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Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Poverty beyond Passover

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For many years I have volunteered for the Passover food drive. My mother used to send me to school with a box of matzah or a can of gefilte fish to donate, my sister would shelp me along on delivery day to help load and unload the car, and now I encourage my students to bring in donations and help with the delivery.

Each year as I help in collecting food, packing boxes and delivering them, I develop a clearer picture of the acute needs of so many in our community.

With big-ticket fundraising dinners and speakers, state-of-the-art community buildings and successful annual fundraising campaigns, it’s easy to forget that there is still severe poverty and need in our community. Being involved in the Passover food drive grounds me in the reality of our communal needs.

The statistics are startling. An analysis of Canadian census data from 2001 indicates that that 11 per cent of our community lives under the poverty line. The level of child poverty was nearly nine per cent, and more than 20 per cent of Toronto Jewish seniors are poor.

As the economy continues to decline and joblessness continues to increase, the numbers have surely worsened significantly since the census in 2001. Increased reliance on public social welfare is parallelled by increased demand on our community agencies such as Jewish Family and Child (JF&C), Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) and JVS.

Over the course of the last six months, I have been approached by scores of students who, facing difficult financial times, are forced to ask for subsidies and assistance for various educational programs. While communal institutions strive to be inclusive and implement the mantra that “no child should be denied a Jewish education,” budgets are tight and some institutions are finding that there simply isn’t enough subsidy funding to meet the need.

Assistance doesn’t only come in the form of tuition subsidies. Jewish schools often help students afford basic school supplies, books, binders and even gym clothes. The socio-economic diversity in our schools, while often kept private and hidden, is a microcosm of the economic reality of our community at large.

It is critical that we publicly recognize the need within our community. While the Passover food drive has offered me a window into a segment of our community that is often left hidden, many don’t have the opportunity to see the need first-hand. Anonymity of the recipient of tzedakah and confidentiality of personal financial circumstances is essential, but if the acute need of the poor is not placed publicly on the communal agenda, their plight can easily be swept under the carpet.

In our tradition we have a special mitzvah of maot chittin, collecting and distributing charity for Passover. The need, however, continues beyond the holiday. It is essential that we help those in need afford the supplies they need to celebrate Passover, but we also have an obligation to ensure that there is food on their tables the next week and the week after that.

All too often the spotlight of Jewish charitable causes skips over the poor of our community. At certain times of the year – during the Passover food drive or the Chanukah toy drive – we campaign for those in need, but the burden of poverty does not lessen during the remainder of the year. In today’s economy, it is critical that we give the support needed to the agencies that help those in need. JF&C, JIAS and the kosher food bank, as well as schools and synagogues, work to help those in need. It takes the entire community, however, to ensure that their needs are met.

Once a year, the Passover food drive allows me to look through a window and gain a new perspective on our community. With Passover behind us, it’s now time to open the blinds and ensure that these issues are at the centre of our communal charity agenda.

 

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