faith is not what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” The rabbis refused to see poverty as a blessed state, an affliction to be born with acceptance and grace. Instead, the rabbis called it “a kind of death” and “worse than 50 plagues.” They said, “Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, because he who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses of Deuteronomy have descended. If all other troubles were placed on one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.”

Maimonides went to the heart of the matter when he said (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:27), “The well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.” Poverty is not a noble state. You cannot reach spiritual heights if you have no food to eat or a roof for your head, if you lack access to medical attention or are beset by financial worries.

I know of no saner approach to poverty, welfare, and social justice than that of Judaism. Unsurpassed in its time, it remains the benchmark of a decent society to this day.

One in Five NY Jews Live in Poverty

Friday, June 7th, 2013

A new report shows that 20 percent of Jewish households in the New York metropolitan area are poor, a figure only marginally lower than the rate in the general population.

The report released Thursday by UJA-Federation of New York found more than 560,000 people living in 200,000 poor or near-poor Jewish households, a figure that represents a doubling of the number of people living in poor Jewish households since 1991, despite only a 14 percent increase in the Jewish population. The report also found nearly half of children in Jewish households live in poor or near-poor conditions.

Among all residents of the New York area, some 25 percent live in poor households, the report said.

“The sheer scale of Jewish poverty in the New York area is immense, and the Jewish community has a sacred responsibility to care for those in need,” said John Ruskay, UJA-Federation’s executive vice president and CEO.

The report found that the largest group of poor Jewish households in New York is Russian-speaking seniors, followed by Hasidim and non-Russian-speaking seniors.

Though the report acknowledges that contemporary American poverty does not typically result in “extreme deprivation,” it does note that 14 percent of poor and 9 percent of near-poor say they cannot make ends meet.

“In the most affluent society in history, this should not be acceptable,” the report said.

The report defines poor households as those earning less than 150 percent of the 2010 federal poverty guideline.

Solving One Problem, Sort of…

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

My issues with Satmar notwithstanding, I must give credit where credit is due. The Williamsburg area where Satmar Hasidim live has quietly created a trend of development that is somewhat counter culture – in a good way. In an era where gentrification has become standard for urban renewal Satmar has had its own – much more affordable version of that going on in its outer edges.

Gentrification is what happens to slums (or at best neglected neighborhoods) where the poor live when a city council and developers get together to try and eliminate those slums. Developers will buy out dilapidated buildings and either demolish them to build new upscale living quarters or rehabilitate existing structures that in their hey-day were quite upscale themselves.

When the original tenants moved to the suburbs (what used to be called white flight) and the poor started moving in these neighborhoods became neglected – some of them turning into slums. The residents could not afford to keep up the buildings and they became run down. That is an oversimplified – but I think fair description of what has happened.

Developers – seeking to attract singles or a working couple with no children whose incomes are well above average and expenditures far less that the average family would build housing suitable for this demographic… making them unattractive for most families and too expensive in any event. These dwellings are steeply priced. As an article in the New York Observer points out – in the trendier section of Williamsburg, a half a million dollars will barely buy you a studio apartment.

Satmar developers, ever mindful of the need of their growing community, have taken a different track. They have lobbied government officials successfully and have received zoning variances enabling them to build housing on what were once commercial and industrial zoned areas of Williamsburg. And they have built brand new and affordable housing for Satmar families where that same half million will buy a three-bedroom condo in a new elevator building.

True these structures will not win any architectural awards. “Strolling down Bedford Avenue, you’re greeted by a solid wall of new six-story brick buildings” says the New York Observer. They are obviously more functional than aesthetic. But they do have a clean and new functional look to them. In an area where a modest lifestyle is promoted, this type of housing is ideal. And again from the Observer (here comes the good part): “the ultra-Orthodox have succeeded in building thousands of units and keeping the neighborhood affordable for families—on private land, and without public money!”

I have been to these neighborhoods and seen these buildings. They are a far cry from the impoverished conditions I used to see there just a decade or so ago. It appears to be populated entirely by Williamsburg Hasidim.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something missing from this seemingly idyllic picture. For one thing a half million dollars isn’t pocket change. The ‘modest’ incomes of most Satmar Hasidim doesn’t seem like enough to buy one of these units. Even if you factor in low down payments – there remains the very high mortgage payments. Which begs the question, where do these families with 6, 7, 8 or more children get the money to pay for that? It would therefore appear to be that only a more upscale (by Satmar standards) family can afford these units. Either that or some of these families must be getting subsidized. And if so, where is that money coming from? Philanthropists? Government welfare programs?

