Why Are There Orthodox Jews Dressed To The Nines On Welfare?

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Dear Jew in the City,

So I have a question that I have been pondering a great while. I am not Jewish but I live in a city with a large Orthodox population and I happen to live in this neighborhood and I truly love it. I do however find myself at times seeing one thing that perplexes me. Many of the families utilize Access cards-the equivalent of food stamps-because it appears they have large families. Yet, they carry expensive purses and although modestly dressed, still do so with expense. I ask myself why must they utilize public assistance meant for the poor and impoverished if they are making a religious choice to have many children and possibly live without an income or two incomes? I know many other “populations” get flack for utilizing the system or even using it, but it doesn’t seem like this causes any unrest. Is there a reason why those families cannot go and work and support their families as I need to support mine?

Thanks,

Emily

Dear Emily:

Thank you for your question. The answer is complicated in that there’s no “one size fits all” answer that suits everyone. This family may have real hardships, the likes of which are not evident from observing them on the surface. That family may be receiving assistance from family members, so they have nicer clothes than they might otherwise be able to afford. Another family may have had parents unsuccessfully looking for work for months. (The economy is still bouncing back and many places are only hiring part-time to avoid having to give benefits.) Still another family may indeed be cheating the system. That’s not cool, but I don’t have any reason to believe that it’s happening en masse.

The fact that people have large families for religious reasons is immaterial. Is that better, worse or the same as a single mother who has numerous children from different fathers? How or why one has children is really irrelevant: the issue is that they’re here. So you really can’t tell what’s going on. I know a family (single mom) that gets government assistance and the woman of the house always looks like a million bucks. They work but their income is too little to survive on. She’s mastered the art of thrift store shopping. We have a religious principle to judge others favorably. While I am sure there are many who take aid unnecessarily, I know of many, many cases where that is not the situation. Surface appearances, however, are often very misleading.

***********************

Now, there’s one thing that the woman writing did not specifically ask, so I did not address it, but readers here may be wondering, and that’s about kollel. Kollel is when the man of the family studies Torah for a living. The yeshiva in which he is learning generally pays a stipend but it’s not big money. The woman of the house often works in such cases but she may be pregnant and/or caring for small children, or the family may have a larger number of children, so she may not be able to work continuously or her income plus his stipend may not be sufficient for the size of the family. Accordingly, some people look down upon kollel students as “leeches on society.” As is the case with generalizations, such characterization is too broad and unfair.

On the one hand, we have the concept of a “Yissachar-Zevulun” relationship. In ancient Israel, the Tribe of Zevulun (Zebulon) would engage in commerce and they supported the members of the Tribe of Yissachar (Issachar), who studied Torah full-time. The members of Zevulun shared the merit of the Torah study they supported. This is in part the model for the modern-day kollel: business people support those who engage in Torah study and earn merit through it.

But there is also an obligation to teach one’s children a trade. In fact, one who does not teach his son a trade is considered as if he taught him how to rob (Talmud Kiddushin 30b). Similarly, the Talmud in Shabbos (118a) tells us that one should make his Shabbos like a weekday rather than accept charity. [Let’s contextualize that last statement. That certainly does NOT mean to work on Shabbos! It means to eat two meals as one does on weekdays rather than the three meals one would normally eat on Shabbos.]

All of this addresses the one who may or may not be working. There is also an obligation to give others charity in a respectable fashion. Anonymity is preferred and we are meant to help people maintain their standard of living, not just help them squeak by. The highest level of charity, however, is helping someone to get a job and become self-sufficient. (Teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish, as the saying goes.)

So the kollel situation is multifaceted. It’s necessary for our people in order to produce Torah scholars – we’d be in sorry shape without it! – but that’s not to say that it’s a choice for everyone. Some people do it for a year or two after marriage before entering the business world, while others do it long-term. By and large, however, most people do choose to pursue other forms of employment and those who learn in kollel are not so numerous as to drain a community’s resources.

