Photo via WikiCommons

We need a poverty summit

If we can land a man on the moon, we can end poverty. The Jewish community has been grappling with the issue of the impoverished, the other, for thousands of years. We are taught that “There shall be no poor among you” and “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

Communal service networks have helped knit together organized Jewish communities for generations. Our ancestors, whether escaping Russian pogroms or surviving Nazi death camps, came to the United States in conditions of abject poverty, carrying our legacies with them. Social service efforts have helped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our own.

If any community has the history to help launch a “moon landing” to defeat poverty, it is ours. We can’t do it alone, nor should we, but we can convene our neighbors, our friends, our hearts and our intentions to do something unprecedented. We can bring together the minds and the expertise to craft a comprehensive plan to end poverty as has never been done before. We can harness the minds, the will and the resources that resulted in “one giant leap for mankind,” thereby marshaling the tools needed to affect the lives of the poor in the most far-reaching and profound way imaginable.

We must call a summit. The United States Poverty Summit would devote attention and resources unseen since Neil Armstrong made an entire country believe in itself when he stepped on the moon. Approaching the issue of poverty from a variety of disciplines, led by an array of experts, the summit will launch a national dialogue that can lead to a comprehensive plan to attack this suffering in all the many ways that are needed.

There is no single path into or out of poverty. Assembling experts from different fields who can talk to one another, interact with one another and make symbiotic their disparate approaches, is the way forward. The tools are there, the programs exist and the people with the knowledge are available.

We, as a community, can supply the key, otherwise missing, ingredient: the will. We can help cast aside gridlock. There is too much at stake, too many lives on the edge, to avoid the opportunity that can lead, together, to a historic societal change.

What shape would a weeklong poverty summit take? On Day One, an agenda will be set.  Days Two and Three will be spent in intensive group discussions, led by designated experts, with invited representatives from each represented community. On Day Four, each group will draft its own 10-point plan that can be implemented to alleviate the trauma of poverty from its perspective, and then, on Day Five, all of the groups will reconvene for a general convocation at which all of the plans will be reviewed and integrated. The result will be a week to define the concrete steps that will change the lives of the poor in a way never before attempted.

A number of key components need to be amassed. With apologies to all those inadvertently omitted, the summit has to begin with a community ready to lead and a designated leader to help bring so many diverse experts together. We are that community. 

The leader

For a generation, former Sen. and Vice President Joe Biden has been the conscience of our government’s policies affecting the most vulnerable. He authored the Violence Against Women Act, he championed numerous access-to-justice initiatives for the poor, and he oversaw the launch and growth of the national IMPACT Project, an unprecedented national pro bono program that has brought heightened legal services to the poor in 11 cities around the country. His experience, his insight, his moderation and his ability to reach across party lines make him the moderator, leader and voice of this effort.

The legal community

Acknowledging that lawyers are the unsung heroes in the battle against poverty, understanding that only the justice system can address the immediate needs of those most vulnerable, a number of key attorneys must be at the poverty summit. Expert attorneys in civil rights, poverty law, government funding, homelessness prevention and the pro bono delivery of legal services need to be part of the summit.

The advocacy community 

Understanding that without forceful and skilled advocates, no plan would be complete, several key voices need to lead one of the most crucial discussions. Leaders in children’s rights, authors addressing race and poverty, homeless community advocates, senior protection organizations, those involved in advancing the cause of affordable housing, and experts in making the welfare system work efficiently all need to be invited. 

The economics of poverty

Leading economists and academics have devoted their considerable scholarship to the economics of poverty. Tax experts, those who have worked around the world on issues of extreme poverty, and political leaders who have devoted significant thought and legislative efforts to combating poverty can be assembled to attend and advise. Professors, governors and lawmakers will bring a perspective and expertise needed to move forward with proficiency and influence. 

Politicians and the political system 

Not many elected officials have dared to discuss poverty and make it a critical part of our national discourse. The late Robert Kennedy, who served as a U.S. senator and attorney general, was the prototype but, sadly, few have claimed his mantle. Others, however, at various levels of government actively have tried to bring the issue into our political dialogue. Particular mayors, city attorneys, state legislators, governors, senators and Cabinet members have initiated legislation, used their bully pulpits, encouraged anti-poverty development, and should be a key part of this discussion. 

Homelessness advocates 

In various communities around the country, there are advocates who have devoted their lives to being immediate with those whose situations have forced them into life on the streets. These advocates take to the streets, literally, to know and understand the people who are living in this kind of poverty. They and others have launched on-the-ground projects that are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing and training the job-seekers. Invited to join these dedicated leaders will be representatives from the most effective on-the-ground organizations in the country, those who actively are engaged in innovative anti-poverty programming.


Addressing the intersection of race and poverty has been assessed directly by a number of authors, to one degree or another. Their examinations and experiences will add to the summit discussion. They have addressed the impact that increased incarceration followed by difficult parole policies have on the cycle of poverty. They work with former convicts who find re-entry to be increasingly difficult as they are denied jobs, housing and voting rights. Others have written about the need for our communities to create more ways for the poor to earn decent wages. Still others have lived among the poor and written about the precarious poverty precipice over which families fall when they lose their homes.


Well-funded private foundations, led by influential nonprofit and business pacesetters, have provided billions of dollars in grant-funding, goods and services to combat the trauma of poverty. A national network of community foundations is impacting low-income neighborhoods and programming on a daily basis. Bringing together private foundations, with collective resources and missions meant to make an impact, will be a part of this particular group. 

The business community

Individual philanthropists from the business community offer important leadership. Representatives from the banking, real estate, investment and entertainment industries bring a perspective, as well as resources and gravitas, needed to overcome the ways that established systems sometimes work against the interests of the poor. Bringing a business sensibility, an industrious approach to uplifting the needy, and crafting a strategy for private industry to pursue will be a critical part of the plan to be drafted.

Faith communities

Throughout the history of the United States, communities of faith have been the primary line of defense for the poor. The Jewish Federations of North America bring together a vast network of Jewish communal organizations that have been serving the poor on a nonsectarian basis for more than a century. Other religious groups have done similarly admirable work. They all need to be at this table and they all need to bring their constituencies with them. They collectively would bring to the summit a wide swath of experience and a deep pool of experts and volunteers.

Food insecurity

More than 42 million people in the U.S. live in households that are food insecure. (That figure is from the 2016 report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Organizations across the country are working and advocating for effective anti-hunger measures.


Poverty is awash in generational cycles. Education is the single most important weapon in breaking through a historical, cyclical morass of lost hope. Secretaries of education, on the state and federal Cabinet levels, can lead this part of the discussion. Innovative educators from universities, public grade schools, support organizations and private funders would bring great experience and wisdom to the discussion. Leaders of teachers unions, private school professionals and carefully chosen elected school board representatives need to round out the list of participants.

There are many other groups whose participation and experience would be valuable additions to the summit. Union leaders, job-creation organizations, local governments, housing departments, builders, welfare advocates, mental health professionals, environmentalists who focus on the degradation of our low-income communities, medical personnel and community health organizations would be important contributors. The bottom line is that we have an occasion to address the overriding issue of our generation.

As leaders of a Jewish community that for generations has argued about, debated and taken action to help the impoverished among us, we have the will to address issues of poverty as never before. With the right people in the room, one week of uninterrupted focus is all we ask. It could change our nation forever. 

David A. Lash is the managing counsel of pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. To join him in this effort, email

Survivors’ welfare is a public, private and community responsibility

They survived unimaginable horrors, yet went on to live productive lives, despite the haunting memories, the profound loss and physical scars from years of deprivation. Now many Holocaust survivors need our assistance so they may live their twilight years with dignity in their homes and communities.

Most Holocaust survivors are in their 80s and 90s, and an astounding 25 percent of them in the United States live in poverty, struggling to meet basic needs for food, housing, health care and transportation. Many live alone and have no extended family who survived the Holocaust. Spouses who used to provide support are no longer living. Each year, just as we lose many survivors, we also see others coming forward, identifying themselves as Holocaust survivors in desperate need of assistance.

As survivors age, they face challenges different from other older adults. Some suffer from delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder, making it more difficult to live in assisted living or nursing homes, where institutional life, with its uniformed staff, regimented schedules and rules can lead to flashbacks of concentration camps or other periods of confinement. Unfamiliar showers can be a frightening reminder of gas chambers.

Multiple studies have found that survivors are more likely than others to experience anxiety and nightmares.

We cannot let this happen.

For many survivors, social services are their lifeline. Home care, the most expensive of these vital services, costs an average of $20 per hour per survivor. With approximately 125,000 Holocaust survivors in the U.S., it will take extensive resources to serve even the neediest of survivors. The German government, through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, provides the majority of the funding for social services, but survivor needs are exceeding available funding.

Local communities have taken note, and we’re inspired by the philanthropic campaigns that are working to educate the community. Together we’ve raised more than $30 million over the past couple years.

Additionally, companies have stepped up to help. We’re grateful for the partnership between the Alpha Omega dental fraternity and Henry Schein Cares to offer Holocaust survivors pro bono dental care, and the generosity of the Starkey Hearing Foundation to provide hearing aids free of charge to survivors in need.

Finally, government leaders are recognizing the specialized assistance that aging Holocaust survivors require. Vice President Joe Biden announced the White House’s initiative to help Holocaust survivors in 2013. This resulted in numerous avenues for assistance.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year, President Barack Obama declared, “Governments have an obligation to care for the survivors of the Shoah because no one who endured that horror should have to scrape by in their golden years.”

In March, Jewish federations distributed $2.8 million in federal grants to assist programs for Holocaust survivors. Coupled with the required matching funds, the disbursement results in $4.5 million for survivor services. For the first time, the federal government will soon issue guidance to states on serving Holocaust survivors, as required by the Older Americans Act Reauthorization that cleared Congress in April.

A few states and local governments are providing assistance as well. In Florida, for example, local Jewish federations worked together to obtain a special state appropriation for Holocaust survivor services, while in New York City last year, the mayor and City Council approved a budget including $1.5 million to assist Holocaust survivors living in poverty. More states and local governments should follow these leads in pursuing special appropriations.

Perhaps more impactful is that we encourage Germany to continue to fulfill its moral responsibility by providing additional financial resources for social services for Holocaust survivors, as recently called for in bipartisan resolutions in the U.S. House and Senate.

Both of our families managed to overcome great odds and survive the Holocaust, fortunate to be able to re-establish their lives in America and prosper. Not every Holocaust survivor was so lucky. They are the survivors who need our help. We must volunteer our time, visit Holocaust survivors and engage them in their Jewish communities.

These survivors are our heroes, our teachers and our mentors. One day they will no longer be with us. Until that day comes, we are obligated to ensure that they live their remaining days and years in dignity.

When future generations ask if the Jewish community took care of its Holocaust survivors, let that answer be a resounding “yes.”

Mark Wilf is president and co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings and a board member of JTA’s parent organization, 70 Faces Media. Todd Morgan is the founder and chairman of Bel Air Investment Advisors.  Together they co-chair the Jewish Federations of North America's Fund for Holocaust Survivors.

Joseph Sanberg: A one-man army against poverty

On a recent Thursday morning at Casa Teresa, an emergency women’s shelter in Orange County, five spirited, young pregnant women and a new mother gathered around a conference table, waiting for for their class on budgeting to begin.

The teacher was late, so the women joked and laughed about how broke they were.  At the center of the table, a newborn cooed in his carrier.  

Before long, Joseph N. Sanberg, a Harvard graduate, Internet entrepreneur and investor, entered the room a little breathless from rushing. “Did you all do your homework?” he asked, getting straight to business. 

Sanberg was dressed casually, in jeans and a lavender button-down, his strawberry blond hair windswept and wild. Twice a month, he teaches this financial class to Casa Teresa residents, who tend to have little experience with money management. 

“Remember we talked about the key part of budgeting being the difference between spending that’s an expense and spending that’s an investment?” Sanberg said. “What would be an example of spending you did in the last couple of weeks that’s an expense, not an investment?”

“I bought red lipstick,” a woman in a flannel top said. The group laughed, nervous with recognition.

“Why did you do it?” Sanberg asked.

“Because it was a pretty color,” she said.

Sanberg paused, then looked directly at her: “Did you do it because you were trying to make yourself feel better?” he asked.

“In a way, yeah,” she admitted.

“How do you think you would have felt if you hadn’t bought it, and you’d had the confidence to resist that temptation?”

“I’d have more money than I have now,” she said, a little embarrassed. “And it would have been way better for me.”

Sanberg looked pleased. But his cool quickly faded when another woman confessed an addiction — to Starbucks.

“Starbucks?!” Sanberg said, flashing an incredulous smile. “Bad!”

He grabbed a marker and headed for the board. 

“This is a really, really bad expense!” he continued, almost comically exasperated. He popped the top off a dry-erase marker. 

“How many Starbucks do you get in a day, every day?” Sanberg asked.

“One,” she said. “Venti.”

“Five bucks?” he asked.

“Five twenty five.” 

Sanberg did the math. “Roughly speaking, $5 times 365 days, that’s like 1,800 bucks,” he said. “That’s a lot of f—— money. You could literally buy a used car with that.”

He asked the woman if she had a job and how much she made per hour, in order to demonstrate that she had to work 45 minutes for every Venti coffee she ordered. He suggested she buy a thermos instead and fill up at Casa Teresa.

I don’t even drink Starbucks,” Sanberg said. “Rip-off!”

This isn’t what you expect to hear from a guy who spent seven years working on Wall Street, and who, at 36, admits he has already made an amount of money that is “ridiculous,” and that he will “never be able to spend.” But Sanberg isn’t your typical tycoon — he doesn’t wear tailor-made suits or drive a fancy car or sport a fine watch. He doesn’t even own the Laguna Beach house he lives in. “I don’t value material things,” he told me. Instead, the thing that animates Sanberg most is his mission to “change the world,” a formidable goal he talks about with the kind of casual confidence someone else might have, say, for doing a load of laundry: “Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam,” he said, using the Jewish expression for healing the world. 

Sanberg could easily be the guy standing at the front of a boardroom talking about the derivatives market. Instead, he has spent the last five months traveling around California speaking to low-income working families about how to get their share of a $400 million tax credit. This year is the first in California history that a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has become available, over and above the federal one. Sanberg thinks this anti-poverty program is so important, he has invested $1.5 million of his own money to create an education and outreach campaign, CalEITC4Me, whose aim is to get every eligible Californian to file a tax return by April 15 and obtain their credit. It is estimated that the EITC could impact 600,000 California households and improve the lives of 2.2 million people. 

But reaching everyone eligible won’t be easy: California already has the third-lowest utilization rate of the federal EITC, meaning nearly $2 billion dollars in available tax credits go unclaimed in the state each year. If Sanberg and other like-minded advocates can’t prove in this first year that the new program is indispensable, there is no guarantee it will be part of future state budgets. 

“That’s why our work this tax season is so damn critical,” Sanberg told the community organizers and state leaders at a November United Way conference. “If people use California’s EITC and love it, it’s going to be very hard to take it away. The measure of [our] success is entirely about implementation.”

Joe Sanberg shakes hands with a man while mingling among community members during the listening tour in South Gate last September. Photo by Hector Gomez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

The idea behind the federal EITC first appeared in a welfare reform proposal put forth by the Nixon administration in 1971; it underwent various iterations before becoming permanent under Jimmy Carter. Designed to reward work, the amount of the credit is calculated based on a percentage of earned income and the size of the household — the more you earn and the more people you support, the higher your credit. Initially modest, the program ballooned in the 1990s in a national effort to reduce poverty, and today is considered the largest anti-poverty cash entitlement program in the United States. At a cost of $56 billion per year, the EITC is the third-largest welfare program in the country behind Medicaid and food stamps.

Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown made California the 26th state to offer a state version of the federal credit. “This was a big deal,” Chris Hoene, executive director of the nonprofit California Budget & Policy Center (CBPC) told a confab of community organizations at the United Way event. According to Hoene, in the 2012 tax year alone, the federal EITC helped lift 1.3 million Californians above the poverty line — 630,000 of them children. “It single-handedly reduced the child poverty rate in California by 6 percentage points,” he said, even with California’s low utilization rate. 

