Confined to our homes, deprived of the freedom of movement, we resorted to sharing Seders over Zoom and substituting its ritual objects with whatever we could find in our pandemic pantries. Matzo—the unleavened bread eaten during the weeklong holiday, symbolic of the haste with which the ancient Israelites fled Egypt—took on new meaning as the staple on our shelves, the physical embodiment of hardship and dislocation.
Suddenly, the 10 plagues that God visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians seemed imaginable as we confronted an eleventh plague: a wily disease with global reach. Not knowing when this pandemic will truly be over leaves us wandering in a metaphoric desert for 40 years, uncertain we’ll ever enter a promised land of normalcy—and unsure what that will even mean.
Beyond religious metaphor, the COVID-19 crisis is putting unprecedented stress on the Jewish community’s social welfare infrastructure. The pandemic’s epicenter, New York, is home to the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world outside Israel. It is also home to the largest concentration of Jewish poor in America—and that was before the public health measures initiated to combat the coronavirus decimated the city’s economy.
Jewish poverty had, most recently, seemed like an oxymoron. Overall, Jews are among the best-educated, most prosperous religious and ethnic groups in America, with political, cultural, and financial influence far exceeding our miniscule numbers. But lurking beneath that successful veneer was an uncomfortable fact: As many as one in five Jews in the New York region were poor, and pockets of Jewish poverty were scattered across the nation.
The poor were elderly Jews, often Holocaust survivors or Russian immigrants. They were the Haredim, or devoutly Orthodox Jews, whose belief system and way of life consigned many to poverty. Others were poor not because they were Jewish, but because they were American—single mothers, the disabled, the addicted, the mentally unstable, who dropped to the bottom because of this nation’s unconscionably porous safety net.
The impressive social welfare infrastructure developed by the Jewish community over many years serviced these poor, but never with the prominence and resources that they deserved. Acknowledging their presence challenged American Jews’ self-identity. Too often, the poor were made invisible. Those who could looked the other way.
This pandemic, and the Trump administration’s inept, inconsistent, and narcissistic response, has forced open our eyes. “This is a have and have-not pandemic,” Deborah Joselow, UJA Federation of New York’s chief planning officer, told me. “This lays it very, very bare. None of this is a great surprise. The picture has unraveled very rapidly, but it’s always been there.”
Not only has that picture come into tragic focus, but it now encompasses a wider lens: the newly vulnerable. The consequences of COVID-19 have torn through Jewish families, Jewish businesses, synagogues, schools, community centers—the pillars of communal life. The vaunted national system of Jewish federations, which deliver all manner of educational and social services, is itself challenged by illness, deaths, and financial collapse. The Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, comprised of 134 agencies across the country, reported that requests for food assistance quadrupled in just the first few days of the crisis.
The New York federation has so far allocated a whopping $44 million in emergency aid; $20 million of that to the Hebrew Free Loan Society (HFLS), which is helping non-profit agencies reliant on government contracts that are not keeping up with growing needs. Other funding targets heart-breaking causes: With so many dead, $250,000 was given to a group that ensures dignified burials.
The American Jewish community boasts such a thick and well-resourced infrastructure because communal giving has become a tenet of the faith. You may not attend synagogue regularly or keep a kosher home or even believe in God, but if you generously support your local federation, you are considered a good Jew.
Sustaining that focus is a monumental challenge going forward. The commandment to give tzedekah, charity, is not only about writing a check. It is about fostering personal empathy and pursuing social justice.
“Empathy requires encounter, and we are all stuck in our homes,” Rabbi David Rosenn, HFLS’s executive director, lamented. “I don’t know if our society is structured to turn on a switch of empathy. This pandemic should be a tremendous leveler—we are all in the same boat. But we are not all in the same boat. We need to feel a mutual obligation to each other.”
That connects to another tenet of Judaism: to remember our shared history. As the crisis abates, so will the response unless this frightening time is seared into our collective memory alongside other historic catastrophes, and held up repeatedly as a reason not to turn away from the poor, the vulnerable, the cast-off, and depressed—with new members of this group living right next door. “It’s easy to forget,” Joselow said. “I’m hopeful that we won’t.”
Giving tzedakah to help those in need has never been more important, but it is not enough. Doing tzedakah, pursuing social justice by addressing the deep inequities that this pandemic lay bare, must be part of our response.