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

 

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz About Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

Comments

  1. Shani Gluck says:

    People always ask me this question because I have clients who look like this come into my office (for financial assistance) all the time. It's really nice to expand a premeditated bias to a more wholehearted understanding that one size does not fit all and that we certainly are not able to assume what other people are living like.

  2. Yoel Lavenda says:

    Pure apologetics..plain and simple.

    There is widespread fraud in various communities that are hailed as "bastions of torah life." Don't believe me? There is plenty on the web documenting this in full.

    And the "Yissacher-Zevulun" relationship was meant only for the elite of the elite. Nowadays it's a defacto choice for boys to remain in kollel and be supported by rich inlaws. Working boys are treated as second class citizens and are treated like they failed at their only job in life which was to learn full time.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I acknowledge that fraud exists but I wouldn’t assume that any given Orthodox person receiving aid is a welfare cheat any more than I would assume that people of color on the subway are violent criminals or that Muslims are terrorists. (How would the former assumption be any less racist than the latter?)

      For sure there are sub-populations where learning in kollel is the norm but they are just that: sub-populations. If I were a mathematician, I would probably hang out with other mathematicians. Whatever conclusions an observer might draw from my clique about the number of mathematicians in the overall population would be skewed. So, sure, I can point to communities where boys are expected to learn in kollel but they really are a tiny minority of the overall population that identifies itself as “Orthodox.”

      Now, if someone from such a community chooses not to do so – or is unable to do so – and is seen as a failure – sure, that’s a problem. It’s also a problem if the child of professional parents who chooses to work with his hands (or learn in kollel!) is seen as a failure, or if the child of star athletes who shows no interest or aptitude in sports is seen as a failure. (This has nothing to do with people receiving public assistance who dress above their means but it would make an interesting topic for another day!)

      • ” So, sure, I can point to communities where boys are expected to learn in kollel but they really are a tiny minority of the overall population that identifies itself as “Orthodox.” ”

        A tiny minority? Come on…

  3. Yoel Lavenda "mi d'var sheker tirchak" – "from dishonest thing distance yourself." please understand that NO one here is defending dishonesty. where and when it occurs it is the exact opposite of everything the Torah stands for. please message me the links. i'd like to see the studies you speak of. we are not afraid to admit it when Orthodox Jews fall short of Torah requirements.

    in terms of being considered a second class citizen for not learning for time, if and where that happens, that is also a problem. IF, though, a family agrees to learning b/c they all believe in it, then i believe they should be able to make that choice, but not because they are being pressured.

  4. Glenna Frank Ross says:

    While this can be unsettling, there are a number of reasons to give the benefit of the doubt, which is what we are told to do. There are enough thrift shops around town, some even have designer clothing, and some discount 50% at the end of the month. e.g. I got an Yves St. Laurent jacket for $6. I also know a woman who gets all her sister's castoffs, all gorgeous, all at no cost. Neither one of us is on food stamps, we work for a living, but we utilize these inexpensive shopping alternatives. How much more so would the person who doesn't have much by way of income should try to hold her head up high and look as nice as possible. You can't always judge by what you see.

  5. Our sons need a better education. Time for "insular" change.

  6. Here's one simple explanation: You don't know how old the "nice" clothes are. Even if they were bought at Bloomingdale's or Bergdorf, that doesn't mean the individual is shopping there while on food stamps.

  7. Rabbi- One issue that I thought your response under-emphasized: A person’s wealth/income is a fluid matter. I have often heard people asking with incredulity why someone with a smart phone is receiving welfare and food stamps. First, it is important to realize that the phone may have been purchased when the user could afford it and wasn’t receiving state assistance. The fact that they then fell on harder times doesn’t mean that they should have to sell off every item of value they own. For many, a smart phone represents the cheapest and easiest access to the internet and their acquaintances and as such may be the last thing a person would consider parting with. Second, not everything owned is bought. Just because a person needs assistance doesn’t mean they are without generous friends/relatives that might give them an expensive gift.
    Emily’s mistake is in her assumptions. She sees a person dressed nattily and assumes that they are currently spending a significant amount of money on an unnecessary expense. She sees a person getting government assistance and assumes that they are not working to provide for their family. The rationality of her disquiet is therefore dependent on her assumptions being correct. As you so succinctly pointed out, fraudulently abusing a public system meant to help provide for the neediest among us is “not cool.” But without knowing that these particular users are, in fact, abusing the system we can have no position. I would advise Emily to be very careful she isn’t making assumptions based on appearance and incomplete information.