A state supplement could do even more: Using the example of a single mother who works part time at minimum wage, earning about $5,600 per year, Hoene said the combined state and federal EITC could boost her total income by $4,000 — a life-changing 80 percent.

Sanberg’s task is basically to blow the shofar on this and wake up low-income households to the possibility of a better future. He points out that the main reason eligible people don’t claim the credit is they don’t know it exists. And low-income earners tend not to file tax returns, because they either don’t owe money or they’re wary of tax agencies. CalEITC4Me has therefore partnered with VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program that provides IRS-certified volunteers to help qualified individuals file returns.

What this all adds up to for Sanberg is accomplishing his most ambitious goal: solving the problem of income inequality in America. When he talks about the lack of opportunity hindering the middle class and the marginalized, he does so with intense idealism and earnestness. As an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist working in the public and private sectors, Sanberg’s mission is clear and unequivocal: “I always had this sense that I wanted to be a champion for people who are victims of unfairness or injustice,” he told me. “Whenever I observed that, it always really fired me up.”


“Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam.” — Joseph N. Sanberg


I first met Sanberg last November at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan Beach, where he confessed his only self-indulgent luxury: “I could give up every other thing that comes with being rich,” he said, “but the one thing I really enjoy is sushi.”

Sanberg is tight-lipped about his actual net worth; the website lists his investments since 2012 at nearly $77 million. “What matters is what people do with their money, not how much money they have,” he said. Still, rather than spend his millions on the good life, the former managing director of Wall Street’s Tiger Global Management is spending his fortune, and his time, trying to improve  the lives of others. Aspiration, the 2-year-old Internet bank he co-founded with Andrei Cherny, targets middle-income and young people with low-cost, high-quality investment opportunities that are normally available only to wealthy investors. And instead of charging a fixed percentage of profits, as most investment banks do, Aspiration takes the unique step of allowing customers to determine their own fees. So far, 15,000 people have signed up — with upward of 40,000 on a waitlist (Sanberg said that taking time for customer education is part of the “on-boarding process”). Sanberg also claims that Aspiration is doubling its customer base every five weeks. Aspiration’s business model, he says, is “based on trust,” a word not often associated these days with America’s financial institutions. “We are a business that makes the money our customers choose to pay us,” he said, adding that Aspiration also promises to donate 10 percent of its profits to charity. “Investing with a conscience” is the company’s tagline. 

Sanberg applies this same principle to his personal philanthropy as well. Last fall, when UC Riverside launched its inaugural Master of Public Policy program, Sanberg donated enough money for half of the program’s students to attend tuition-free for two years, with additional funds left over to support more students with “significant” scholarships. In 2014, after an electrical fire caused $300,000 in damages at his childhood synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Sanberg contributed $200,000 to the rebuilding effort. He is also a major donor to the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI), an organization that fosters relationships between Jewish graduate students and Jewish business leaders, including at an annual conference. Rabbi Dave Sorani, 33, JGSI’s founder and CEO, described how Sanberg frequently speaks to the students, most recently at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. 

“He blew people away,” Sorani said. When you hear him speak about how he gives philanthropy from his company, the students are like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ People are usually nervous to give to charity when they’re so young, but Joe’s different. He’s not saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and then give to philanthropy.’ He’s saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and give philanthropy.’ Joe is teaching students to think: ‘How can I make the most money, and how can I give the most money?’ We have so many speakers, and no one says that. No one talks about it. ”

Last year, Sanberg caught word that Sorani wanted to host a Passover seder for graduate students with nowhere else to go. Sanberg offered to help fund it, but only if the seder would also include low-income families. “As a nonprofit CEO trying to raise money, you almost … actually … never get anyone approaching you,” Sorani said. “After [that phone call], I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I’ll do that, that’s awesome.’ ” The seder was held at the Peninsula Hotel and more than 100 people — including Sanberg — turned out to celebrate the holiday. 

Friends and colleagues describe Sanberg as “passionate,” “driven,” “full of big ideas” and value-oriented, someone who sees public service not as a weekend mitzvah project, but as a way of life. In 2012, he became chairman of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, a national organization co-founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that’s devoted to honoring and facilitating public service. Widely considered the most prestigious prize in its field, past recipients include Michael Bloomberg, Walter Cronkite, Steve Jobs, Sonia Sotomayor and Elie Wiesel. 

Before Sandberg took on the chairmanship, the foundation was struggling to reinvent itself to become an organization that not only recognizes public service, but powers it. Sam Beard, one of the foundation’s founders, personally asked Sanberg to take on the chair position and help rehabilitate their long legacy through better internal business practices.

“We knew we were on the cusp of becoming one of most impactful nonprofits in the country,” said Beard’s daughter, Hillary Schafer, the foundation’s executive director. “But we needed some work to get there; we needed to be structured like a world-class business, something that could have impact and create real scale.” Sanberg helped monetize contributed services, which increased the foundation’s revenue from $2.6 million to $13.5 million and helped Schafer turn around the place.

“Joe fundamentally believes in possibility — in everything he does,” Schafer said. “That really drives him, the concept that possibility should apply to everybody. He believes in big, wholesale change, and I think he feels quite blessed that he is in a position to take big ideas and do something about them.” 

When Sanberg first decided to tackle income inequality full time, he assembled a team of policy experts to research effective programs, and it wasn’t long before they happened upon the EITC. The movement to create one in California had already been building, but it took Brown, and a balanced budget, to finally make it feasible. When Sanberg heard the governor was considering pushing through the EITC, he hired a team of lobbyists to reinforce its passage. And then, when it was clear that the state’s allotment for outreach wasn’t sufficient to reach the hundreds of thousands of eligible low-income households, Sanberg created CalEITC4Me. At the program’s launch in Sacramento last November, Nancy McFadden, Brown’s top aide, credited Sanberg as “the spark” for the entire effort. 

“Now I want you to say it louder and together,” Sanberg commanded a room packed with journalists, state leaders and community organizers at the San Diego launch of CalEITC4Me in January, one of many stops on a statewide tour. In a video posted on Twitter, Sanberg stands at a podium at the front of the room conducting the crowd in a collective chant: “END. POVERTY…

“That’s why we’re here,” Sanberg says. “We shouldn’t have poverty. The problem isn’t a question of resources, it’s [that] the people who need the resources aren’t getting them.”


“We reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”


Sanberg and his younger brother, Rick, grew up in the middle-class suburb of Villa Park in Orange County. They were raised primarily by their mother, Soni, who worked as a book editor and substitute teacher. Their father struggled to support the family. “Before I was born, he was allegedly a successful real estate developer,” Sanberg said, “but then he hit a wall. He kept reinvesting in projects, and the savings he had for our family kept declining and declining.”

Sanberg doesn’t remember his father being around all that much when he was a child. “I don’t remember a single meaningful conversation with my father,” he said. But he does remember dealing with the impact of his father’s choices: Just before Joe’s high school graduation, the family home went into foreclosure. His parents divorced. Sanberg’s mother and brother were forced to move in with his grandparents, while Sanberg went off to an internship in Washington, D.C., with the Democratic National Committee.

He can’t really recall what happened to his father; they haven’t spoken in the 18 years since. When I ask him about this, he answers impassively: “[My father] experienced a number of personal and financial problems, and it was around that time that I last spoke with him. I’m not sure of his circumstances then or thereafter.” 

For Sanberg, the trauma of losing his childhood home was irreparable. “That really conditioned how I saw the world, and how random bad luck and chance could impact how we lived,” he said.

Sanberg’s family story is also something of a selling point on the EITC trail. He talks to people in crowds as if he is one of them. At the United Way event, he said, “You may be asking, ‘Who the heck is Joe Sanberg?’ So let me tell you: By the time I was in high school, I was an EITC family, so the EITC is personal for me.” 

Despite the family turmoil, Sanberg did well enough in high school to get into Harvard. He wrote his admissions essay about the Led Zeppelin song “Ramble On,” which he said got him through his grandfather’s death when he was in 10th grade. “I learned that Led Zeppelin songs were inspired by ‘The Odyssey’ and Tolstoy, so I wrote about how ‘Ramble On’ continued the journey tradition in literature.” 

I ask Sanberg if he was that kid who was tagged “most likely to become president” someday, which made him blush. “Maybe,” he answered. 

His track record of success, which he prefers to attribute to “luck and chance” rather than any innate aptitude, has sometimes come at a cost: In 2014, Sanberg learned that several websites bearing his name had racist and misogynistic posted messages on them, and that an anonymous extortionist was attempting to get him to hand over $750,000. He sued, and the court ordered the domain registrar to disclose the websites’ owner — the name revealed was Sanberg’s brother. 

When I asked him about the fallout, he declined to talk about it, except to say that it tore apart his family. When it comes to personal matters, Sanberg is well guarded, sounding more cerebral than emotional, and he acts completely disinterested in the enigma of his own psyche. Describing when his family lost its home, Sanberg recalled feeling “stressed, anxious, uncertain and alone,” but stopped short of dwelling on his own pain. “I think it’s self-indulgent to reflect on those kinds of feelings,” he said, launching instead into a more universal assessment. “What I experienced was not a special experience; it’s common to probably a majority of Americans now. That’s why the shrinkage of the middle class isn’t some abstract mathematical phenomenon. It’s a moral crisis. Because when you don’t have the confidence of your basic needs being met, you don’t have the luxury of being fully human.”


“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money. I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs.”


For Sanberg, public assistance was not a crutch, but a crucial leg up.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to Harvard without student loans,” Sanberg said, citing the importance of federal assistance. That support enabled, and perhaps also inspired, Sanberg to plunge into campus politics. In 2000, he even took a year off to work for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, later returning to Harvard to study government. 

Ricki Seidman, former executive director of Rock the Vote, who also worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government when Sanberg was an undergraduate. She decided to mentor him, making Sanberg her intern.

“What stood out to me about Joe was that, some kids were interested in the process of politics,” Seidman recalled. “They wanted to work on campaigns, they liked the machinations of politics. … Joe was always interested in how you could use the political process to bring about change. He was very idealistic. And he had really strong values. He really stood out among the students that I encountered. I really liked him and got to know him.”

Today, Seidman is executive director of Sanberg’s Golden State Opportunity Foundation, which he created in 2015 with the mission to solve income inequality and create more equality of opportunity in America. CalEITC4Me is its first major initiative. “It’s not that often that you’re able to do something that is just so unquestionably good,” Seidman said. “Coming from Washington, where nothing gets done and the atmosphere is so negative, the opportunity to work on something so positive, so non-polarizing that brings people together, is really exciting. There aren’t very many things you can work on in politics where you’re able to make an immediate difference in someone’s life.”

According to several studies, recipients of the EITC tend to spend their refund on housing or household expenses, transportation, food and clothing. “We don’t screw around with indirect transmission,” Sanberg said. “Instead, we reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”

While Sanberg spent most of his undergraduate career nurturing his affinity for political activism, the reality of needing to support his mother began to weigh on him as graduation approached. Wall Street and its allure of economic promise beckoned him. 

He started as an analyst at Blackstone’s Private Equity Group in New York, where he paved the way for a younger friend from Harvard, Matt Salzberg, to join the firm. It would become an important relationship: A few years later, in 2012, when Salzberg decided to start his own business, Sanberg invested in the company that would become Blue Apron, a food delivery service providing fresh, healthy ingredients and original recipes to home cooks. Sanberg saved the company from a major headache when he bought out a disgruntled early investor unhappy with the company’s direction. “It was the kind of thing that only a really close friend and supportive, thoughtful investor would do,” Salzberg told me. “And it ended up working out really, really well for him, because Blue Apron did really well, too.” 

In fact, Sanberg says his investment in Blue Apron has been more financially rewarding than his time on Wall Street. According to, Blue Apron now delivers 5 million meals per month and is valued at $2 billion. 

After leaving Blackstone in 2004, Sanberg jumped to Tiger Global Management, where he served as managing director until 2009. He describes his time there as “a very prosperous period” but also a frustrating one, that reinforced his wariness of Wall Street.

“I don’t think a free market is at its best when so many financial rewards accrue to so many people who create so little economic value and solve so few problems,” he said. “I still struggle with the period of time I spent on Wall Street, when I wasn’t living my business life true to my tikkun olam values. I made my money in a way that really created no value for anybody, except for a small number of people at the investment firm where I worked. I struggle with that.” 

Being in the center of the country’s economic engine during the 2008 financial crisis especially tested his conscience. “It was one of the most unfair things that has occurred in modern economic history,” Sanberg said of the Great Recession. “The American taxpayer got screwed by Wall Street, bailed Wall Street out, and then Wall Street complained about regulatory burdens imposed on it by the government to ensure a crisis wouldn’t recur. That whole dynamic astonishes me.”

So Sanberg did some soul searching. “Coming out of the financial crisis, I realized I had become unanchored from my core values,” he said.

Joseph Sanberg with members of the Home Start nonprofit at a press conference for the launching of CalEITC4Me at the Jacob Center in San Diego last month. Photo by Holly Martinez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

When I asked him to talk about the source of those values, I expected Sanberg to cite a book, a treatise, an icon of history. But his answer was much simpler. 

“The No. 1 influence on how I think and live is my belief in God,” he said.  “It informs how I live my life entirely. I’ve always [felt] this way; since I was a kid.” 

Sanberg’s spiritual philosophy is really an argument for a wholly integrated ethics. He doesn’t believe in compartmentalizing. “These distinctions we construct between how we make money and how we give money away are bulls— distinctions,” he said. “There are too many of us who say, ‘I can make my money however I want, as long as it’s legal. And then I’ll heal the world with my philanthropy.’ Those distinctions shouldn’t occur.” 

Driven by these values, Sanberg thought about how to address inequality through the private sector. “There are two ways you can change the financial industry,” Sanberg said. “One is through regulation, the other is through competition.”

He teamed with political wunderkind Cherny, also a Harvard graduate, to create Aspiration, a web-based financial firm targeting people disenchanted with big investment banks; Cherny, a son of Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, had already made a name for himself as the youngest White House speechwriter in history, in the Clinton administration. Aspiration quickly attracted high-profile investors, including billionaire Jeff Skoll, former president of eBay and now CEO of Participant Media, which produces social-impact films (among them, this year’s multiple-Oscar-nominated “Spotlight” and Al Gore’s Oscar-winning climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”). 

Publicly launched in November 2014, Aspiration now offers two investment funds — including a “sustainable” fund that invests in companies with progressive employee practices and environmental policies — as well as a fee-free checking account with a $10 minimum, free ATM access worldwide and a 1-percent yearly interest rate for balances more than $2,500 (“That is 100 times higher than most banks are offering,” Cherny, Aspiration’s CEO, said). Money magazine recently named it in a tie for best checking account in America. 

Some remain skeptical as to whether the company’s premise can turn a profit, but Sanberg insists the foundational hypothesis that “people are fair-minded and will pay for a service they value” is bearing out. He and Cherny said 90 percent of customers are electing to pay a fee for Aspiration’s products. Though there are some like-minded competitors in the field, such as Ally and BofI (Bank of Internet) who also offer attractive banking options, Sanberg believes Aspiration will prevail by being “very, very pro-consumer” and acting as what Cherny described as a “countervailing force” within America’s financial establishment. 

Sanberg thinks of Aspiration as a disruptor. “We’re changing the financial industry by stealing customers from existing firms that don’t treat people well. The failure of the financial industry to well serve middle-income people is one of the many factors that is driving the stagnation of the middle class. So, in my life as a business person, I am trying to solve that.” 

When Sanberg declaims about inequality, his passion is persuasive. In the same sentence, you might feel inclined to vote for him — or give him a hug. “He is in fierce pursuit of justice when it comes to economic opportunity,” Cherny told me. “It makes his blood boil when things are wrong, and he really wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s easy to get his goat by [talking about] some of the terrible things people are doing — he’ll start bouncing off the walls in indignation.”

“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money,” Sanberg said. “I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs. 

“There’s an isolation that comes with that, and a loneliness, and I think that’s what’s overlooked by the dryness of economics or the aloofness of our politics — it reduces people into numbers.”

