Have We Forgotten the Jewish Poor?

The custom of giving 'mishloah manot' makes Purim a good time to consider our obligation as Jews to specifically help others – but not just any others.

Jared Samilow
Jared Samilow
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A Jewish man collects food from a soup kitchen, Jerusalem, Israel, January 13, 2010.
A Jewish man collects food from a soup kitchen, Jerusalem, Israel, January 13, 2010.Credit: Emil Salman
Jared Samilow
Jared Samilow

Most Jewish holidays are heavy and laden with restrictions. But some, without being any less meaningful, are a lot of fun. Purim is one of them. It's a festival that's more about glamor than grit: we sport costumes that put Halloween to shame, spend hours baking triangular pastries (or free-ride off the labor of others), and have fun shaking pasta-filled cartons to drown out a bad guy’s name. And that’s not even the half of it. On Purim eve, Jews across the world fulfill—with grudging, painful reluctance, I must concede—the religious obligation to drink until they can’t tell the difference between Mordechai the hero and Haman the villain.

Yet, there’s more to Purim than sanctioned revelry and reciting the megillah—the cosmically-savage tale that recounts Esther’s takedown of Haman: It's the obligation of preparing and delivering mishloach manot, food packages, to one’s friends, and matnot l'evyonim— food packages and charity to the poor (we'll refer to this whole giving-arrangement by the well-known term mishloach manot).

Mishloach manot were not meant to be a Jewish social idiosyncrasy. As Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld notes, we give them to our friends and family as well as the poor because singling out the poor might make them feel ashamed. The custom’s specific orientation toward the poor is evident from the fact that its rabbinic requirement can be satisfied only by donating food.

That Purim contrasts mirthful indulgence with serious responsibility makes it an appropriate time to reflect on our obligation as Jews to specifically help others, and not just any others, but other Jews. In March 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a now-famous letter to her husband John, imploring him to “remember the ladies” when waging his grand, transformative fight for independence from Britain. This Purim, I see fit to adapt her poetic formulation to suit Purim and the idea of mishloach manot: Remember the Jews.

Indeed, many of us have forgotten them. As Anna Heim, who produced the 2014 documentary "Jews Got Money," a short film that examines taboos about wealth and poverty among American-Jews, notes in the Huffington Post, “while 'tzedakah' and philanthropy are deeply entrenched in the Jewish culture, many Jews ignore that members of their community also need support.”

By saying this I don't mean to promote tribal insularity, or to impugn that spirit of universal altruism that forms a cornerstone of the identity of many Jews. But I am hazarding that while we’re helping others, we need to make sure that our own house is in order. Because right now, it's not. In Israel, a government report concluded last year that 775,500 children suffer from poverty, making Israel one of the worst OECD countries in that regard. And while the American Jewish community is generally well-off, its wealth—like the rest of America’s national fortune—is unevenly distributed. Pew’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” found that while two-thirds of Jews make above $75,000 per year, about 20 percent have incomes below $20,000.

There is no shortage of Jewish philanthropists ready to make out checks to (very worthy) non-Jewish causes. "Borat" star Sacha Baron Cohen, for example, basked in the spotlight for a commendable $1 million donation to Syrian refugees, but it’s depressing that Look to the Stars, a website that tracks celebrity philanthropy, does not show any contributions he’s made to the Jewish community. He's not alone. A 2013 report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that American-Jews—younger ones, especially—were quite latitudinarian in their gift-giving.

When offering unsolicited advice, it’s important to also give credit where credit is due. In March 2014, The Forward published a breakdown of the American-Jewish community’s titanic institutional budget, concluding that about one-third of its resources are spent on social services.

Having said that, big-picture politics can, to a certain extent, distract us from simple, casual responsibilities. Anti-Israel hostility is metastasizing in the United States and Europe, and the Jewish community has diverted a vast fortune to combatting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and buttressing Israel’s firewall on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Zionism is tenuous among younger Jews and controversial among younger non-Jews, and the pressures of assimilation erode the American-Jewish population.  Faced with these problems, Jewish philanthropy appears to have been more focused on political activism and Jewish education, and less focused on plain old charity for the needy.

The broader challenges facing us aren’t going to abate, and these trials understandably occupy the minds of Jewish community leaders. Yet as we approach a holiday that exalts the mitzvah of giving to the poor, we should take care to remember all the Jews.

Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.

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