  8. Who says Orthodox women dressed beautifully are on welfare? And, who says that if one is on welfare, you need to "look" doudy and meek. And, does this say only non-Orthodox women who dress well aren't on welfare? This reminds me of a teaching moment (about prejudicial stereo typing) ….

  9. SavtainSanDiego says:

    Many people are under the misconception that Food Stamps is a Welfare Program. No, it is not. Rather, it is a program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which in most states is administered by he Department of Social Services (Income Maintenance Bureau = Welfare Department). I was an Eligibility Technician determining clients’ eligibility for Welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), Food Stamps, and Medical. Each program had different rules and regulations for eligibility, so a client could have $3000 and be eligible for Food Stamps, while $1500 was the maximum a person could have to receive AFDC. There are very poor people who take pride in their appearance; they don’t have to look like slobs. People can get clothing from a Gemach ( a lending library of clothing, food, toys, etc. free or for a small donation). Some Gemach’s have new and gently used merchandise. Why shouldn’t people look good? When you look good you feel good about yourself. Maintaining dignity and self esteem is important regardless of one’s economic status. Dan l’chaf zchus – judge people favorably.

  10. ” In ancient Israel, the Tribe of Zevulun (Zebulon) would engage in commerce and they supported the members of the Tribe of Yissachar (Issachar), who studied Torah full-time.”

    This nonsense needs to stop being perpetuated. There is a late midrash which states that Zevulun helped market Yissachar’s wares. The idea that Yissachar learned Torah full time is a recent idea only used to justify the non-working kollel-niks. Getting paid to learn Torah (and we are not talking about _teaching_) is contrary to almost all Jewish sources up to the last 100 years. Voluntarily not working – and raising one’s children with this goal – is anathema to the Torah and to the Talmud.

    • almost all jewish sources
      like kesef mishneh, tashbatz, shulchan aruch, mishnah berurah. all classic halachic texts that codified the disagreement with the Rambam on this issue and categorically permit and encourage kollelim.

  11. But he didn't answer her questions at all! He just said "oh well don't judge". That is silly, she is making a valid point. And the way he just brushed off the children question! That is a serious issue! People irresponsibly choose to have more children than they can support and everyone suffers including their own children! I think there is a real problem in the religious community of people throwing their hands up and saying "G-d will provide!". There are families who consciously decide to choose a lifestyle that will force them to rely on tzedaka and that is not right. Also one explanation that was used here for why a mother on welfare would have a designer handbag is that perhaps she is getting money from her family….well that is ridiculous, if she is using her parent's money on handbags she doesn't really need the handout.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I didn’t dismiss the children issue, I shared my opinion: everyone should be allowed to have as many children as they want. I don’t think anyone – black or white, rich or poor, Jew, Christian or Muslim, should have family size dictated to them. That is a very dangerous precedent and, historically, I would say that such things tend not to end well. (Girls are not exactly a treasured commodity in one-child China, and the Nazis – always our go-to for bad precedents – sterilized 400,000 people with such “undesirable” traits as blindness, deafness, mental illness, alcoholism, etc.) If the government wants to say, “We’ll subsidize up to 5 children” or whatever, that’s fine, but I vehemently oppose the idea that external forces should dictate anyone’s family size. (“Pro-choice?” Large families are also a choice!)

      Full disclaimer: in case anyone thinks I’m justifying my own lifestyle, I’m not. I have three children.

      • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

        *disclosure, not disclaimer, lol.

      • Most of the developed world is no longer reproducing at replacement levels. Even India will soon stabilize at replacement levels, and by 2100 the world is expected to stabilize or big to go below replacement levels, which will be very challenging.
        Even with very Orthodox families have 6 or even 10 or more children, North America is still only at 1.89 children per woman, below the replacement rate of 2.1. Since there may be grave economic consequences to sub-replacement, don’t think of it as them having too many children and having to depend on welfare, think of it as them being subsidized to do a very necessary job nobody else seems willing to do.
        I’m actually not being tongue in cheek, if it weren’t for immigration we would be up the creek by now.
        And anyone can find designer purses at second-hand shops with a bit of luck.

  12. Totally agree with Rabbi Abramowitz on this one YOu cannot judge anyone else..Many ppl may have large families, (Mine included) & although I am not on any Gov't assistance, I still can dress decently & look good..I am also a good shopper/bargain hunter & never pay full price for anything (LOVE CLEARANCE!).. These women may have had financial stability at one time but maybe their husbands lost their jobs?, & they may get hand me downs/donations from others, received presents or have won a designer bag at a Chinese auction, get designer stuff from Gmachs, ..You really never know

  13. Yitzchak Sheffrin says:

    Anyone who has learned even a little Talmud will know that different traditions have learned apparently conflicting understandings of the same situation. The joy of Torah is to reconcile the differing views to arrive at the Truth. Sometimes this is elusive. But we NEVER dismiss an opposing view as nonsense. Zach is clearly not a Ben Torah.

  14. Shoshi Rose Lewis says:

    I agree with you Shari,,knowing should judge another person.

  15. Rachel Golomb i believe that Rabbi Abramowitz didn't address the # of kid issue because it's a separate issue really. there IS a conversation about BC in Jewish law and in what situations it's valid to use it. my sense is that he didn't want to start a whole different discussion.

    in terms of using the parents' money to buy food instead of fancy purses, we've been hearing pple on FB talk about how they have friends who parents just show up with lavish gifts that the parents choose – not money. and the kids are in awkward situations where they're thankful for the gift but wish it was something else.

    i am actually learning a lot from these anecdotes that things aren't always as they seem.

  16. I think the point was that the parents or grandparents may give expensive gifts that the recipient has no control over. The recipient may have preferred a bag of groceries or a gift card to the grocery store. But you can not dictate gifts. Well meaning parents or grandparents may over-indulge their children/grandchildren with expensive gifts because they have the disposable income and it gives them pleasure to do so. It would be wrong to rob some one of the simple pleasure derived from giving a gift and making some one else happy.

  17. AMEN! Especially with kids – We have received and then passed on again many hand me downs from friends and family over the years. Some great designer names, too. Everything that is still wearable gets passed on to the next person to have a baby. I have received items that are on the 4th or 5th hand me down and still nice enough to pass on again. My girl friend and I are close enough in size that we constantly swap clothes back and forth as we gain/lose weight. It makes the clothing budget stretch a lot more. Luckily we have similar tastes and builds. She is like a sister.

  18. Ann Koffsky says:

    I think another issue is the ‘dressed to the nines’ thing: in some frum neighborhoods, it is culturally unacceptable to wear casual clothes; it is considered inappropriate. Jeans and sneakers are verbotten. In some neighborhoods, women leaving their house without makeup is just not done-Men and boys always, always wear shirts with colars, or even suits ties and hats. This is true even for a trip to the grocery store. And just check out how folks are dolled up when they get on an Airplane for a 14 hour flight to Israel!! makeup, tights –all dressed up. Nothing comfy.

    So to a non Jewish viewer, they never see any Orthodox person ina pair of sweats or jeans or casual clothes–because they are never in casual clothes, because culturally many Orthodox don’t wear those. Ever. That flzvor of Orthodox is always ‘dressed to the nines’ in their eyes.

