Hasidic Williamsburg poverty data are bleak, but some see reason to hope
A man listens to a Rabbi’s address at a gathering for Satmar Hasidic Jews in New York December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Hasidic Jews are among the most poverty-stricken of New York’s Jewish communities, according to a report by the UJA-Federation and the Met Council on Jewish Poverty.
The study, the first of its kind since 2002, found that 28 percent of poor Jewish households are Orthodox. Some 63 percent of Orthodox respondents identify with the Hasidic sect, an isolated community characterized by large households and low levels of educational achievement.
The study also found that 58 percent of the Jewish poor in the eight-county New York area, which includes Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau in addition to New York City’s five boroughs, live in Brooklyn, with 8 percent concentrated in Williamsburg. About 55 percent of all Jewish households in Williamsburg are poor.
In many ways, the story of poverty in the Hasidic community aligns with the greater narrative of poverty in the U.S. Rabbi David Niederman, Executive Director and President of the United Jewish Organizations (UJO) of Williamsburg explains that before the housing bubble disastrously burst in 2008, “a lot of people in the Hasidic community were involved directly or indirectly in related businesses to the construction industry. Economic growth in housing consumed a lot of labor and business activities. So when the housing just stopped, a large segment of the local community here in Williamsburg lost their business.”
Like many Americans, Hasidic Jews are economically confined by their levels of educational attainment. Some 62 percent of poor, married Hasidic respondents said neither they nor their spouse had earned more than a high school degree. The report notes that Hasidic breadwinners are “seriously constrained by low levels of secular education.” In the Hasidic community, low education levels tend to result from a cultural taboo against non-religious study, as well as from a tradition of marrying young. When asked if higher education became part of the plan for young Hasids who saw their options narrow in light of the recession, Niederman responded by saying that by 18, most young Hasids are already responsible for supporting families. He noted: “How many college kids are out of a job?”
Despite the report’s grim findings, William Rapfogel, executive director and CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, says that the community is starting to shift: “Over the past 10 years we’ve really made a concerted effort to change their way of thinking about jobs.” Rapfogel added that Met council staff members have trained emergency volunteer workers to spot signs of domestic violence and recognize sexual abuse, a problem that has drawn media attention, though he adds that there is still a lot to be done.
According to Rapfogel, some of the changes may stem from economic need. When times were better, wealthy Jews would support Hasidic men who chose to study Torah and Talmud rather than entering the workforce. As that funding runs out, a culture of full-time religious learning cannot be sustained. And to remain in Jewish enclaves located in increasingly expensive neighborhoods, Hasidic breadwinners must focus on bringing in a steady income.
Another sea change could come in the form of elementary school education. Rapfogel describes a plan that would utilize the government’s Title 1 program – which seeks to improve academic achievement in disadvantaged communities – by bringing outside tutors to those parochial schools that do not teach English, opting instead to instruct students in Yiddish. To Rapfogel’s knowledge, no such schools have refused the services provided under Title 1.
A final push to Williamsburg’s Hasidim could come from the simple reality of the proliferation of the Internet. Says Rapfogel, “modernity is one of the things prompting change in the Hasidic community. [Many in the community] say that Internet is bad, but you will see most people with a smartphone.” Niederman confirmed that members of his community who had lost their jobs in the recession turned to the Web for work – not unlike many of Williamsburg’s secular inhabitants. When asked if new career opportunities allowed for more interaction between members of the sect and their neighbors, Niederman said that there had always been economic interaction between Hasidim and non-Hasidim. But social integration, he says, is something else entirely.