That last thought makes me wonder whether that was the worst part for him when he was young — to have his own identity tied to his income level — homeless, poor, on welfare or financial aid. Perhaps that’s why he’s not comfortable being rich, or at least, with playing the part. “I don’t do anything fun that has to do with being rich,” he told me.

For Sanberg, his wealth says no more about who he is, or what he does, than getting cast out of his childhood home defined the student he was in high school.

“My No. 1 belief is that the opportunities kids enjoy in their lives shouldn’t be based on luck and chance. We want to be a society where people can go as far as their skills and hard work can take them.”

Six numbers that describe Israel’s economy

It has the highest poverty rate among affluent democracies, the fourth-worst income inequality and the seventh-lowest government spending on social services.

Those are among the dismal conclusions of the State of the Nation report, an annual set of papers on Israel’s economy and society released last week by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, a socioeconomic think tank. There is some good news sprinkled in, but the prognosis is mostly grim.

Here are six figures that portray the (largely) sad state of the Israeli economy.

More than one in five Israelis lives below the poverty line.

In 2015, 22 percent of Israelis lived below the poverty line, including one in three Israeli children. In 2011, the figure was slightly better, at 21 percent, but it was still the highest rate in in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, a group of the world’s richest countries that is the comparison standard used by the Taub center.

More than three-quarters of haredi Orthodox Jewish men and Arab-Israeli women don’t work.

As of 2011, only 20.9 percent of haredi Orthodox men and 22.6 percent of Arab women work. That, along with high birthrates, is why Arabs and haredim are the two poorest communities in Israel.

Arab women often don’t work because of cultural pressures to stay at home and lack of access to jobs, according to Taub’s research. Many haredi men choose to study Torah and live off government subsidies rather than work.

“The haredi parties want a lot of transfers for their parties, a lot of money for their people,” Avi Weiss, Taub’s executive director, told JTA. “When you give them that money, they sit at home.”

Only three countries in the OECD are more unequal on income than Israel.

Israel fared better than only Turkey, Chile and the United States in after-tax income inequality in 2011, the latest year for which much of Taub’s data is drawn. Israel ranks somewhat better in comparisons of gross income.

Taub attributes this to a steep income tax cut in 2007 that was meant to incentivize employment. Instead it lowered tax revenue and, with Israel spending so much on defense, left scant resources for social services.

“Israel is not closing the gap as much as other countries are,” Weiss said. “We are paying a relatively low rate of taxes compared to European countries. If what is important to the politicians is decreasing inequality, one way to go about doing that is to get more from taxes.”

Israel has had an above-average cost of living for 24 of the past 25 years.

When Israelis took to the streets to protest the cost of living in 2011, the data backed them up.

Israelis spend more on consumer goods in comparison to the residents of other OECD countries. Food prices are particularly inflated, Taub found, because there’s too little competition between food producers and a low import rate. In industries where there are a lot of imports and healthy competition, such as furniture, prices have remained relatively low.

Israel’s high-tech sector has become 66 percent more productive since ’75.

Weiss calls Israel “a tale of two economies.”

While its service and low-skill workers have below-average productivity, Israel’s flagship sectors, like its high-tech ecosystem, are punching above their weight. Productivity in the service sector has barely increased since 1975, while productivity in the high-tech industry has shot up 66 percent. But high-tech and other productive sectors only make up one-third of Israel’s economy.

Nearly 60 percent of Israeli jobs could be lost to computerization.

Like inequality and poverty, computerization is a challenge not unique to Israel. Like the United States, Israel could see most of its jobs become automated in the next 20 years. Workers from cashiers to telemarketers face a high risk of computerization, while bus drivers could also lose their jobs if self-driving cars hit the road. Doctors, social workers and creative professionals, however, would probably be safe.

Israel should rise to the challenge, Weiss says, by training haredim and others entering the labor market to work in high-skilled jobs that are likely to drive Israel’s economy for decades.

“You can’t train them in something where, 10 years down the line, they’re not going to have a job anymore,” Weiss said. “That’s not going to last.”

My city isn’t a tawdry reality TV show

Every few years, Salinas grabs national media headlines for the wrong reasons: Police killings of criminal suspects caught on camera. Or maybe a sensational courtroom drama like that of our local convicted murderer Jodi Arias. Each story draws the major corporate media outlets to town, eager to shoehorn some reference to Salinas native John Steinbeck into the narrative.

Maybe we look like a real-life version of a tawdry reality TV show to them.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve covered the town for more than 20 years, largely as a features writer and columnist. I also served time as an education and city reporter for two local publications, The Monterey County Herald and the Salinas Californian. Other local media outlets covering the town include the Monterey County Weekly, the NBC/ABC affiliate KSBW-TV, CBS affiliate KION-TV, and Univision affiliate KSMS-TV.

Once upon a time the juiciest national story about Salinas might have involved an E. coli outbreak linked to one of our produce giants. The town has changed, as violent crime reports in town have fed the media’s appetite for sensational headlines.

Salinas calls itself the Salad Bowl of the World, which sounds like a healthy thing, but our multibillion-dollar lettuce economy is complicated—maybe more complicated than outsiders care to understand—and our struggles are a window into California’s future.

As Silicon Valley is to software, Salinas is to lettuce: We didn’t invent the salad bar, but we introduced the world to bagged salad. We are the model for modern agricultural technology and production. There’s a 90 percent chance that bagged salad you bought for dinner was produced here. But the innovations in lettuce growing, packing, and shipping that brings you a “healthy” meal also includes a lot of unseen hands. And these hands belong mostly to Mexican migrants who make up about 34 percent of our town’s population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

What do you think happens when one of California’s richest industries conducts business in, and culls its workforce from, a highly concentrated immigrant community? You get changes of the kind that aren’t sensational – and thus are underreported if they are reported at all: the ripple effects in a community of low academic achievement numbers among English language learner students. Or the problems caused by overcrowding and high population density in certain parts of town. Or stories that get reported as something other than what they really are.

For instance, Forbes recently named Salinas the second-least-educated city in America. Media outlets latched onto the story and the study it was based on, and repurposed them as a list of the dumbest towns in the country. Among several indicators, the list factored in the number of available jobs that require a college education.

But really, how unexpected is this? When so much of your workforce is devoted to manual labor, you can bet that there won’t be a load of workers sitting on college diplomas.

When I read those lists, I saw them as a grand insult to the delicate skill and craft of our local farm laborers. 

The idea that Salinas is a dumb town is pretty inaccurate. Harvesting produce doesn’t require an advanced degree, but it’s no job for dummies. Have you ever attempted to pick a strawberry field? I haven’t, but I understand from growing up here the careful technique required not only to pick the produce gently, but also to do it at a rapid fire pace. Our farm workers move fast and efficiently. You have to be smart and know the land to be successful in the fields. Forbes didn’t have the time or just didn’t bother to report that any of this context. 

Ironically, Forbes did have time to host an agriculture technology summit in town recently. Billed as “Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit,” the conference brought together Silicon Valley and Global Ag leaders, many based here in the Salad Bowl, for breakout sessions on the booming AgTech industry. It was an invitation-only event. I mention that because it shows the contrasting sides of this town’s image. We are uneducated enough to make top 10 lists, but somehow industrially sophisticated enough to host big business think tank sessions.

In this dichotomy and others, Salinas may provide a window into the future of this state. We are a rural community steeped in Old West tradition (we host the biggest and oldest rodeo in the state). At the same time, the town is changing, with its economic and cultural divide widening by the year. And Salinas, according to a recent study, was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. For that study, professors at Brown and Florida State University created a dissimilarity index that identifies the percentage of one group that would have to move into a different neighborhood to eliminate segregation; Salinas had a 60.9 percent white-Latino dissimilarity rate, the 21st highest number in the country. Combine our modern social challenges with our old-school agricultural labor practices and our recent emergence as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and you have a town that offers a bit of everything that people relate to the California experience – sunshine, soil, and sync.

That’s part of what makes covering news in Salinas a tough gig. Everything is sneaky complex. The gang violence that generates so many local headlines isn’t the result of a reckless immigrant population, as Donald Trump would have you believe. It’s a condition that grew out of many decades of cultivating an impoverished and underserved migrant community. Yes, Salinas has poverty, but it’s also a place where rents are so high that sometimes two or three families must pack into a single apartment unit to afford a place to live and survive. During the harvest, these families can work 10-to-12-hour shifts, six days a week to provide for their children. Those children in turn sometimes suffer from the unintentional neglect of busy working parents. This makes them vulnerable to the streets.

Local media does what it can to tell these stories. Investigative journalist Julia Reynolds recently published the book Blood in the Fields: 10 Years inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang, that analyzed the emergence of one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the U.S. It also shed light on efforts from community members and law enforcement in the fight to curb gang violence. 

But for the most part, gang violence is something that is understood only on the surface by locals, and is never portrayed with any complexity by national media. And that leads to a lot of misunderstanding about the town’s image and identity. Largely, that this town is unsafe and people are in danger of violence on every corner. 

It’s tough to recover from the blow of bad media coverage every few years. (It’s certainly not good for economic development). This town is still learning how to adapt to reputational blows. People do their best to shrug it off and carry on. 

I like to keep it positive and remind my neighbors about something John Steinbeck said late in his life, right before he decided he wanted to be buried in his hometown. 

“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.”

Marcos Cabrera is the public information officer for the Alisal Union School District. He is a founding member of the theater company Baktun 12. This essay is part of Salinas: California's Richest Poor City, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and the California Wellness Foundation


Causes for growing poverty in East Jerusalem debated

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

During the past nine years, the number of Arab residents of east Jerusalem living below the poverty line has increased to the point where three-quarters of the population is living with insufficient means according to claims published by the non-governmental organization, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). The group claims that as many as 83.9% of Arab children in the city fall below the poverty line.

In 2006, approximately 64% of Arab residents of east Jerusalem lived below the poverty line, Ronit Sela spokesperson for ACRI told The Media Line. Now, in 2015, she says, this figure stands at 75%. Sela attributed the findings to a lack of investment in education, industry and local businesses which, she said, have historically meant that standards of living were lower among Arab communities than in Jewish neighborhoods. ACRI argues that the large increase in poverty is principally due to the onset of construction of the security barrier in 2006, because the barrier has economically dislocated Arabs living in Jerusalem from communities in the West Bank. During this period, the population has also increased putting additional strain on available resources.

East Jerusalem was governed by Jordan until the Israeli army took control of the West Bank during the 1967 war. This brought the Arab population under Israeli rule, though a large percentage have refused to accept citizenship. In 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, Israel began constructing a separation barrier as a means to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel’s population centers from the West Bank. This separated east Jerusalem from Arab communities now under the control of the Palestinian Authority, pursuant to the 1993 Oslo Accords.

The ACRI report charges that Israel provides insufficient funding for social care, postal services, infant healthcare, road construction, schools and classrooms. It also notes that as many as 20,000 buildings in east Jerusalem have been constructed without permits leaving residents under the threat of losing their homes. ACRI describes itself as an “independent and non-partisan” organization, focused on human rights but states on its website that it views the Israeli presence in east Jerusalem as “an illegal annexation” and defines policies followed by the government as “racist” and “discriminatory.”

A spokeswoman for the Jerusalem Municipality dismissed ACRI’s figures saying, “It is unfortunate that ACRI chooses every year to recycle the report that is distorted and cut off from reality hoping to get press coverage.” Brachie Sprung, of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s office, told The Media Line that ACRI’s report “attempted to hide huge investments” and “ignored specific budgets” due to the organization’s own political interests. Sprung pointed out that $130 million had been allocated to improve roads and infrastructure in east Jerusalem and that $100 million had been earmarked for improving classrooms and standards of education.

ACRI’s Sela acknowledged the Municipality’s recitation of allocations, but said the NGO believed that the amounts were not enough to deal with the large scale of the problem. She argued that a lack of political influence and little advocacy among the bodies of power that distribute funding for Palestinian causes is the root of the imbalance of money spent on Arab neighborhoods.

“If you go where I live, in Isawiya – or in Shu'afat – you can’t feel the Municipality like you can feel it in the Jewish section,” Mohammed Aburmila, an east Jerusalem resident who works in the west side of the city, told The Media Line. “You don’t have any places for the kids to play – if you have a hole in the road you have to wait half a year (until it’s repaired). It’s small stuff, but its stuff that is really important.”

When asked what it would take to improve the standard of living for residents of east Jerusalem, Aburmila took his time before he answered, and said, “Make it easy for people to build houses.” He explained that the Municipality often refused to give permission for Arabs to build homes so people did so illegally. This resulted in people being given large fines that can result in debt problems. “They are taking more than they are giving,” Aburmila said.

“Planning and construction (of homes) is hard to realize in east Jerusalem,” Yair Assaf-Shapira, a researcher with the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies, told The Media Line. “Dramatic improvements could be seen if this burden was made easier,” he said, adding that the creation of employment places was also key to tackling poverty levels. But Assaf-Shapira stopped short of saying that active policy in the Municipality was leading to low incomes among the Arab population. He pointed out that the Municipality had invested a lot of capital into east Jerusalem but that the scale of the problem overwhelms the resources that the Mayor’s Office can bring to bear. Central government intervention is necessary to tackle the scale of poverty in east Jerusalem, Assaf-Shapira said. Other factors outside of the Municipality’s control were also drivers of inequality, the researcher said. For instance, low participation in the workforce by Arab women means that many Arab families are living on lower incomes than families with two bread-winners, he pointed out. The security barrier, overcrowding within Arab communities due to migration from the West Bank and narrower employment possibilities for east Jerusalem residents were also factors, according to Assaf-Shapira.


Aburmila’s accusation, that Arabs found it more difficult to gain planning permission, was strongly rejected by Sprung, from the Mayor’s Office, who said that it was offensive to suggest that race was a criteria for housing allocation. Housing permits, she told The Media Line, are allocated based on “One thing and one thing only… legal ownership of land.”

Social justice group brings Birthright youth to South Tel Aviv

One muggy afternoon in December, a tour bus carrying a football team’s worth of young Los Angeles Jews pulled up to a dirty curb in South Tel Aviv. It was their fourth day of Birthright, and they were scheduled for a tour of Tel Aviv’s notorious bottom half. 

After they exited the bus, one petite L.A. woman in head-to-toe sportswear grimaced and held a tissue to her nose, blocking the neighborhood stench. “I feel like there are a lot of homeless people here,” her friend whispered.

BINA Secular Yeshiva’s director of international seminars and communication, Elliot Glassenberg (right), led a Birthright group from Los Angeles on a tour of South Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.

“Anybody know the name of the neighborhood we’re in?” asked their guide, Elliot Glassenberg, director of international seminars and communication for the BINA Secular Yeshiva, a Jewish school and social action center in South Tel Aviv. The yeshiva is funded in part by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“The name of the neighborhood is Neve Shaanan, which means ‘oasis of serenity,’ ” Glassenberg said. “You feeling it?”

The group laughed nervously. Their tour of South Tel Aviv — one of about a dozen Birthright tours scheduled at the BINA Secular Yeshiva throughout the program’s current winter season — had been arranged and financed not by the umbrella Birthright organization but by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of Birthright’s many partners. (Another two-dozen Birthright tours of South Tel Aviv were scheduled for summer 2014, but were all canceled because of the war.)

“There are a lot of moving parts” to the Birthright funding structure, Birthright spokeswoman Pamela Fertel Weinstein said in an interview. When Federations from different U.S. cities put money toward a Birthright bus, she said, they have the option to include a couple of stops in the itinerary that correspond with “things The Federation is supporting” — in this case, the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

For security reasons, Birthright groups are not allowed to travel into the West Bank or Gaza — not even the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But what is perhaps Israel’s second most controversial demographic conflict — the government’s struggle to expel 50,000 undocumented African immigrants — is easily accessible from within the confines of Tel Aviv, Israel’s sexiest, most contemporary city.

Weinstein said BINA’s tour of South Tel Aviv is “an approved site visit under the Talmud/Torah educational category,” but is not one of the “certain places everyone must visit,” such as the Western Wall or Masada. 

