Every day at 6 P.M. 72 Jews come to the Ezra Center in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. They come to eat dinner. Although the meal is provided by a respectable caterer and served in a place called Uptown Cafe, this is unmistakably a soup kitchen.
Many of the diners are elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Others are homeless people living in the Jewish community center's basement, released prisoners, illegal aliens, including Israelis, and the poor.
"We found abysmal poverty," says Anita Weinstein, founder and director of the Ezra Center, which provides social services to some 4,000 needy Chicago Jews living in the area. The Ezra Multi-Service Center (MSC) is a collaborative project of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) and is administered by the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago (JCC). It was founded 23 years ago for distressed middle-class Jews who lost their jobs in the recession.
"We asked ourselves, if this could happen to middle-class Jews, what was happening to other people?" says Weinstein.
In addition to some 7,000 middle-class Jews who needed help, some 3,000 Jews were receiving welfare. "We discovered an entire community of poor Jews of all ages who have been living here for a very long time," she says.
Today many of the needy are elderly, including Holocaust survivors, large ultra-Orthodox families and minimum-wage earners. "It's harder to be poor today," says Weinstein.
One of the main problems is shelter. Some Jews live in cars. The disability stipend is $623 a month. Rent, even for a modest room, is at least half of that. The federation provides homes for some 800 homeless people, about half of them Jews, in five buildings it rents in Uptown. About a third of them have jobs.
Steven Nasatir, JUF / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago president, says one of every five Jews among Chicago's 270,000 Jews is poor or almost poor according to the federal government's definition. He says there are no figures for the general poverty rate among Jews in the United States, but according to the federations' umbrella organization, the UJC, 15 to 20 percent of American Jews are poor.
In fact, the Jewish poverty rate in the United States is higher than that in Israel. In Israel 24 percent of the population is considered poor, but about half is not Jewish.
New York also has a high rate of Jewish poverty. "Usually the words 'Jewish poverty" are seen as a contradiction in terms, says William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "It's not. More than a quarter of the members of the world's richest Jewish community live close to the poverty line."
A survey conducted for the federation five years ago showed that 350,000 Jews in New York City and state live close to the poverty line. The highest poverty rate is in Brooklyn. Ultra-Orthodox families make up 27 percent of those living below the poverty line, 23 percent are Russian speakers under the age of 65, 21 percent are Russian speakers over 65, 13 percent are non-Russian speakers over 65 and 16 percent are unemployed or handicapped.
The poverty line for a family of three is set at an annual income of $15,000 but in New York and other large cities it is adjusted to the higher cost of living and set at $22,530.
For every 100 housing units the community builds for the poor, mainly with state funding, there is a waiting list of 6,000, Rapfogel says. The apartments are raffled among the eligible recipients.