  19. The issue of kollel families on welfare goes well beyond the idea of a Issachar/Zevulun relationship.
    First, that relationship was based on consent. According to the Midrash, Zevulun willingly agreed to support Issachar’s learning. This cannot be compared to welfare, which is funded by coercive taxation.
    Second, the welfare system is intended to help people who cannot work, or cannot find jobs, not to support able-bodied men who choose not to work. That others abuse the system in this way is irrelevant.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. Neither Rabbi Abramowitz nor I believe that the Y/Z relationship is like a person learning using govt assistance. You are exactly right. It was a consensual partnership. Govt assistance is for people who have tried to support themselves but have not been able to due to something beyond their control. As Rabbi A said – we do not support lifetime kollel for the masses.

  20. Gila Olson says:

    One part of this is that a lot of the time, those fancy designer clothes and handbags are either odd-lot or knockoffs, so they're not really the expensive items that they appear to be. That's not to say that people aren't taking advantage of the system and other people's charity, because some definitely do. An ultra-Orthodox magazine once mentioned people in Lakewood gaming the welfare system as part of an aside in some article, as if that was perfectly normal.

    Bottom line: Yes, people are taking advantage and living irresponsibly, but not to the extent that their clothing and accessories would suggest.

  21. Rachel, I agree with you on who ever is making that irresponsible choice, but I think your wrong in your use of the generalization of "religious community" when there's such a huge range within that description

  22. itt's like if I"d say "non-religious people only care about money and don't have values of raising a family"

  23. JUliettte Landesman says:

    Most people do not plan to be in a situation that requires food stamps.
    Should we let people starve and give away their clothes before we help them? Or, should we assist them sooner?
    Perhaps it is better to help them before they are totally destitute, so that the children don’t suffer.

  24. The response in the link was well thought out andallowed, though vaguely, that some people may take advantage. Your shot from the hip is at a minority based on presumably unfortunate personal experiences. In the Chicago Orthodox Jewish Community I do not believe the substantial majority who work feel as though the relatively few kollel members are slighting them. Also, define dishonesty. If you show up to a government office with documentation of destitution, whether frum or protestant you will be afforded services. You published an ignorant statement that may lead people to assume that because Kollel children wear laundered clothing and lack obvious signs of lice or ring worm their parents must be "cheating the system" or leeching off family. Out community is made up of individuals and callously labeling thousands of families is offensive. While I know there are people who label themselves as Orthodox Jews who are unsavory and have been convicted of crimes, that is not an indictment against Kollel families generally or Orthodox Jewry. Maybe you should seek Jewish news from publications other then Failed Messiah.

  25. Lisa Smid says:

    In the U.S., 40 states have a time limit on welfare and 17 of them limit it to 60 months (mine has two years). How do you know how long a well-dressed stranger has been on welfare or when she bought that handbag? There are so many people currently on assistance who NEVER thought they'd be on assistance that no one should be jumping to conclusions about anyone they don't know.

  26. "Something for Nothing" says:

    “Something for Nothing” the lady screamed in the store, at a family that paid for their groceries with food stamps. They weren’t Jewish & yes, there were 2 or 3 young children. It was 1974, and we had used up our food stamp allotment for the month. As I cringed with embarrassment, I straightened up my 16 year-old body and declared “They need it!”, in reference to the food stamps. The woman continued her hysterics.

    I was trembling, when I returned to my non-orthodox home & related the incident to my sympathetic mother.
    Whenever I used food stamps, I felt shame. From that day on, I resolved to move forward. True, I have never needed food stamps as an adult. However, I have friends & relatives (Jewish & non-Jewish) that qualify for food stamps.
    Some dress OK & some dress nicely- after carefully looking for bargains.
    You never know where life will find you. We should all strive to work hard & climb out of poverty; a situation that requires food stamps or other help should hopefully be a temporary situation.
    However, a young family has many needs & demands. The purpose of these types of programs is to help our neighbors, and therefore, we should help out if we can.