However, Birthright’s policy toward these offbeat tours appears to have shifted in recent months. According to Sarah Austin, head of Birthright programming for the L.A. Federation, the BINA tour — which had been supplemented by Birthright in past seasons — is no longer covered.

“It’s not supplemented within our normal visit,” Austin said. “Seasons before, we didn’t have to pay for the visit. I don’t know why, but something changed.”

Weinstein said she was not aware of this change.

The L.A. Federation was willing to pay for the tour itself, Austin said, because it felt strongly about the value of visiting South Tel Aviv. “It’s important that people see there’s a bunch of different ways to be Jewish — that Israel is not just a tourist country,” she said.

On the Dec. 18 tour, Glassenberg tread carefully while telling his abridged history of the neighborhood. “In 1921, there were, um, well, riots — er — tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa,” he said.

So a group of a few hundred Zionists, he explained, moved north to the lower outskirts of Tel Aviv, where they founded Neve Shaanan — an idyllic agricultural village with streets in the shape of a menorah. Their vision was for Neve Shaanan’s crops to feed the middle classes up in Tel Aviv proper. But “as an agricultural experiment, it quickly failed,” Glassenberg said, and Neve Shaanan soon became known as an immigrant neighborhood — not unlike “the Lower East Side of New York or the South Side of Chicago.”

“It’s almost a microcosm of Israel,” Glassenberg told the Birthright group. “A little piece of every wave of immigration has come to this neighborhood.”

He pointed out architecture left behind by each wave of immigrants. The first wave was of European Jews, post-Holocaust. Then, in the 1970s, Middle Eastern Jews arrived from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Iran. In the 1990s, around 1 million Russians — some Jewish, some not — escaped to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. And later on in the ’90s, following the First Intifada, migrant workers flooded in from Asia and Eastern Europe — arriving to fill blue-collar posts formerly filled by Palestinians. By 2008, there were approximately 300,000 foreign workers in Israel.

But the most recent influx of around 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese work migrants and asylum seekers has been one of the most dramatic. It has transformed the area surrounding the dilapidated Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, where most of them came to live, into what locals call “Little Africa.”

Neve Shaanan’s street signs are written in a mishmash of Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopian) and Tigrinya (Eritrean). Cafe windows steam with fragrant African stews and breads. Groups of unemployed Eritrean and Sudanese men — and some women — cluster in South Tel Aviv’s central Levinksy Park, lining benches and sitting or sleeping in the grass. Many of the neighborhood’s homes are barely standing, covered only with sheet metal or tarps to protect them from the weather.

Walking down Neve Shaanan Street, some Birthright kids looked bewildered, others inspired. “It reminds me of L.A. in some ways — certain parts of L.A. where you’ve got the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Asians all in one place,” participant Erik Knipprath said.

Oren Peleg, a Disney employee (and occasional contributor to the Jewish Journal) who was on his third Birthright trip working as a staff member, said he’d “never done anything like this” on prior trips. “I was talking to the [Birthright] soldiers and they were saying, ‘It’s a grimy neighborhood, we never come here,’ ” Peleg said. “But I see a lot of character.”

When the group reached a free community library in the middle of Levinksy Park, set up by Israeli volunteers and featuring books in 16 different languages, Glassenberg delved further into the debate.

“Israel in 2011 realized this was becoming a major problem,” he said of the African influx. “So they did a few things: First, they built a fence along the border with Egypt so people are no longer entering. So there are now about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, but nobody else can come in. But they decided that now — instead of getting a free bus ticket and a visa — they would now be considered illegal infiltrators and they would be given three years in prison.”

Glassenberg then gave the floor to Birthrighters, asking them how they felt about so many foreigners moving into an Israeli neighborhood. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish state? How can you have, in the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv, 50,000 foreigners? That’s a significant chunk of the population, in a country of 8 million people. What does it mean?”

One participant responded: “It’s tough if everyone meets this [refugee] requirement. What can you do?” Another asked: “Maybe they could make aliyah?”

As the group continued to discuss, an elderly Israeli resident of South Tel Aviv pulled a couple of Birthright boys to the side, telling them in a hushed voice about how dangerous the neighborhood had become since Africans moved in. 

A few more blocks into the tour, Glassenberg ran into his friend Walyaldin Suliman, a Darfuri refugee who now runs a barbershop in Neve Shaanan.

Somewhat reluctantly, Suliman tried to sum up one of Israel’s most complex issues in a five-minute pitch: “I have 2 1/2 years in Israel,” he told the group. “I’m living, but I didn’t get the status of refugee. I only have a visa to stay. And now the visa is not a solution, because the government made a new decision to take everybody for 20 months in the Holot prison. This is a big prison in the desert. They take people to the desert prison because they come from Africa.

“More than 2,000 Sudanese and Eritreans are now in prison,” Suliman said. “In prison, they push you to go back to your country. But when you go back, and you arrive at the airport, the security men of the government of Sudan catch you.”

After the walking tour, BINA organizers told the Journal that their tours’ most educational moments often come when an Israeli or African approaches the group.

“We don’t want to be this foreign element just wandering through their neighborhood,” said Dan Herman, director of the Tikkun Olam post-college volunteer program (a joint project of BINA and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism). “We want to be responsive to the neighborhood, not to force our solution or force our ideals.”

Multiple participants on this Federation-funded Birthright trip told the Journal that South Tel Aviv turned out to be the highlight of their itinerary.

“This is the most interesting thing we’ve done,” said Ariel Thomas, a 23-year-old Hawaii native with Jamaican roots. “I was looking forward to it — especially because we couldn’t stop talking about what happened at customs.”

According to Thomas, she and a handful of other Birthright participants from minority racial groups had been interrogated for hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport — an experience that made them question whether they were welcome in Israel. “They didn’t believe we were Jewish,” she said of airport security officers. “I thought they weren’t going to let me in. So I thought, ‘I wonder if they’re racist because of the immigrants.’ ”

Avila Santo, 23, a Los Angeles artist, said he was “surprised but happy” that Birthright had allowed the BINA tour. “I think it’s very important because it allows you to question Jewish identity, what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about your neighbor, right here in Tel Aviv — it was great to see.”

But Santo realized that the visit might not work with every group. “Even in this group, which is very secular, it’s very sparked,” he said.

Indeed, during a discussion session following the South Tel Aviv tour, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier accompanying the trip called the Africans ungrateful. “I know it’s hard to live here, but it’s such a better place for them than in Sudan and Eritrea,” he said. “In Egypt, they shoot them. In Europe, in a lot of countries, they put them in jail. In Israel, they can live. So I think they just need to thank Israel.”

The soldier added: “They can cry about it and say Israel is stupid, but … they have such a better life here.” 

A male L.A. participant sitting next to him, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with the soldier. “We still haven’t addressed the fact that they’re not citizens, though,” he said. “Shouldn’t our obligation be toward the people who are citizens first? The fact that they can make in a day here what they can make in two months in their country — it’s infinite times better than what they already have. Is that enough, or are we required to give more?”

Santo thought for a moment, then responded: “It’s kind of hard to have a cookie-cutter avenue for everyone to go through. Because some people can’t go back to their countries.” 

The group’s Israeli leader, Nadav Dori, said afterward that he believes more Birthright groups should come see South Tel Aviv. “[Glassenberg] has an agenda, and it’s obvious,” Dori said. “But it’s important that people bring up this subject to public opinion, because people who aren’t from Tel Aviv, it’s important that they see this. And it’s a very good subject to bring up specifically with Americans, because they’re dealing with the same thing in America.”

America’s own immigration debate did come up many times in discussion. “Sometimes I feel like they get more than we do,” Sasha Santos, 26, said of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are eligible for college scholarships. “As Americans, we’re not getting the resources that we should be getting, and they’re getting them before us.”

Glassenberg told the Journal that simply starting this discussion was half the point of the tour, and fits into Birthright’s mission of engaging young Jews.

“If you open up a conversation and invite the participants to understand and take part, they respect that and they appreciate that, and they’re able to engage more positively in the conversation,” he said.

And most importantly, as a result, he added, “They feel more connected to Israel.”

BINA leaders, and others within the social Zionist movement, believe visits to the area might offer a way to modernize Birthright’s reputation in the eyes of politically aware Jewish youth — and help with Birthright registration numbers, which the organization has been attempting to increase.

A Haaretz news story from before the summer war dissected Birthright’s recent attempts to expand its PR reach. The piece cited a Birthright-commissioned survey finding “less affiliated Jews had not enrolled in Birthright amid concerns it would be too religious for them or push pro-Israel propaganda. More than half the respondents cited these two issues.” 

Although Birthright participation increased overall between 2011 and 2014 — from 33,000 to 43,000 participants — new registration hasn’t kept pace with rising donations and projected growth of the program.

Weinstein said Birthright is an “apolitical organization” that does not oppose trips to areas like South Tel Aviv. “We consider it a job well done if people come home and have more questions,” she said.

However, multiple other sources involved in organizing Birthright tours said they felt more resistance to exploring the area in recent months.

“I think there’s a natural fear of airing the dirty laundry,” Herman said. “A fear that if you show people [South Tel Aviv], you’re going to scare them off or be unfairly critical of Israel.”

However, he said, “Our generation was brought up learning to question things and be critical. You can’t ask them to put that on hold here. Because if you do, they’re not going to trust you.”

Herman’s program, Tikkun Olam, is one track available within the monthslong study abroad and post-college program Masa, known as an extended Birthright for the quarter-life-crisis crowd. Masa has been very public about its work with African immigrants, and has been sending young American Jews deep into dirty, messy South Tel Aviv through various programs for six to seven years now.

A 2013 study conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel on the effects of longer-term programs such as Masa found that “exposure to Israel’s challenges and problems in the context of service work did not weaken participants’ commitment to and interest in the country. On the contrary, connection to the country and its people seems to have been consistently intensified by exposure to some of its most challenging realities.”

In the words of Noga Brenner Samia, deputy director of the BINA Secular Yeshiva: “Love is what’s left after you’ve seen the complexity and understood the reality.”

Poverty causes crime?

One of the first clues that this Columbia-educated, liberal, Democrat, New York Jew had that there was something wrong at the heart of progressive/left-wing thought was when I read and was taught over and over that “poverty causes crime.”

I knew from the first that this was dogma, not truth.

How did I know?

First, I thought about the world that I knew best — my own. My paternal grandparents were extremely poor immigrants from Russia. They lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn, where they raised four children, none of whom, of course, ever had his own room. Moreover, my grandfather was a tailor and, as such, made little during normal years, and next to nothing during the Great Depression.

They were considerably poorer than the vast majority of Americans who lived below the poverty line as it existed when I was in college and graduate school. And they would have regarded most of those designated poor today as middle class, if not rich, by the standards of their day.

Here is a story that illustrates that point:

On the 25th anniversary of the United Nations in 1970, the U.N. convened its first and only World Youth Assembly. The purpose was to bring young delegates from every country and the major nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to New York to the U.N. to engage in dialogue. 

I was 22 years old and named as one of the two delegates of world Jewry. (I represented B’nai B’rith International; the other Jewish delegate was a European who represented the World Union of Jewish Students.) In every way, the young delegates did what real delegates did — everything we said was simultaneously translated into five languages, and we convened in the actual Security Council and General Assembly.

One day, the communist and many of the Third World delegates demanded to be taken to Harlem. They insisted on seeing real American poverty and, of course, racism — things they were not able to see in the Midtown Manhattan area in which the U.N. building is located.

So, the U.N. chartered buses to take these delegates from around the world to Harlem.

When they returned from the visit, they convened a press conference to protest that the trip was a set-up — they were only shown neighborhoods where a few rich blacks live, not the real Harlem.

In fact, they had been taken to some of the poorest areas of Harlem. And what did they see? Apartments and homes and cars that almost anywhere in the world would be regarded as middle class, or even upper middle class.

That is worth remembering whenever an American claims that violent crime in America is caused by poverty. The poor who commit murder, rape and robbery are not only not starving, they have far more material things than the word “poverty” suggests. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey for 2005 (the last year I could find in detail — but it doesn’t matter what year, because those who say that poverty causes crime have said it for 100 years and continue to say it), among all poor households:

More than 99 percent have a refrigerator, television and stove or oven. Eighty-one percent have a microwave; 75 percent have air conditioning; 67 percent have a second TV; 64 percent have a clothes washer; 38 percent have a personal computer. 

As for homelessness, 0.5 percent living under the poverty line have lost their homes and live in shelters. 

Seventy-five percent of the poor have a car or truck. Only 10 percent live in mobile homes or trailers; and half live in detached single-family houses or townhouses, while 40 percent live in apartments. Forty-two percent of all poor households own their home, and the average home is a three-bedroom house with 1 1/2 baths, a garage and a porch or patio.

According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, 80.9 percent of households below the poverty level have cell phones.

When the left talks about the poor, they don’t mention these statistics, because what matters to the left is inequality, not poverty. 

But that is another subject. Our subject is the question: Given these statistics, why do the poor who commit violent crime do so? Clearly, it is not because they lack the basic necessities of life.

Now, I didn’t know any of these statistics back in college and graduate school. So how did I know that “poverty causes crime” was a lie?

I thought about my grandparents, and I could not imagine my grandfather robbing anyone, let alone raping or murdering. 

Why not? Because it was unimaginable. They were people whose values rendered such behaviors all but impossible.

But there was another reason.

I was as certain as one could be that if I were poor, I wouldn’t rape or murder — and would rob only for food, only if my family were starving, and only if I couldn’t find work.

Which leads me to wonder about people who believe that “poverty causes crime.” 

When people say this, there are only two possibilities: Either on some level of consciousness they think that if they were poor, they would commit violent crimes. Or, if they are confident that they wouldn’t, then they would have to conclude that poor Americans who do rob, rape or murder are morally inferior to themselves.

Which is almost always the case. In America, people who rob, rape and murder do so because they lack a functioning conscience and moral self-control. It is not material poverty that causes crime, but poor character. And once you acknowledge that, you have begun the journey toward affirming the essence of conservatism and Judaism, both of which are rooted in the belief that values, not economics, determine moral behavior. 

Met Council’s William Rapfogel sentenced to 3 1/3 to 10 years in prison

William Rapfogel, the former chief of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, was sentenced to 3 1/3 to 10 years in prison for his role in a kickback scheme.

Rapfogel, the longtime executive director and CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, also was ordered to pay $3 million in restitution, according to a news release issued Wednesday by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Rapfogel, 59, pleaded guilty in April to stealing $9 million from the taxpayer-funded Met Council in a grand larceny and kickback scheme spanning two decades. His co-defendants — David Cohen, Herb Friedman and Joseph Ross — also have pleaded guilty.

Rapfogel personally stole $3 million, using the money to “fund a lavish lifestyle,” according to Schneiderman.

“This sentence sends the message that there has to be one set of rules for everyone, no matter how rich or powerful, and that those who rip off the neediest New Yorkers will be prosecuted,” Schneiderman said in the news release.

Also in the statement, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli called the fraud “shocking and very damaging to an organization that has literally helped countless people.”

“Those involved in this scam have been held accountable for their wrongdoing and this should serve as an example of what happens when individuals lose their way and become more focused on filling their own pockets than doing good works,” DiNapoli said.

The Met Council, which provides services to the poor and elderly in the New York City area, receives funding from state and city government, as well as from private sources.

The conspiracy began in 1992 when Ross, of the Century Coverage Corp., and Cohen had Century Coverage submit inflated invoices for insurance coverage to the Met Council. The nonprofit knowingly paid the inflated premiums, and Ross gave cash kickbacks to Cohen and Friedman, the Met Council’s chief financial officer.

Rapfogel, who took over as executive director in 1993, joined the scheme soon after and began receiving his own kickbacks. Rapfogel was receiving the largest share of the kickbacks — approximately $30,000 per month at one point — according to Schneiderman.

Last August, investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office found more than $400,000 in cash hidden in Rapfogel’s various homes. Rapfogel, widely considered a power broker in New York political circles, was earning a salary of more than $400,000 at the time and receiving subsidies for day school tuition.

As part of the scheme, Rapfogel and Cohen also directed Ross to make political donations to political candidates seen as potentially helpful to the Met Council using money obtained from the inflated insurance payments.

