There is a widespread stereotype both within and outside the Jewish community that most Jews are wealthy, and conversely that few Jews are poor.
To be sure, many Jews are affluent including a disproportionate number of ultra-wealthy individuals and families. Overall, the median household income for Australian Jews is $61,400 per annum compared to $39,000 for all Australian households. But conversely, more than 27 per cent of Jewish households live on less than $32,000 per annum. This group includes a significant number of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
As with most poor Australians, poor Jews struggle to find enough money to make ends meet, and to live decent and fulfilling lives. But they also face the additional challenge of engaging with a Jewish community which is overwhelmingly based on middle or even upper middle class norms.
Most communal structures and institutions – whether educational, religious, cultural or social – assume that all Jews can afford significant affiliation fees. There are also unwritten social expectations – particularly for Jewish children and youth – around material possessions such as cars, clothes, homes, holidays, and general spending capacity. Whilst most Jewish day schools provide bursaries to children from poorer backgrounds there remain serious educational and social barriers to integration.
Recently, Jewish social justice committees have been formed in both Victoria and New South Wales. The NSW Committee has formally endorsed anti-Poverty Week, criticized the government’s Work Choices legislation, and issued a statement supporting fair wages and working conditions for low-paid cleaners.
The Victorian SJC hosted a forum in October 2004 on Jewish poverty which had two particular objectives: to dispel myths prevalent in both the Jewish and broader Australian community that all Jews are wealthy, and conversely that few if any Jews are poor; and to consider ways of promoting the social inclusion (rather than exclusion) of disadvantaged Jews in the structures of the Jewish community – educational, religious, cultural and social – given that these structures are overwhelmingly skewed to middle-class values and lifestyles.
Traditionally, Judaism regards poverty as an unwelcome and degrading condition. Numerous biblical and rabbinical texts emphasize that responding to poverty is not optional, but rather a communal obligation. Jews are assigned a positive religious duty (Tzedakah) to assist the weaker members of society – the poor, the elderly, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the sickly, and the helpless.
The poor are entitled to assistance, rather than being subject to moral judgements about their character or deservingness. Hence Judaism does not view poverty as a result of individual deficiencies (i.e. laziness or sinfulness), but rather as being structurally determined (that is, a result of broader inequalities in education, taxation and the labour market).
It is arguable that the idea of the modern welfare state actually emanates from the Bible which endorsed a system of organized communal charity collection and distribution rather than discretionary acts of charity. Overall Jewish charity is a collective project based on collective responsibility. The Torah also provides a clear mandate to protect workers’ rights as reflected in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy which urge employers to pay laborers on the due date, and condemns those who fail to do so.
Contemporary Jews have a responsibility to address poverty at both the micro and macro levels through providing individual assistance to those experiencing poverty and disadvantage, and through campaigning at a more structural level for government action to promote greater equity and opportunity.
At the micro level, there is a need to educate the Jewish community about the causes and effects of poverty, and the Jewish imperative to work for social and economic justice. A key concern is to promote the social inclusion of disadvantaged Jews in the structures of the community. At the macro level, Jews should introduce a specifically Jewish perspective to broader debates about social welfare policy and equity, and play an active role in advocacy groups concerned with the empowerment of poor and disadvantaged groups.
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