  27. Dressing well does not mean that you are spending a lot of money. I do in fact own a few designer-name pieces, but they are either accessories and were massively on sale (I have a Bill Blass scarf that I got for $10) or I got them from a relative or friend who can't wear them. Plus, if you dress well, even if you don't actually spend a lot of money, you're much more likely to make the right impression on your next client or job contact.

  28. I never understand why people think that people who don't have money need to dress badly. There are so many ways to look like "a million dollars" on a very tight budget, including used clothing stores that have almost-new brand name clothing for a dollar a garment.

    Poor people wearing rags is a relic of the past, and something you read in books and see in movies, it's not real life, except in the case of homelessness or mental illness.

  29. Ellie Bass says:

    I am part of an observant community, and we live in a part of town that isn't always so nice, and many of us work in the Jewish community for very little money, but have some great clothes, mainly because we actively collect clothes from many of the women in our community who have lots, and are more than happy to donate what they no longer wear but is in great condition and very fashion-forward. We do lots of clothing swaps (where we all empty out our closets, and ask our friends to do the same and then swap clothes) after which we donate all of the clothes that aren't taken to local women's shelters and to the JF and CS. We have a great symbiotic system where hand me downs go to who needs it most, and sometimes just who would look best in it! We are so thankful for this set up so that we can keep doing our work that we feel is so important (like helping other families in need, making Jewish programs that help all types of families learn, grow and connect) and we still get to look nice doing it – while still being able to feed our families, pay for school and all of the other expenses that are just part of daily life. PS, we do this for kids clothes too, thankfully. We have a roster of families that have a trickle down order of handmedowns for all ages and stages. We also have GEMACHS – which are homes in the community that take donations of all sorts of things (clothes, strollers, even wedding gowns – where i got mine!) and then set it up like a store, but give them away for free or to borrow to anyone in the Jewish community. We creatively find ways to help each other out in the most discreet and respectful ways possible. So, that's another few ways that some of us have some great clothes even though we often wouldn't be able to afford to buy them in the stores.

  30. Ariela Bryson says:

    Why do people judge so harshly.

  31. Ellie Bass you put that perfectly.

  32. I’ve worked in within the hasidic community for many years and I can confidently say that unfortunately, the abuse of government aid is rampant. This is a problem that exists inside every community. The Russian community in Brighton Beach is equally guilty of this. Every community has a guy who knows a guy who can rig your paperwork to get you food stamps. Every community has people who work off the books. I’m not saying that hasidic Jews are the only ones guilty of this or that all hasidic Jews cheat the system. But to deny the fact that this is happening ‘en masse’ is disingenuous. Regarding kollel it doesn’t make it any better. Judging others favorably I important, but the big issue here is that many rabbis ascribe to the belief that “G-d put these loopholes in place so that Torah families can be supported”. I. E. It’s okay to cheat uncle Sam because it’s all for supporting Torah. This s completely dichotomous to the Jewish idea of “Mitzvah habaa beaveira” (loosely ‘a good deed achieved through evil means’) And if rabbis cracked down on this sort of thing instead of excusing it, maybe it wouldn’t be as prevalent.

    You’re probably thinking that I’m angry at hasidim Or that I’m antisemitic. Actually, I’m neither. Just saddened by the injustice and dishonesty that I’ve seen first hand time and time again from a group of people who I used to respect greatly for their religiously motivated uprightness. Maybe it’s a socioeconomic problem that spung up or a misguided cultural moray, but what I know for certain is that it’s wrong . it’s wrong. It’s happening and it’s happening a lot.

  33. You can get great used but like new clothes for free or at thrift stores. But can someone explain how to justify getting a $2K sheitl while on food stamps? (“because I need to feel good about myself” doesn’t do it for me. You can feel good about yourself without spending $2K, and yes, you can even LOOK good too without spending $2k on your “hair.”)

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Of course I can’t speak for every situation, but there are consignment sheitel stores or relatives who will give people sheitels they’re not using.

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