Report: One-quarter of Israelis—and 37 percent of kids—live in poverty

The numbers tell a consistent storyline: Nearly one in four Israelis lives in poverty.

A report last week by Israel’s National Insurance Institute showed that 1.8 million of Israel’s 8 million people live below the poverty line.

In 2011, the year for which the report was issued, more than 36 percent of Israeli children were poor, a jump of 1 percentage point from the previous year. Poverty afflicts more than 400,000 Israeli families – including almost 7 percent of families with two working people.

Among developed countries, these numbers are unusually high. Israel has the second-highest poverty rate in the developed world, behind only Mexico, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

“There’s a very large segment of the Israeli population that isn’t receiving tools they can use in the modern economy,” said Dan Ben-David, executive director of Israel’s Taub Center, a think tank that released its “State of the Nation” report last month — which analyzed Israeli socioeconomic policy. “It’s not only bad for them, it’s also become a huge problem for the country over time. They’re dragging down our productivity and growth.”

Israel’s relatively high poverty rate stems in large part from two sectors of the population that are especially poor: Israeli Arabs and haredi Orthodox Jews, who have poverty rates of 53 and 54 percent, respectively. Israeli Arabs constitute about a quarter of all Israelis, while approximately 10 percent of the country is haredi.

The Israeli government defines the poverty line as individuals who have expendable income of about $9,500 annuall after taxes – which is approximately 50 percent of the median Israeli expendable income. Exactly 24.8 percent of Israelis, or 19.9 percent of families, live in poverty.

By comparison, the United States is fourth-highest on the OECD’s list, with a family poverty rate of about 17 percent, according to the OECD's standard. Twenty-three percent of U.S. children live in poverty.

In Israel, poverty usually does not mean starvation. Unemployment in Israel is at 6 percent, and one of the country’s socialist legacies is a strong safety net for the poor, sick and elderly. Israeli economic policy has, however, turned more conservative in recent years.

Food line

People waiting in line for food packages at a distribution center for the needy in Lod, near Tel Aviv, September 2012. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Shlomo Yitzhaki, Israel’s government statistician, says higher-than-average birthrates among haredi and Arab Israelis is the principal reason for their high poverty rates.

“If you look at income by family size, as the families get bigger, from five members and up, total family income gets lower,” he said.

Arabs and haredim are also exempt from Israel’s compulsory military service, which makes it harder for them to find work in a culture where army service often serves as a career starting point, allowing people to network and in some cases gain specialized skillsets.

Ben-David says Israel’s problems aren’t limited to minorities and that the state needs to invest in education and transportation infrastructure.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living and growing wealth inequality in the country, which were seen as hurting the middle class. Though the issue has gotten a lot of attention in Israel’s current election campaign, it does not dominate headlines the way it did during the 2011 protests.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new commission of government ministers to streamline socioeconomic reforms. He did not specify what those reforms would be.

Ben-David said Israel’s security needs often make it hard to find enough money to address the country’s other challenges. Defense spending makes up about one-fifth of the total budget, and social service spending adds up to about two-fifths.

“That we have such a high defense budget means we have to be judicious with the rest,” he told JTA.

Nonprofit groups here have stepped in to alleviate poverty in Isael, including many managed by haredim. But Yoram Sagi Zaks, founder of the Movement for the War on Poverty in Israel, says the government still needs to take primary responsibility for helping the poor.

“The nonprofits help people, but they need to supplement the state, not replace the state,” Zaks said. “Poverty is not a fate. This is not something we need to get used to.”

One-third of Israelis are at risk of poverty, report says

One-third of Israelis are at risk of poverty, a new Israeli government report shows.

The Central Bureau of Statistics report issued Wednesday shows that some 31 percent of Israelis were at risk of poverty in 2010, compared to 27 percent 12 years ago. Some 16 percent of European Union residents fall into the category.

Being at risk of poverty means that one's household's per capita income is less than 60 percent of the median disposable income. Israel's poverty line was at $506 for 2010. The amount to be labeled at risk of poverty is anything less than $610.

Released ahead of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, the data also show that 40 percent of Israeli children were at risk of poverty, compared to 20 percent in the EU.

The report also found that 32 percent of Jewish households in Israel said they were unable to cover all monthly expenses, such as food, electricity and telephone bills, and 8 percent could not reach the end of the month without incurring debt.

“Alongside concerns about those who are living in poverty, we see that a high proportion of working Israelis are not managing to make ends meet,” Yisrael Livman, founder and director of Mekimi, a nonprofit organization that advises and assists Israelis in financial crisis, said in a statement.

“Many of the people we assist are working six days a week, serving their Reserve duty in the Army, and bringing up large families. A sudden change in circumstances, such as illness, failure of a business or unexpected unemployment, can cause a major financial crisis for the entire family.”

Jewish groups join fight against cuts to poverty assistance

Jewish groups joined prayer rallies and demonstrations in Washington and across the country to urge Congress to preserve federal programs for the poor.

The rallies called on members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the congressional budget super committee, not to reduce the deficit by cutting programs that assist poor families and children in the United States and abroad.

The rallies are part of the Faithful Budget campaign organized by religious denominations and faith-based organizations to urge the Obama administration and Congress to remain committed to domestic and international poverty assistance programs.

“When the Torah tells us that ‘the poor will never cease from the land,’ we are not to read those words as an excuse for neglect,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, director of public policy for the Rabbinical Assembly at a prayer rally in Lafayette Park in Washington on Sunday. “Throughout the history of the Jews, whether in their own land or on distant shores, the commandment to lift our neighbors from a life of want to a place of security has animated our engagement with government and community.”

The super committee, created several months ago during congressional debate on the debt ceiling, has until Nov. 23 to propose a package to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.

B’nai B’rith International on Monday called on the committee to work to meet the deadline, before “deep, automatic spending cuts kick in that could put our nation’s most vulnerable at greater risk.”

“B’nai B’rith urges committee members and the entire Congress to work aggressively in the coming days to find solutions that are good for the country’s long-term economic outlook, and good for all Americans,” read the statement .

“Deficit reduction can and should be done without breaking the promises of Medicare and Social Security, or shaving more from already thin budgets for programs like low-income housing and other services for the elderly.”

The statement recommended modest tax increases on the wealthy, saying that cutting benefits to the elderly and poor shifts costs to states, individuals and families.

More haredi children in Britain are living in poverty

A new report warns of a sharp rise in child poverty in Britain’s haredi Orthodox Jewish community.

The report says the rise in child poverty is due to the haredi community’s large families, lack of secular education and work skills, and cuts in both charitable giving and state social benefits.

The issue is “most acute” among the haredi community, where “the alarm bells should be ringing loudly,” according to the report, which was issued last week by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London.

“There is already clear evidence of poverty and deprivation in this community,” the report said. “The potentially toxic mix of a paucity of professional skills, a growing number of mouths to feed, a reduction in government support and a likely diminution of charitable donations all point towards the probability of a noteworthy increase in child poverty and deprivation in the coming years.”

The impact of this, it warned, “could do considerable damage” to the haredi community.

“Whilst the haredi community has a remarkable infrastructure of voluntary and professional social care, it remains highly questionable whether it will be able to provide sufficient support to meet a growing demand given the wider contemporary economic and political context,” the report said.

The report noted that the 2001United Kingdom census showed that in London’s Hackney borough, home to the largest haredi community, more than a quarter of Jews were living in overcrowded conditions.

The census indicated more than 52,000 Jewish children live in Britain. Overall, it showed that nearly 8 percent lived in overcrowded conditions and 8.5 percent lived in households where no adult was employed; more than one-fifth of these children lived in Hackney.

Outside the haredi community, instances of childhood poverty were “very low,” according to the report.

To combat the threat, according to the report, haredi men should be encouraged to “develop the skills they require to go out and find work.”

‘Hakuna Matata’ meets tikkun olam

On Jan. 3, 2007 I accompanied my family to what I thought would be a normal dinner at a delicious Mexican restaurant. I was wrong.

That was the night I found out that I would have to leave all of my friends and go away for six and a half months, spending about two months each in Africa, Southeast Asia and Israel, where, as a family, we would be doing a mix of traveling and volunteering.

While everyone around me was telling me how amazing it would be, I was positive it was going to be the worst six months of my life. I was a normal 13-year-old girl who did not want to leave all of her friends, miss her graduation and all of the other perks of finally being a big eighth-grader.

Only two months before we left, I became a bat mitzvah. Along with the typically excessive amounts of jewelry and more money then any 13-year-old should have within her reach, I got one present that really stood out from the rest. It was a letter from family friends Greg and Justine Podell, with a promise to donate $3,000 to an organization I would find on my trip that would touch my heart. I was still relentlessly opposed to going on the trip, but this gift empowered me to feel that I could make a small difference (little did I know how far $3,000 could go in some of the places that I was visiting) and provided a unique way for me to view my experience and understand my responsibilities to myself, my family and the world.

Our first stop was Tanzania, a country in East Africa, just south of Kenya, and one of the poorest countries in the world. While we were there, I spent a lot of time at an orphanage called Matumaini, which means, “hope” in Swahili. I tried to visit the orphanage every day, and I formed incredible relationships with almost all of the kids living there. I loved the kids so much; they were always so happy and hopeful, even though they have close to nothing, not even running water or clothes and shoes that fit. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the money to go to them.

I was able to return to Tanzania during my spring break of 2008 (my freshman year in high school), this time with another volunteer and without my family. Before I left for Africa, I showed my fellow students at Limudim, my religious school at Ikar, pictures of the orphans, and gave them a mini Swahili lesson (who knew that hakuna matata really does mean “no worries”?). I had each of the students write letters to the kids in the orphanage. When I got to Tanzania, in addition to reading the letters (after we translated them), I had the orphans write letters back, which I sent along with a picture of their Tanzanian “pen pal.”

Returning to Tanzania convinced me that I really wanted to use Greg and Justine’s gift for the benefit of Tanzania. Two of my fellow volunteers, who were also moved by their experiences in Tanzania, started nonprofit organizations. I have decided to give the money to those organizations.

The first one is called the Knock Foundation. The primary focus of the organization is to continue to support the needs of the orphans at Matumaini. The money I’m giving to that organization will create a fund that will pay the secondary-school fees for the orphans. While Tanzania offers public education, many kids cannot afford even the very small fees. My intention is to raise additional money for this fund as well as money toward the purchase of books and other school supplies

The second organization is called Team Tanzania, which is dedicated to organizing Americans, primarily young people, in improving lives in Tanzania by partnering with local community development organizations based in the Kilimanjaro region. Team Tanzania aims to motivate Americans to become involved in any number of ways: from donating money to donating time; from traveling to Africa, to speaking to friends, family and neighbors about Tanzania and its people.

This magical gift really brought everything together for me. Greg and Justine’s gift, combined with this trip and preparing for my bat mitzvah, taught me to take a deeper look at the world around me and consider where

I want to take a stand in helping the world become a better place.

Of course, I realize that not everyone will be able to go on the kind of trip that I went on or receive a gift as generous as Greg and Justine’s, but any gift that encourages us to consider tikkun olam in a deep and meaningful way is the best gift of all.

Maya Wergeles is sophomore at Santa Monica High School and a student at Limudim, the religious school at IKAR.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to

Food prices squeeze Israel’s needy

TEL AVIV (JTA) – It’s mid-afternoon and Michael Dahan is buying food for his first meal of the day. With rising food prices compounding his already dire economic situation, it has become his habit to skip meals, he admits.

“What can I do?” the unemployed 49-year-old says with a shrug, holding the small carton of milk he has just bought at a grocery store in the rundown Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. “I hardly have anything to get by on once I’ve paid rent and utilities.”

A block away, on a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts and plastic bags, Maria Arnov, 28, an immigrant from Latvia and mother of two, says food prices have changed the way she shops. Arnov goes to the store less often and cuts corners wherever she can, like buying cheaper frozen meat and not buying the type of rice her family favors because its price has doubled in the past three months.

Israel, like many parts of the world, has seen food staples such as meat, rice and vegetables rise significantly. Its poor, already struggling to make ends meet, have been hardest hit—along with the nonprofit groups that serve them.

Although it is rare for Israelis to go hungry, food insecurity is a growing problem in their nation as traditional social safety nets fall short and nearly a quarter of Israeli families find themselves subsisting on less nutritious diets than before.

Many of the nonprofit groups that deliver food to the needy say they have been reeling from the one-two punch of rising prices and a sinking dollar.

In Israel, groups that rely in large part on funds raised in the United States have been forced by the dollar’s plunge to cut back on services, sometimes reducing the number of families they serve by as much as 40 percent.

In Beersheva, the social assistance group Beit Moriah has had to reduce the number of food packages it delivers to families every month to 200, down from 500 last year.

At From the Heart, an organization in Rishon LeZion that runs a food distribution project called Lev Chesed, volunteers are overwhelmed by requests they cannot meet.

“We have several hundred people on our waiting lists, but it’s not financially possible to help them,” said Ronen Ziv, the director of the group, which provides food packages to 700 families per week. “We have no government assistance.”

With budgets becoming leaner, government officials for the first time are pushing to develop a policy to combat food insecurity. The first-ever interministerial report on the subject was completed recently, and legislation is pending in the Knesset for a new council on food security to be created to develop coordinated policies to tackle the problem.

The ministerial report, which is pending Cabinet approval, recommends increasing annual state funding for nutrition and food insecurity to $10 million to $15 million from the current $1 million.

“There needs to be an appropriate range of government responses, from funding food assistance programs, to reducing state Value Added Tax on staple foods, to ensuring that having basic foods is seen as a right for all Israelis,” said Batya Kallus, the director of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.

The forum, which conducts research, engineered the establishment of Leket, Israel’s first national food bank.

Established last year, Leket is based on the model of U.S. community food banks. It attempts to coordinate and streamline the efforts of many nonprofit food agencies. In the past decade the number of such groups has grown to about 400, which collectively distribute some 20,000 tons of food per year.

“What we have been seeing in purchasing food to be donated is that people are paying a huge range of prices, from rock bottom to retail,” Kallus said. “We have tried to make sense of that by creating a central purchasing division where organizations can come to Leket and we offer them a wide basket of foods they can purchase that we offer at the lowest possible prices.”

In a 2003 study on food insecurity in Israel commissioned by Leket from the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, researchers found that some 22 percent of Israelis are unable to provide for their basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.

A father of eight in Jerusalem whose family has slipped into poverty after emigrating from the United States many years ago says he lives with food insecurity every day.

“When there is food we are happy, when there isn’t we are not,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “It’s not a matter of decision-making. When there’s just no money, there is no food.”

He says there are days when the family goes without food.

Ido Nachum, a spokesman for Israel’s welfare ministry, says he hopes the interministerial report’s recommendations will be adopted, including increased state investment and oversight of nonprofits, the establishment of the national council on food insecurity, expanding a hot lunch program for schoolchildren and ensuring government subsidies for those who cannot afford to feed their families adequately.

Far from the corridors of national decision-making, Dahan, the unemployed man in south Tel Aviv, shuffles away with his small bag of provisions, hoping for better days.

The final indignity

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — reaching out to poor and homeless in the city

Local Iranian American Jews are reaching out to the poor and homeless in the city of Los Angeles

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.

No food will be wasted if Joseph Gitler has his way

In the city of Ra’anana, in the center of Israel, the corporate cafeteria at the publicly traded Amdocs high-tech company is full of young executives and IT specialists finishing up their lunch break.

The cafeteria is the size of a fancy Las Vegas hotel buffet, with countless stalls dedicated to hot and cold salads, grilled meats, starches and even classic home cooking — enough choice and quantity to satisfy the high-tech employees throughout their long workday.

But a kitchen worker pushes a cart back into the kitchen full of untouched filets of beef laden with gravy.

“You see what perfectly good meat this is?” remarked Joseph Gitler, founder of Table to Table, an Israeli food rescue organization. “To think that would go to waste.”