The building boom also had some controversy attached when public land was bought along with private land. From the New York Observer:

Black and Latino leaders claimed that the affordable housing complex—to be built on city-owned land, some of which would be seized by eminent domain—would give a disproportionate number of units to the ultra-Orthodox, as traditional public housing projects nearby had in the past.

Rabbi David Niederman, leader of the United Jewish Organizations, begged to differ, saying that both the public and private aspect of the rezoning are needed. “We believe in supply and demand,” he said. “Imagine if 200 people are fighting for one unit”—something that New Yorkers outside of Hasidic Williamsburg won’t have to try very hard to do. “Prices are going to go up like crazy.”

I personally see no problem with what Satmar did. They lobbied for the land and they got it. Black and Latino leaders could have done the same.

The Left: Getting Rich by Fighting for the Poor

Sunday, March 10th, 2013

Hugo Chavez’s death was met with tributes from Iran, Bolivia, China and El Salvador. The Western left did not waste much time adding their withered roses to El Comandante’s coffin. George Galloway called him another Spartacus. Jimmy Carter described him as a leader who fought for the “neglected and trampled.” Michael Moore praised him for declaring that the oil belongs to the people.

Whether or not the oil belongs to the people is a matter of some debate considering how much of it seemed to end up in Chavez’s pocket.

Chavez died with an estimated net worth of two billion dollars making him the fourth richest man in Venezuela and the 49th richest man in Latin America. For a while, Chavez weathered attacks from the media empire of Gustavo A. Cisneros, the richest man in Venezuela. Then before the 2004 election, their mutual friend Jimmy Carter brokered an agreement between them. Cisneros’ media stopped criticizing Chavez and both men bent to the task of getting even richer.

While the Bolivarian Spartacus lined his pockets with oil money, Venezuela’s middle-class was struggling to get by in a country where the private sector had imploded. Income increased on paper, but decreased in reality as inflation increases ate the difference. Around the same time that Comrade Hugo was launching the third phase of his Bolivarian Revolution, inflation had decreased household income 8.8 percent while consumer goods prices increased 27 percent.

On his deathbed, Hugo Chavez devalued his country’s currency for the fifth time by 32 percent, after tripling the deficit during his previous term when the national debt had increased by 90 percent. From 2008 to 2011, Chavez’s oil-rich government increased the debt by nearly 50 billion in a country of less than 30 million. That same year, The Economist speculated that Venezuela might go bankrupt.

Chavez had swollen the ranks of Venezuela’s public employees to 2.5 million in a country where the 15-64 population numbered only 18 million. With 1 public employee to every 7 working adults, the entire mess was subsidized by oil exports and debt. When the price of oil fell, only debt was left.

Those public employees became Chavez’s campaign staff with no choice but to vote for him or see their positions wiped out to keep the economy from crashing. And they won him one last election.

The dead tyrant leaves behind the lowest GDP growth rate and highest inflation rate in Latin America. He leaves behind an economy where more than half the population depends on government benefits or government jobs. He leaves behind a giant pile of debt for the people and 2 billion dollars in misappropriated oil money for his heirs.

But we don’t need to look to a leftist banana republic south of the border to see how profitable fighting for the poor can be.

Seven of the 10 richest counties in America are now in the Washington D.C. area. Arlington County alone added $6,000 to its average income in one year alone. D.C. and its bedroom communities got rich at twice the rate of the rest of the country and in the last election; Obama won eight of the 10 richest counties in the country.

Washington D.C. is richer than Silicon Valley. Median income in the D.C. area has hit $84,523 despite the city itself having horrendous unemployment and poverty statistics. The top five percent in D.C. earns 60 percent more than the top 5 percent in other cities and 54 times what the bottom fifth earns in that same city.

This wealth of government money isn’t a rising tide that lifts all boats. Income inequality in Washington D.C. is one of the worst in the nation. For families with children, the income inequality level in D.C. is double the average for the rest of the country.

But when you concentrate the wealth of the land in a single imperial city, then you end up with a sharp gap between the poor and the fighters for the poor. Mid-level jobs are disappearing, but high-level jobs continue to grow. Small businesses are going out of business, but lawyers and consultants are being hired at a breathtaking rate.

Washington D.C. has the highest concentration of lawyers in the country. One out of every 12 city residents is a lawyer. One in 25 of the country’s lawyers lives in Washington D.C. In 2009, the Office of Personnel Management reported that there were 31,797 practicing lawyers in the Federal government earning an average salary of $127,500 a year. Or to put it another way, the taxpayers were spending double Hugo Chavez’s two billion dollar net worth each year just to pay the lawyers.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/daniel-greenfield/the-left-getting-rich-by-fighting-for-the-poor/2013/03/10/

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