National awareness campaign on Jewish poverty launched

By Andrea Gardner, Jewish Family Services of Ottawa

One in seven Canadian Jews lives below the poverty line. According to the analysis of the 2011 National Household Survey by Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, the number of Jewish poor in Canada is on the rise.

In Ottawa, there are more than 1,200 Jews living in poverty, including adults, children, Holocaust survivors, single parent families and the disabled. Many feel isolated and vulnerable and their choices are not about which schools to attend, which summer camp to go to or where to travel, but rather which bills to pay, how to put food on the table and where to turn for help.

Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, through our Tikvah Program, has had a long-standing commitment to helping and supporting our Jewish community’s most vulnerable. Through financial support; access to food security programs, such as the Kosher Food Bank and Miriam’s Well; advocacy; assistance in accessing essential resources; support over the holidays; and counselling, we have reached out and affected the lives of hundreds of Jews living in poverty.

A new initiative, the National Think Tank on Poverty – with representatives of Jewish Family Services agencies and Federations from across Canada, as well as Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies Canada – has been established to develop a common framework, language and understanding grounded in Jewish values, which advances the conversation on poverty in the Canadian Jewish community.

The National Think Tank on Poverty’s statement is our first step.

Statement on Jewish poverty in Canada

On October 17, the international community marked the 21st annual UN Day for the Eradication of Poverty. On this same day on the Hebrew calendar, the 23rd of Tishrei 5775, Jews around the world celebrated the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah, which celebrates the conclusion and start of the reading of the Sefer Torah. It is from this ancient and holy text that we derive our communal commitment and obligation to ensure that every member is sustained by the whole.

The Jewish community’s experience with poverty mirrors the broader Canadian reality. Almost 15 per cent of the Canadian Jewish population, including one in five children, lives below the poverty line. But poverty within the Jewish community is as elusive as it is pervasive: it remains largely hidden.

When the research paper, “The Poor Among Us,” was published 30 years ago, it noted “the Jewish poor are a minority among Jews because they are poor, and are a minority among the poor because they are Jews.” Today, the challenge of the invisibility of Jewish poverty persists.

Jewish individuals and families living in poverty attend our day schools, worship in synagogues and participate in community activities. They are our new immigrants, here to make a fresh start; our seniors; and families with dual working parents. They may struggle with mental and physical illness. Like all of us. They are our neighbours, friends and family. Poverty affects not only the individual or family in crisis, but also our community’s overall health and welfare as well.

What can we do?

We cannot change what we don’t acknowledge. We need to sensitize and educate ourselves. We need to develop community-specific responses to the needs of our members living in poverty. We need to invest in our youth and support our seniors. We need to hold governments accountable and ensure they create, fund and deliver adequate social and economic policies, programs and services to end injustices – including poverty – and prevent them, to the benefit of our communities as part of the greater whole. Strategies may vary city by city, or community by community, but ,fundamentally, we need to act.

Jewish Family Service agencies and the Jewish Federations across Canada have joined together to raise awareness surrounding this critical issue facing our communities. Coast to coast, we are committed to instilling an increased mindfulness of poverty in our vibrant and caring Jewish community. And we are committed to being part of a national solution.

Over the coming months, we will be reaching out to Canadian Jewish communities with opportunities to inform, engage and act. In the same manner that anyone can be affected by poverty, we all have the capacity to fight poverty and improve the lives of our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

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