Rescuing excess food from Israeli corporate cafeterias on a daily basis is just one of the projects Gitler conceived about five and a half years ago when, as a new immigrant to Israel, he decided he must do something about the disturbing reports of poverty in Israel. He took time off from his job as a marketing executive at an Israeli high-tech company to spend time in soup kitchens and other charitable food providers, only to find they often didn’t have enough food to provide.

“No one was thinking big on how to rescue food en masse,” Gitler told The Journal from the cafeteria as Amdocs employees and visitors from London voluntarily packaged chicken and rice for transport via the Table to Table truck. “I simply opened the yellow pages, called catered events, and asked if they have extra food they’d be willing to donate. Most of them responded favorably. Actually, it was more than ‘yes.’ It was: ‘Where have you been?'”

The 33-year-old New York native initially went on a private mission to gather the unused food, packing it in refrigerators at his home in Ra’anana, where he lives with his Canadian-born wife and four children. He looked to City Harvest in New York and Second Harvest in Toronto as models of large-scale organizations dedicated to rescuing food.

“Within two weeks, the amount of quality food available was very self-evident, and I put a posting on local English internet listings saying ‘this is what I’m doing, who wants to join me?'” he said. “And it ran from there.”

Today, Table to Table is the largest organization of its kind in Israel, operating on an annual budget of $2.2 million, funded mostly through anonymous donors. Altogether 35 employees and some 4,000 monthly volunteers now work to collect food from weddings and b’nai mitzvah, corporate cafeterias and army bases, as well as neglected agricultural fields. For every dollar spent, Gitler estimates Table to Table saves $5 worth of food, not to mention uncalculated costs in energy consumption. On average it rescues 12,000 to 14,000 meals (defined as a protein and two sides) and 40 to 50 tons of produce per week. From the warehouse in Ra’anana, the food gets channeled through 106 nonprofit charitable organizations.

But, Gitler said, Table to Table has not yet tapped resources in northern and southern Israel, and recent poverty statistics have given him the impetus to expand.

According to a report put out last month by Israel’s Welfare and Social Services Ministry, close to one-third of Israel’s population cannot afford to buy essential food items, while 24,000 people eat in soup kitchens and 22,500 families turn to others to feed them. In Israel, food costs have risen by 6 percent in the last year. The push to get food to the needy is particularly strong right before a Jewish holiday. With Passover approaching, Table to Table is working with farmers to gather food required for the seder table.

“We got farmers who want to donate specifically for Pesach — particularly lettuce. Lettuce is very expensive this year with because of shmita” (the practice of allowing fields to lie fallow every seven years), said Mark Eilim, the director of Project Gleaning, or Leket in Hebrew. Leket also attracts farmers who must abandon fields out of economic efficiency or who must leave-over fruit and vegetables not suitable for sale due to size or minor imperfections.

Leket started four years ago at the grass-roots level when Eilim, then a driver for Table to Table, was approached by a farmer who had persimmons he couldn’t sell.

“He offered to let us take some off the floor,” Eilim said. “There was nothing wrong with them. They just weren’t the right size.”

Together with some volunteers, Eilim gathered 25 tons of persimmons over a few nights. Today he oversees thousands of volunteers monthly — including Birthright Israel participants, schoolchildren and even prisoners — who harvest fields throughout Israel. high-tech companies turn to Table to Table for uplifting afternoon company outings.

At a large strawberry field in Hod HaSharon flanked by residential high-rises, a few dozen employees from the Israeli high-tech company worked to pick perfectly ripe, red and delicious strawberries in a field belonging to second-generation farmer, Efraim Yosef.

“I would have shut off the sprinklers, dried up the field,” Yosef said. “Since I know people are coming, I continue to irrigate it.”

So far his fields have yielded 9,000 baskets of strawberries for families for whom the fruit is a luxury. According to Eilim, most farmers donate a portion of their fields as an act of charity.

“If I could cause a child to smile when he sees strawberries in his refrigerator or on the table,” Yosef said. “It gives me a lot.”

Independence creates uncertainty for Kosovo’s Jews

Charedi yuppies

Moshe Shapoff was blown away by the look of the building. He was seeing it on a computer screen in three dimensions, and he couldn’t believe the level of detail. It was a redesign of a residential building in Jerusalem, which the architect had made bigger, more modern and certainly more beautiful.

Shapoff might have been impressed by the building, but he was even more impressed by the architect, a man named Yochanan.

Three years earlier, Yochanan was one of those Talmud-studying, out-of-work Charedim with lots of children who would knock on doors in Jewish neighborhoods across America to help feed their families.

Then, one day, a group of Charedim said dayenu — enough. Enough with the handouts. Enough with losing dignity. Enough with not going to work. They said, simply: Why can’t we find jobs like everybody else?

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with two of the Charedim behind this new effort: Asher Klitnick and Moshe Shapoff.

Their story began in 2004 in the tiny office of the Karlin-Stolin rebbe in Givat-Zev, a small suburb of Jerusalem. The rebbe, Baruch Meir Yaacov Shochet, was quite anxious that day. More and more poor families were coming to him for help. With the reduction in state subsidies, it was hard to help them all. Fundraising efforts were falling short. Something had to be done.

So the rebbe called for one of his trusted aides, Klitnick, a seventh-generation Karliner who would later enlist the aid of another of the rebbe’s followers, Shapoff.

In the Chasidic world, a rebbe is more than a rabbi and teacher. He is also a leader who guides you in all aspects of your life.

Klitnick and Shapoff were clearly in that mode. Whatever the rebbe said was gold — no questions asked.

This rebbe, by the way, was no ordinary rebbe. He was born in Brooklyn’s Borough Park in 1955 to the daughter of the previous Karlin-Stolin rebbe, who had no son. As the story goes, the previous rebbe, who was ailing when Baruch was born, held the baby in his hands every day during his first year and saw enough to anoint him as his successor. When the rebbe died in 1956, 1-year-old Baruch Meir Yaacov became the leader of one of the largest Chasidic sects in the world.

And don’t think he wasn’t taken seriously.

There are hundreds of stories of followers putting kvittels — pieces of paper with Hebrew names of people needing blessings — under the baby’s/rebbe’s crib. Even while he was an infant, thousands of his followers, who are known for their intense and joyful davening, would visit him from Israel to bask in his aura.

As the rebbe grew in Torah knowledge and stature, the Karliner sect expanded into other communities on the East Coast and in Israel, as well. By the time the rebbe decided to move to Israel when he was in his mid-30s, he had picked up enough American know-how to begin doing outreach with secular Jews and enough savvy to understand the importance of image in the modern world.

So when he called Klitnick into his office on that day in 2004 to discuss the growing crisis of poor Charedi families, the rebbe had more on his mind than just fundraising. This time, he was also thinking about jobs. He asked Klitnick and his team to prepare Charedis to join the working world.

After a few stumbles, Klitnick and Shapoff, who were also born in the United States and speak fluent English, broke through with the launch of Amida, a job training organization dedicated strictly to Charedi Jews. So far, they have helped fund the education of almost 100 of their fellow Charedim in fields like graphic design, computer programming, business management, engineering, travel agencies and, yes, even architecture.

Their biggest problem now is that they have a huge waiting list of Charedim anxious to go to school and find work, which is why they’ve come knocking on doors in America.

But this time, they’re asking for fishing rods, not fish.

I can tell that Klitnick and Shapoff have struck a chord in the Los Angeles Jewish community just by seeing who they visit when they come to town. In addition to their Charedi brethren in Hancock Park, they have visited and received support from Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi David Wolpe and even an award-winning Hollywood producer, Howard Rosenman.

They have also been invited to participate in the Limmud Conference on President’s Day weekend in February, which will bring together Jews of all denominations to celebrate the richness and beauty of Judaism.

In truth, it’s painful to admit that over the years, the image of the Charedim has been anything but beautiful. When Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, at the time of Israel’s creation, gave a few hundred Charedim a pass on army service — in deference to their tradition of daily Torah study — no one could have predicted that 60 years later, they would represent almost a quarter of the Jewish Israeli population. With a general resistance to joining the secular work force and a heavy dependence on the state, it’s not hard to see why they have suffered from an image problem.

Now, these two affable, BlackBerry-carrying, black-hat Charedi yuppies, Klitnick and Shapoff, are hopping all around Los Angeles and Hollywood hoping to improve that image.

In addition to their bright-eyed charm, they will have something else going for them. The schools in Israel have told them that Talmud experts, which the Charedim certainly are, are now in big demand among employers. Apparently, the mind-numbing precision of Talmudic discourse, combined with the breadth of knowledge inherent in the Talmud, creates ideal job candidates.

Come to think of it, Shapoff did marvel at the extraordinary amount of detail and precision in Yochanan’s building designs.

Who knew that yeshivas could train future architects?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Chanukah — it’s not just about a miracle anymore

One of the Jewish calendar’s most widespread and public observances, the Chanukah holiday has traditionally emphasized two miracles: the military victory of Jewish rebels over Greek invaders and the one vial of oil that lasted for eight nights.

However, just as other holidays have seen their historic purpose shaped to contemporary narratives, Chanukah is increasingly being used as a vehicle for other Jewish agendas that seem to stray far from the holiday’s original meaning.

This year, much of the focus is on global warming. The Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based group focused mainly on environmental issues, has launched the Green Menorah Covenant campaign to promote improved energy efficiency among Jewish communities. The campaign, which is timed to coincide with both Chanukah and a U.N.-sponsored conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, follows a similar effort begun last year to encourage switching to more energy-efficient lightbulbs.

A Light Among the Nations, a project of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), aims to get Jews to switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs during the holiday. This year, the program is being tied to JCPA’s anti-poverty campaign, which in December will focus on energy.

The JCPA was also involved in the creation of Ner Shel Tzedakah (candle of righteousness), a joint initiative of the Reform and Conservative movements that aims to teach about poverty by encouraging families to donate their holiday gifts to organizations assisting the poor.

The most famous figures of the Chanukah story, the mythic Maccabees, have been appropriated as symbols of Jewish sport — no small irony, considering the Maccabees rebelled against the worship of athletic prowess that characterized Hellenistic civilization.

And on the Shabbat that falls in the middle of Chanukah on Dec. 8, rabbis are being encouraged to tie their sermons to the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

Jeffrey Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and author of a book about Judaism’s encounter with sports, said that sports teams should more aptly be called the “anti-Maccabees.” The shift in thinking about the Maccabees, Gurock said, is linked to the Zionist thinker Max Nordau, who sought figures in Jewish history as models for what he called “muscular Judaism.”

“It was an appropriation of a particular moment in ancient Jewish history that’s [been] revived and used in modern times,” Gurock said. “Jews were fighters in the ancient world. And they want to go back to this image of Jews.”

Chanukah has more to do with ancient miracles than with environmentalism or concern for the poor. The holiday marks the victory of Maccabean rebels against their Hellenistic rulers in the second century B.C.E. and the subsequent miracle of the temple oil lasting for eight days.

Rabbi Leon Morris, executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York, said he has no problem with added layers of meaning being added to the Chanukah story, provided it doesn’t eviscerate its underlying themes.

“I think every holiday gives us an opportunity to look for contemporary resonance of the holiday’s themes in our lives,” Morris said. “The roots of Chanukah are sufficiently complex to open up a variety of contemporary issues to weave into our own understanding.”

Morris also noted some further ironies in the contemporary American celebration of Chanukah. The holiday, which invites thinking about the tension between Jewish particularism and Hellenistic universalism, is played out against the backdrop of the dominant culture’s celebration of Christmas. Chanukah’s timing to the winter solstice, Morris speculated, may also imply something about non-Jewish influence on the holiday.

“I guess the question we should ask is not whether these interpretations are legitimate, but what’s prompting them,” Morris said. “As contemporary Jews look at the liturgy, narratives and stories, what is it that’s sparking these different sorts of ideas?”

In the case of poverty, the spark was in part mounting concern over the growing commercialization of the December holiday season.

“Our thinking was to raise the profile of the issue of poverty,” said Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. “I think a lot of families these days are feeling overwhelmed by the consumerism that has become a focus of the holiday.”

Grafting a concern for the environment on to Chanukah celebrations is clearly motivated by the contemporary awareness of climate change and its related risks. But as many note, it may not be such a stretch of the imagination to see resource conservation as a lesser moral of the Maccabbean tale.

Rabbinic tradition, with its reluctance to glorify military triumphs, emphasized instead the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, and it’s but a short leap from rescuing a lone vial of oil to preaching the necessity of conserving natural resources.

“It’s substantively a part of the holiday because there was a time when we really needed to have a little energy go a long way. And we call that time Chanukah,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of JCPA. “By the same token, we think we’re at a time in our world history where we need to conserve and husband our energy.”

Likewise, Gutow said Chanukah also recalls a time when the Jewish community was poor in resources. “It was a time when we were at a nadir of our ability to find energy and to use it,” he said. “And it ties in well to the difficulties that poor Jews and poor Americans have. It makes perfect sense to me.”

Holocaust survivors in L.A. are still struggling

Joshua “Joe” Knobler used to go salsa dancing three times a week. He used to play cards with the guys every day. Now, 88, with both his health and finances failing, he sits home all day in his drab one-room apartment in Valley Village watching television.

“Television is my life,” he said.

A Holocaust survivor who spent five years in Buchenwald, Knobler was married and divorced twice; both spouses are now deceased, and he is estranged from his children. He leaves his apartment door open all day, but no one stops by to say hello.

Knobler says he doesn’t have enough money each month to buy food, get his clothes cleaned or purchase more than a single $5 can of bug spray to fight the cockroaches infesting his apartment.

Knobler used to make a decent living as a tailor. His industrial Singer sewing machine sits in the corner of his one-room apartment, now overcrowded with a queen-size bed, a hospital bed, a dresser and a couch. He explains that the sewing machine is broken; he can’t afford a new needle.

He receives $939 in SSI (Supplemental Security Income) each month and pays $639 in rent. Of the $300 remaining, he spends $30 for the telephone, $60 for cable television and another $30 for medication, mostly for pain pills. He’s had two back surgeries, one only 10 months ago, and lives with debilitating chronic pain. He has $2.44 in the bank.

“I don’t get from nobody,” he said.

But that’s not exactly true; Knobler has been a Jewish Family Service (JFS) client for the past 10 years, part of the Survivors of the Holocaust Program. He receives eight hours a week in home care services, a monthly $100 Ralphs gift card and $50 a month in taxi vouchers. Additionally, a bag of groceries from SOVA is delivered to his apartment once a month.

Knobler, in fact, receives $2,500 a year in support services, an amount that has been capped for all indigent Holocaust survivors by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which provides $914,000 to JFS in Los Angeles annually to assist needy survivors.

But Knobler has actually received $5,300 in services already this year, thanks to two funds specifically earmarked for emergencies and other essentials for the estimated 3,000 poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles.

For Knobler, these additional expenses included ambulance transportation (not reimbursed by Medi-Cal because of an unknown glitch in his citizenship papers filed in 1951, a problem being rectified by JFS) and new glasses.

One fund was created by Roz and Abner Goldstine, longtime JFS board members, who donated $250,000 after reading about the plight of Los Angeles’ 3,000 indigent Holocaust survivors in a story last year in The Jewish Journal.

The fund, donated through The Jewish Federation’s Premiere Philanthropy program, provides $50,000 a year, with the first year’s contribution matched by a grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

With the Goldstine fund and with the ongoing $2 million Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund created six years ago by money manager and former Jewish Federation chair Todd Morgan, JFS is able to provide indigent survivors with additional home care hours (usually a weekly maximum of eight) and to cover such emergency expenses as utility bills, medications, transportation and other necessities.

“The need is great,” said JFS Associate Executive Director Susie Forer-Dehrey, adding that last year’s Jewish Journal article “shed light on how important it is to take care of survivors.”

In addition to the Goldstine’s gift, Forer-Dehrey noted that The Journal story triggered more than $20,000 in additional donations, much of it in small amounts, including one envelope with two crumbled dollar bills.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles, according to Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon. Of these, 3,000 are determined to be financially needy, a figure based on a United Jewish Communities Report published December 2003, which found 25 percent of Holocaust victims in the United States living in poverty.

The Claims Conference defines needy as someone with income no more than 200 percent above the federal poverty level. In 2007, for a single person, that amounts to $20,420, with no more than $20,000 savings. For a couple, the amount is $27,380, with no more than $30,000 in savings.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the number of indigent survivors is increasing, more than six decades after the Holocaust.

“The whole population is living longer, and so are Holocaust survivors,” said Paula Fern, director of JFS’ Holocaust Survivor Program. Of the approximately 600 survivors that JFS is assisting, many are in their 80s and 90s, and five are more than 100 years old.

Fern explained that as they become older, they become frailer. As a result, they need more home care, which includes help with laundry, cleaning, bathing, grocery shopping, doctor visits and errands.

Also, according to Fern, survivors suffer from many more chronic illnesses than most elderly people, including heart disease, diabetes and asthma and breathing diseases. These are debilitating as well as costly, as they necessitate an average of 10 to 15 prescriptions monthly.

For survivors living on fixed incomes, these expenses add up. Plus, rents, as well as the cost of food, transportation and utilities, are increasing.

“There is a huge lack of affordable housing,” said Fern, who noted that there is great resistance among Holocaust survivors to enter assisted-living facilities, whose institutional settings, no matter how cheerful and home-like, trigger unpleasant memories.

While JFS helps survivors with their psychosocial needs, Bet Tzedek addresses their legal issues. It is, in fact, the only Jewish legal services agency that offers free assistance with reparations, pensions and other benefits from Germany and other European countries.

Currently, Bet Tzedek has about 750 open files in their Holocaust reparations program.

Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government
Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government during a summer 2006 clinic run by Bet Tzedek. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek

“Justice moves slowly,” said Wendy Marantz Levine, deputy director of litigation. She explained that some cases have been open 10, 12 and even 15 years and are still awaiting responses.

Americans don’t forget Eastern Europe’s survivors

Galina Isakovna’s life has never been easy.

She was 3 months old in 1922 when a pogrom broke out in her Belarusian village. As a band of anti-Semitic thugs stormed her family’s home, her mother quickly stashed her under a bed. When the intruders entered the room, cutting up the feather pillows with bayonets, her mother prayed that her baby wouldn’t cry. Miraculously, the entire family survived.

During World War II, Galina served as one of the Russian army’s first women aerial gunners and as a bombardier mechanic. She fought on the Second Ukrainian Front, and when her arm was mangled in an attack, part of a bone was replaced with a metal plate.

Today she’s confined to a wheelchair, disabled with multiple ailments, and she rarely leaves her apartment in Brest, Belarus, because she can’t navigate the staircase.

Despite her infirmities, she has cared for her bedridden husband — feeding, washing and repositioning him; changing his linens; and reading to him from Jewish newspapers — for the last 13 years. She is ill herself, yet she cried to God to stay alive so she could continue tending to him.

But when she received $300 and was able to buy a washing machine, her life improved; she was no longer exhausted from washing all her husband’s clothing and soiled bed sheets by hand. And when he died last August, after languishing in a coma from a second stroke, she got another $600, enough to pay for his burial and tombstone.

“I didn’t think I could survive it, but now I want to live a little,” she said.

Galina’s renewed sense of hope for her future — for the chance to relax and to read and memorize her beloved poems about Victory Day — comes as a result of the work of comedy director/producer Zane Buzby and the Survivor Mitzvah Project, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that brings direct financial assistance to about 700 elderly and ill Holocaust survivors in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Lithuania.

“These are people who have fallen through the cracks and have nowhere to turn,” said Buzby, who is determined to drastically improve as many lives as she can.

Buzby is accomplishing her goal with the help of philanthropist and fellow Angeleno S. Chic Wolk, with whom she co-founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project in 2004, and with Russian translator Sonia Kovitz, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, who joined them in 2005. All are volunteers.

The three malokhim fun Amerike (angels from America), as the survivors call them, assist not only by sending money but also, and even more critically, by providing friendship and hope to people who are among Eastern Europe’s poorest, loneliest and most forsaken Jews.

Additionally, they are helped by Ludmila M., a Belarusian non-Jewish English teacher “with a heart of gold,” according to Buzby, as well as an aging survivor in Moldova, who is destitute himself and asked not to have his identity revealed.

Many of the survivors, currently ages 70 to 100, are ill with such ailments as heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders and thyroid cancer. Many never married, others have outlived their spouses and children and some are caring for disabled or mentally ill offspring.

Additionally, many have limited or no vision, and most have no teeth. And almost all experience numbing loneliness, some because they are immobile and confined to a walk-up apartment, and some because they are the sole surviving Jew in their family or village.

Since they are not officially Holocaust survivors — they were not imprisoned in ghettos or concentration camps — they are not eligible for reparations from the German government. Nonetheless, they were forced to flee their homes and lost everything, often including parents, siblings, a spouse or fianc�(c), children and all personal belongings, even photographs.

“I don’t remember what my mother looked like. I don’t remember her face,” Taya S. of Ukraine told Buzby.

Whatever pensions or savings accounts they had accumulated were obliterated when the communist regimes of the former Soviet Union collapsed. Prior to that time, depending on their ages, they also suffered through the Russian Revolution, World War I, the famines of the 1930s, World War II, Stalin and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

“These people have not gotten one break since the day they were born,” Buzby said.

What the Survivor Mitzvah Project does for these survivors — and what other Jewish social service organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), cannot do because monetary gifts are taxable, according to JDC CEO Steven Schwager — is provide direct cash allotments, enabling them to supplement their meager pensions, often as low as $16 a month, to purchase essential and specific foods, medications and services.

For Raza S., the money covered a $400 eye operation that returned her sight. For Hirsh P., the funds provided three new, well-fitting windows in his 80-year-old apartment that now protect him and his wife from the icy winds of winters past. And Nina B., who suffers from diabetes and kidney problems, can now receive insulin and other vital medications.

“A dollar or $1.50 a day can make a substantial difference to these people,” said Buzby, who would ideally like to provide each one with $50 to $100 per month. But with about 700 individuals needing help, and with limited resources, this is not possible.

While Buzby is always doing triage, making critical decisions about how the funds are distributed, she stresses that all the monies go directly to the survivors, whose economic situation has been carefully vetted beforehand. There is no paid staff, and any expenses, such as postage, are covered by her or Wolk.

Buzby disperses funds through a complicated and secure network, either as checks or cash sent through registered mail or money wired to local couriers. And this past August, she herself took an emotional 16-day whirlwind trip to Lithuania and Belarus, distributing $25,000, as well as mezuzahs, Stars of David and other small gifts such as magnifying glasses and compact mirrors, to about 100 survivors, whom she met in person for the first time.

“For me to go there and for them to know someone came to see them was so astounding,” Buzby said.

Teen makes a difference for orphans in Kenya slum

Instead of splurging on a Wii or a state-of-the-art laptop, Ryan Silver, of Manhattan Beach, donated a portion of his gift money to orphans in a Nairobi slum.

“I think the best thing you can do is help another person,” said Silver, 13. “I have a better life than the kids [in the orphanage], and I wanted to help them.”

Silver’s inspiration stemmed from a 2006 family vacation to Africa. Silver, his parents and his younger sister went on safari and explored Kenya and Tanzania. While the incredible sights of wild animals and tribesman remain with him, Silver’s most memorable moments were meeting the children in the Nyumbani Orphanage in Mukuru, a slum in Kenya’s capital. The orphanage houses about 100 children whose families have been affected by AIDS/HIV.

Silver and his family had traveled with Micato Safaris and chose to participate in the New York-based tour operator’s nonprofit AmericaShare program, which allows travelers to spend time with the orphans in Nairobi.

AmericaShare supports about 2,000 Kenyan children, many of whom have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the continent. The organization places underprivileged children in schools and orphanages throughout East Africa. Through Lend a Helping Hand, a subprogram of America-Share, travelers can meet local children and offer financial support if they so choose.

It’s “main accomplishment is travelers hooking up with children whom they now support,” said Dennis Pinto, Micato’s managing director. “Many of these children were homeless or living on streets, and this gets them out of that situation.”

Often, this means living in the safety of the orphanage and getting a boarding-school education.

For Silver, Mukuru was a far cry from the clean, upscale neighborhood he knows in Manhattan Beach, where he surfs daily and plays on the school lacrosse team. Home to about 700,000, Mukuru has no infrastructure and little access to water and electricity.

“It was shocking,” Silver said.

After walking through narrow streets filled with mud, past large piles of trash and tiny, rundown shops, he arrived at the orphanage.

When Silver entered the facility, two toddler orphans, a brother and sister, took him by the hand and showed him their play area and vegetable garden. The juxtaposition of the devastation and the happy children was overwhelming. Silver says he was overcome with emotion.

“They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen, and they were so excited to see us,” said Silver, his soft-spoken voice evoking a mixture of sympathy and enthusiasm.

During Silver’s visit, the children and their caretakers sang songs for him in Swahili and played games. Although he only spent about two hours there, the experience changed his life.

“It definitely made me realize how lucky I am to have a home and a family and have the food and I water I need,” said Silver, who is in the eighth grade.

According to Pinto, Silver is not alone. For many children, especially teenagers, a trip through the slums of Africa can be life- altering.

“It is an experience that reaches quite deep into the psyches of teenagers,” Pinto said.

When Silver returned home, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. Without hesitation, he knew that his mitzvah project would involve helping the children in the orphanage.

When it was time to send the invitations for his March simcha, Silver enclosed a letter about the cause and asked guests to donate money to AmericaShare at the reception. At the party, he played a video of the children from the orphanage and gave guests handmade decorative pins and bracelets that they bought from the women from the orphanage. Between the guests’ donations and his own, Silver raised more than $2,700.

In addition to completing a Jewish rite of passage, Silver was pleased that his celebration helped educate others about the plight of the children in Africa and to ultimately offer financial support.

“Instead of just coming for a party, [my guests] came to see what Mukuru is like and how they can help,” he said.

Silver now sponsors a teenage boy from the orphanage named Evans. The donated funds cover Evans’ $1,500 tuition for one year, and the remainder of the money will go to help support an additional orphan.

Silver says he plans to continue to support Evans and other orphans in the years to come.

“Ryan is quite a special kid who is sensitive to the world beyond him,” said Rabbi Mark Hyman of Congregation Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who officiated at Silver’s ceremony. Hyman said that becoming a bar mitzvah means one becomes responsible for transforming the world — something the teen has certainly taken on.

Silver said his experience in Africa continues to influence him.

“It has definitely given me a more positive look on life,” he said. “We can make a difference helping kids less fortunate.”

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Shelter shock uncovers strong personal foundation

Brian had just finished lunch when he popped the question: “Do we get dinner too?” He was almost holding his breath. I smiled, nodded and watched his eyes widen in elated disbelief. Lunch and dinner! I felt both shocked and sheltered by his question.

I had never met anyone who couldn’t afford food before.

It was my first lunch at Camp Harmony, a free, five-day camp that has opened its doors every year for the past 19 summers to approximately 250 poor and homeless kids who are referred by case workers and employees from homeless shelters. Sponsored by the independent nonprofit United in Harmony (

One man’s sukkah is another man’s shack

Let me tell you about my Brazilian song. I heard many songs in Brazil, surely the most musical of all countries. The power of dance and music shapes few worlds so forcefully as Brazil’s.

I heard a song for Sukkot in Brazil. It is a song of the shacks in the slums — that is to say, the (Jewish) sukkot of the (Brazilian) favelas and it asks: Who is rich, and who is poor, and where is the sky after all?

Vast slums perch precariously in the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro, each made up of thousands of sukkot — flimsy shacks in which people live. Upward of 3 million, I was told.

In the valleys below live middle class and rich people, where (just like in Johannesburg, South Africa) modest families employ only two or three servants (at $40 a month); rich ones, many more. The impoverished people descend their hilltop fortresses, work if they can, steal if they have to (having left my arm out the window, my watch with my arm attached was nearly ripped off as I sat in a traffic jam on a busy highway). Then they scramble up to the favela and return, each family to its sukkah.

The favelas with their sukkah shacks are ungovernable. The government cannot deliver services to them; the police cannot reach into them. So what do the officials do? To reach the people, they organize what they call “samba schools,” which teach not only the national dance of the country but also music and instruments.

And the people come. They will not come for food, but they will come for music. And through dance and music the state can reach and try to serve the vast population that lives in the clouds, beyond all earthly grasp.

Now what do these shacks in the clouds, filled with starving people ready always for a song and a dance, have to do with the shacks we call sukkot and with our celebration of our festival of rejoicing?

My wife, the artist, is the one who came up with the description “sukkah,” and it struck home. For the favelas — as her inner eye perceived them — look like shacks, that is to say, sukkot. Yet there people do not live in these temporary shelters as an act of sanctification in the way that we do at this season of the full moon of Tishri because we are commanded to do so; they live in them because they have to.

And that set me to thinking.

On Sukkot, we are commanded to be poor, to re-enter the world in which vast populations on this planet live because of a different commandment, one of necessity, in sight of the stars and without a roof. For us it is cold and refreshing; for them, it is always cold.

For us, it is an act of consecration to re-enter the world of the flimsy shack, without water, without heat, with only God to sustain us. For them, it is a world of bitter necessity. But in Rio, they can sing and dance: Despite their hardships, their souls still respond to music and artful gesture. Give me shoes, and they will wear out, but give me a song, and I will always have it to warm my heart.

Sukkot gives us that taste of poverty that reminds us of the here and the now, not only of long ago or of distant days ahead. It is good for us Jews, most of us living in comfort, to be made to remember poverty, in which most of our grandparents suffered, to be made to experience need. But not need alone — also the power of song and dance, for at the end of Sukkot, on Simhat Torah, our rite has us dance with the Torah.

Sukkot turns us into street people. On Sukkot, we leave our homes and take up residence, if only for meals, in the Jewish favela — the neighborhood made up of sukkot. We live in shacks for a week. In our minds eye, so the Torah teaches, these are heavenly dwellings. With us in the sukkah, after all, are the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. There we sing for them, with them.

To live in a circumstance of poverty and to sing, that is Sukkot, the Jewish reminder that most people in most places do not have roofs but see the stars by night because they have to. Sukkot reminds us, in our wealth, that we have souls, and that our souls sustain us.

That is why, when I raised my eyes upward, riding along the gloriously beautiful streets of Rio and looking at the mountains on high, I thought of Sukkot. That and one more thing.

I learned from the great rabbi, Rabbino Henry I. Sobel of the Congregacio Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, Brazil, what really counts in thinking about the Jewish world.

At a dinner he and I attended for Israeli Minister of Education and Culture Yitzhak Navon in Sao Paulo, we sat with some impatience through a long discussion about the Jewish future in Brazil, the United States, Argentina and, of course, the State of Israel.

Navon, a person of substance and intellect, cataloged all the reasons American Jewry is going to fade away, and, all the more so, Brazilian and the rest of the Latin American Jewries, whether small, as in Bogota, Colombia, or Lima, Peru, or great and thriving, as in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Rio, and Sao Paulo. Intermarriage, low levels of Jewish literacy, declining standards of ritual observance — indicators of change transformed into harbingers of doom.

Then Sobel remarked, “Mr. Navon, people focus on the future. But what concerns me is the present.”

He proceeded to explain: “Everyone is always talking about what is going to happen. But I am worried about today. If there is no today, then what difference does tomorrow make?”

Food Stamp diet underscores need to aid the poor

I’ll be the first to admit that cooking isn’t my strong suit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal — as long as I’m not the person preparing it.

In fact, it’s come to be somewhat of a joke among my family and friends: If you’re hosting a holiday or other food-focused gathering and are looking for contributions, you can call Eric, and he’ll connect you to a deli, supermarket or restaurant conveniently located in your neighborhood.

And so it was with some trepidation that I signed up this summer for the Food Stamp Diet Challenge, a weeklong experiment in limiting my food budget to the amount provided by the federal food stamp allotment. With $21 per week, buying lunches and dinners out was clearly not going to work. I would have to conquer my low cooking self-esteem and make a trip to the grocery store.

What I found there will be little surprise to anyone. Eating on $3 per day — and doing it nutritiously in a way that would leave a person feeling satiated — was not just going to be a challenge. It was a near impossibility.

Most of my career has been spent in the halls of higher learning, and I decided to approach the project like any academic, relying on sound research before drawing my conclusions. I started with produce and quickly realized how foolish a choice that had been.

At $1.89 each, avocados were not only out of my budget, but they were more than 50 percent of what I was allowed to spend in an entire day. Red bell peppers, a particular favorite of mine, weighed in at $5.99 per pound, fine if that was all I wanted to eat for 48 hours. I thought it might be a good time to head to another section of the store.

Protein seemed like an important thing to have. I am careful about the meats I consume, high cholesterol being one of my more unfortunate genetic legacies. White meat chicken is about the only thing I’ll allow myself — but at $6.49 per pound for boneless, skinless breasts, the thigh fillets for almost half as much looked awfully tempting.

So, what could I buy? Beans. A lot of canned beans: garbanzos for 79 cents, black beans for 89 cents. And boxes of macaroni and cheese, though even there I was in for a bit of sticker shock. Kraft, a cornerstone of my childhood, went as high as 33 cents per ounce. Instead, I opted for the no-name box at the more sensible four cents per ounce.

The Food Stamp Diet Challenge impacted more than just my bottom line. It was physically debilitating and emotionally exhausting. I was lethargic and found that I lacked my usual enthusiasm for getting through the day. I had difficulty reading, writing, communicating — doing anything other than anticipating (and, in some ways, dreading) my next meal.

Every year at the High Holy Days, I try to find words that connect each of us to our liturgy and tradition, words that educate us about the ways we are commanded by our texts and our faith to lead a prophetic call for change. This year, on the heels of my Food Stamp Diet Challenge experience, I have no words. Because, for the first time, I realize in an immediate and personal way that words alone will not provide sustenance or bring justice to millions of families whose only crime is getting stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Words without action are just words — lovely but as empty as the stomachs of 35 million Americans facing hunger.

These Holy Days are a time for reflection. But for reflection to mean something, it must be followed by change. This year, there is something we can all do to make an immediate difference: Ask our senators and House members to support full extension of the nutrition title in the Farm Bill now before Congress.

It is the Farm Bill that authorizes food stamps and other key federal nutrition programs, without which millions of hungry families would simply not be able to get by. A diverse group of California politicians has already taken the challenge.

We have reached the threshold of another new year. Let us pledge, you and I, to cross it together, committed to a future in which food stamps, the majority of which go to feed children, require neither a diet nor a challenge. Hungry people deserve better. We all do.

G’mar hatima tova.

H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D. is president of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and is chair of the National Anti-Hunger Organizations.

Documentary: Sao Paolo nightmare gives lesson in class warfare

In “Manda Bala,” Jason Kohn’s nightmarish documentary of Brazil, a young woman describes how a “secret admirer” kept phoning her home in Sao Paolo. But when she went to meet him, she found the flattery was a ruse to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. She was chained inside a box, and her ears were sliced off and sent to her father as a Father’s Day present. “I only knew it was night or day because of the TV,” the woman says in the movie. “‘The Birds,’ by Alfred Hitchcock, was on the day they cut my first ear. That night I dreamed that a bird had bitten my ear off. I still have that dream today.”

In “Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”), Kohn portrays a dystopian nation where the rich steal from the poor and the poor literally “steal” the rich. The “characters” include a politician who allegedly stole billions from a poverty fund, a frog farmer who allegedly laundered the money, a kidnapper who uses ransom loot to help his community and a businessman so afraid of being kidnapped that he wants a microchip implanted in his body as a sort of human LoJack.

The movie won best documentary and documentary cinematography awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and “is as well directed as a thriller,” according to a review in The Hollywood Reporter.

“Once you get past the gore, which takes many forms – from frogs eating each other to a long sequence in a plastic surgeon’s theater as he restores a cut-off ear – ‘Manda Bala’ makes a powerful statement about the consequences of wanting the good life at any cost.”

The brisk, brash documentary is to be expected of Kohn, 28, who describes himself as a New York “leftie Jew” and, above all, a “radical atheist.” He says he lives in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and does not own a home telephone (he uses his cell). His connection to Brazil comes from his South American émigré parents, who forced him to attend a Conservative religious school, which he despised because even as a child he did not believe in God. “But some of my favorite heroes come from a certain tradition of secular intellectual Jews who have changed the world for the better … : Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud,” he says.

Kohn grew up working in his family’s store near Times Square, which catered to Brazilian tourists. But the seeds of “Manda Bala” came later, after his parents divorced and Jason began visiting his father’s new home in Sao Paolo. “In America, my father was just another middle-class guy, but in Brazil, he lived [lavishly],” the filmmaker says. “Not only did he have a maid, but everyone had a maid, and many people had two maids. I was fascinated that people were driving around in bullet-proof cars.”

From the balcony of a relative’s apartment, Kohn could see sprawling slums just beside a wealthy enclave of sleek high-rise apartments.

After Kohn graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in history and film in 2001, his father told him about the “frog farm” scandal. Around the same time, Kohn read a newspaper story about a Sao Paolo plastic surgeon who specialized in ears. Kohn flew down to Brazil to visit the frog farm, where he noted that the larger amphibians ate the smaller ones – an image he felt might work in a film about class warfare.

He discussed the idea with his mentor, the eccentric documentarian, Errol Morris, for whom he was working as a research assistant.

“The story had crime, mutilation, cannibalism and the potential for metaphor, which fascinated Errol,” Kohn says. “He suggested that I see this brutal French film, ‘I Stand Alone,'” which was shot in 16mm film with anamorphic lenses – a good way to shoot a very wide-looking movie cheaply. I thought that might help me [depict] Sao Paolo as the kind of futuristic, anti-utopian city you might see in a science fiction film.”

In 2002, Kohn left his job, sold his car and moved down to Sao Paolo to try to make his movie.

It was a rash move, since he was only 22, didn’t have much money and didn’t know any Brazilian politicians. But he knew some of his father’s friends within Sao Paolo’s tight-knit Jewish community, and he slowly began to make contacts. A police detective introduced Kohn to the young woman whose ears became a Father’s Day present; and authorities gave Kohn torture videos that had been sent to other victims’ families.

By April 2006, Kohn had cut his film, but he still lacked the ending he had envisioned – an interview with a real kidnapper.

“I was depressed, broke and basically living on my stepbrother’s bed,” he recalls.

A break came when a cabbie offered to introduce Kohn to a kidnapper who served as the “don” of a local slum. Several days later, the cabbie drove Kohn and his crew to the thug’s compound – a block of shacks surrounded by walls and equipped with an elaborate security system.

The 35-year-old criminal, Magrinho, was relaxed and affable during the two-hour interview, describing how he began stealing food for his family at age 9, and how he turned from bank robbing to kidnapping because it was more profitable. “You either steal with a gun or with a pen – politicians steal with a pen,” he says in the movie.

The interview was cut short, however, when security monitors showed police entering the slum and rushing toward Magrinho’s compound. The kidnapper grabbed his gun as the filmmakers cowered in a detritus-filled courtyard.

“I thought he’d assume we had brought the police, in which case we would all have been executed on the spot,” Kohn says.

But it turned out the police had come only to extort bribes from Magrinho, and when they didn’t find him on the streets, they left.

Even though “Manda Bala” is largely set in Sao Paolo, Kohn believes the movie is universal.

“It is as much about present-day Brazil as it could be about the United States in five years,” he says.

The film opens Aug. 31 in Los Angeles.frog cannibalism
Frog cannibalism – a metaphor for class conflict in ‘Manda Bala.”

Should charity for the homeless begin at home?

Among Jews and Christians, there is much confusion about the Bible’s preferred course for addressing the needs of poor Americans, the dominant assumption being that support for the impoverished is a public responsibility.

Recently, the issue came up in the Seattle suburb where I live. Our local weekly newspaper reported that a tent city for the homeless was to be set up in a church parking lot. In the article, a representative of the city government explained preemptively that the church had every right to do this and so, like it or not, the rest of us had no grounds for complaint.

Apart from the legal question, an implicit moral challenge was being issued: Anyone who did grumble couldn’t be a very good Christian, or Jew.

In a subsequent issue of the paper, a letter to the editor appeared making a wonderfully biblical point. I was proud that this lone voice of protest belonged to a Jewish woman. Given the modern Jewish weakness for socialism, I was also surprised.

Would it not be better, she asked, if instead of setting up the tent city, members of the church invited individual homeless people to live with them? That would be so much more personal and loving. It would also provide these needy individuals with role models: functional, successful families, a setting they may never have experienced, perhaps accounting for the dysfunction in their own lives that resulted in their being homeless. Graciously, the writer did not mention that this would not impose an unwanted cost on the rest of us who do not belong to the church and who may feel very ill at ease having an encampment of transients as neighbors.

This personal approach is exactly what the Bible commends to us. I can find nowhere in Scripture where the nation or the city is directed to compel generosity to the impoverished. Nor is a city like ours commanded to assume the responsibility (and dangers) created by someone else’s generosity.

While society in general is indeed obliged, it is understood that the society is composed of individuals, bearing individual moral responsibility.

The book of Leviticus turns this ethos of charity into legislation: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him — proselyte or resident — so that he can live with you” (25:35). Live with you, it says — not in a tent city, nor in shelters funded by money taken by the government from other people.

The prophet Isaiah was echoing the Pentateuch when he told the Jews living in his time, “Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor [to your] home; when you see a naked person, clothe him and do not hide from your kin” (58:7). The emphasis on a personal relationship with the poor is unmistakable, not a pole’s-length interaction as in the model of charity through taxation — or of inviting the poor to camp out in a parking lot adjacent to other people’s homes.

I anticipate a couple of objections. The first might reasonably be raised from Jewish tradition, based on a different verse in Isaiah (32:17). A conventional translation reads, “The product of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quiet and security forever.” That sounds like a nice, if somewhat vague, sentiment.

At first glance, the meaning of the verse in Hebrew is quite ambiguous. Having considered a grammatical fine point, however, the Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) interprets Isaiah as offering a comparison between an individual who causes others to give charity and another individual who gives charity on his own without being compelled.

The verse is understood to mean, “The reward of he who causes [others to do] righteousness is peace, and the reward of he who does righteousness is quiet and security, forever.” Since the Talmud assumes that peace is the greater reward, the Bible is seen as indicating the superior merit of causing charity to be given over simply giving it yourself.

With this in mind, Jewish communities from ancient times would appoint a communal officer in every locality where Jews lived to collect charity from community members, compelling them to give, if necessary, according to their means. Rabbinic law deemed the merit of this individual to exceed that of the Jews from whom he collected.

Isn’t that a pretty good indication that the Bible favors using the power of the government to coerce the citizenry to be charitable over relying on private generosity? Actually, not at all.

For the model of the communal charity collector is a communal, not a city, state, or national one. Specifically, it applies to a religious community, from which at any time you can disassociate yourself. Membership in such an association is voluntary, a free-will act.

All Isaiah is saying is that the person who undertakes the difficult role of pressuring his fellow community members to give money to support the poor deserves an even bigger pat on the back than the householder who writes out his check and voluntarily hands it over.

This Hebrew prophetic approach to poverty is, you might say, the diametric opposite of socialism. In the latter, the burden of your generosity is imposed on other people, with government acting as the enforcer.

The members of my neighborhood church, while being a voluntary community themselves, force the burden of their generosity on me. The city guarantees their right to do so. Church members may live a half hour away, but we who live right here have to deal with having a homeless encampment next door.

A second objection would cast doubt on the sincerity of the Jewish letter-writer who advocated, as a solution to homelessness, not parking-lot camping but home hospitality. Is the solution a remotely serious one?

For some homeless, no. For others, yes. Who are the homeless, exactly? It depends on what part of the country you’re talking about.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev reaches out to Bedouin women

Every morning, Hana’a Abokaf leaves her village on the slopes of the Negev Desert, where electricity is powered by a generator and camels and goats graze near cinderblock and tin houses.

Abokaf, 20, rides the bus to the university where she is a first-year medical student. Just by attending a university, Abokaf is part of a revolution of sorts in her deeply conservative Bedouin community: She is among about 250 Bedouin female students enrolled at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In recent years, the school has made attracting and retaining Bedouin students, many of them female, a top priority.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” a smiling Abokaf said, her lavender and black headscarf fastened tightly over her hair.

It’s a bold statement, because Bedouin women usually stay at home to raise children. They often are not encouraged to complete their schooling; more than half of Israel’s female Bedouin are illiterate.

Growing up, Abokaf said, she noted the need for Bedouin doctors in her community when her grandmother became ill and found it difficult to communicate with the Hebrew-speaking doctors, who were from a different culture.

Other gaps, some striking, exist between the Bedouin and the rest of Israeli society. Bedouin families tend to be large — 10 children is not uncommon — and are among the country’s poorest and most-neglected populations. In their gradual transition from a nomadic to a more urban lifestyle, they have faced major challenges.

Bedouin communities have high rates of crime and unemployment. They have considerably worse health and education services than fellow Israelis, and their infrastructure can be appalling or even nonexistent, especially in “unrecognized villages,” such as the one in which Abokaf lives.

Unrecognized villages is the term used for Bedouin areas that Israeli authorities do not officially acknowledge. Israel does not provide these areas with basic services. Authorities hope the families in these communities will agree to move to one of the “recognized” Bedouin villages and towns in the Negev.

A friend of Abokaf, Siham Elmour, also is studying medicine. Elmour, 19, considers herself fortunate because her family has supported her decision, despite the years of training.

“My father knows my life will be one of study, but the family also knows it is something that will be helpful in the world,” said Elmour, one of 11 children.

Her family also hopes that she will close some of the gaps between Bedouin society and the rest of Israel. Elmour and three of her sisters — also students at Ben-Gurion — are among the new wave of confident and educated young Bedouin women.

Elmour said she believes that growing up under difficult circumstances may foster the urge to make a difference.

“We are going to try to solve the problems because we come from within the culture,” she said.

The Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion helps to coordinate the university experience for the Bedouin students. The center is charged with advancing higher education among the Bedouin and provides scholarships, counseling and special university preparation programs for high school students and graduates.

Established a decade ago with the help of Robert Arnow, a New York City real estate developer and former chairman of the university’s board, the center also aims to promote academic research about Bedouins.

“For an American Jew to be identified with Bedouins in the Negev is very important,” Arnow said at a ceremony this month marking the institute’s 10th birthday. “It has to do with values, Jewish values.”

The university has gone from having almost no Bedouin students two decades ago to 420 male and female Bedouin students today. Before 1990, there was only one female graduate student. Since 2000, many more have gone on to do graduate work.

The university is especially proud of its first female Bedouin student to graduate as a medical doctor. Dr. Rania al-Oqbi graduated last year and is now doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, hoping to increase the presence of Bedouin women in the health field.

Most female Bedouin students focus on the humanities and social sciences, though the school is trying to interest male and female students in studying science and technology.

As Bedouin society becomes more integrated into the modern Israeli market, more Bedouin students need to learn scientific fields, said Ismael Abu-Saad, director of the university’s Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. The center also strives to increase the number of Bedouin students preparing for such professions as nursing, physical therapy and social work, much-needed services in Bedouin communities.

Schools in Bedouin areas can be substandard, creating a challenge for students who seek university admission. To help such students, Ben-Gurion University has created yearlong preparatory programs in fields including medicine and social work.

Abokaf said of the preparatory program: “It helped us prove ourselves.”

She and many of her Bedouin peers are often found at the university’s main library using the books and computers — electricity can be scarce in their villages. Some students described having to study by candlelight at home and being asked to help with younger siblings instead of focusing on their studies.

Saffa Algaar, 23, is one of just two female Bedouin students in the geography department. Families have been reluctant to let their daughters major in the subject, because it involves field trips, some of them overnight, to various parts of the country. Algaar said family members have backed her academic choice, though when she travels they remind her that they are only as far as her cellular phone.

“They let me go, but they don’t stop calling, asking, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? When will you be coming home?'” she said.

Yet in talking about her family’s economic plight and the work her mother has done to help fund her studies, Algaar said, “When our economic situation improves, everything else will also improve.”