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

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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  1. "Something for Nothing" : October 27, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    “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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Ariela Bryson : October 29, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Why do people judge so harshly.

  6. Ellie Bass you put that perfectly.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 : November 12, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      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.

  9. If the man if the family is engaged in kollel their family should not be eligible for any public assistance. They are actively choosing unemployment. If anything they need to go through seeing if they can get feral student aid for their ‘education’.

  10. Christopher Kozak : October 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Ask anyone who works in a hospital about Orthodox Jews. They scam the system.

    • check my post jitc dont think itl change ur views if your determined to believe waht youve always beleived but if ur open to new ideas maybe itll open up ur mind!

  11. Wether you want to admit it or not the world exsists because of the people who keep it goign while learnign G-Ds’s torah. Ws should be doign our upmost to help those who are choosing to keep our worl alive. There is so much strife and war in this world…. serioulsy we need G-D and we need faith to keep it going. THank yout o all the special people out there be it jew or gentile who choose to live with faith. G-D help the world see the truth speedily in our days amen!

  12. About scammint hte system its unfortunate adn jews are in the spotlight and are held in higher regard therefore we should all be careful extra careful to do the right things. However unfortunatley some people have gotten caught up in the act of dishonesty. its unfortunate and its not everyone. I garuntee you that. As many as there are there are ten times that amount that dont. yOu may argue that but you wouldnt knwo because tose people arent noticed only the ones doing wrong are int he spotlight. Just saying noones perfect today unfortunatley wish we were and yesw we shud act on the higher level tht we r on but so are many oeiple in this world doign the same so stop focusing on the negative.. adn look instead at the good tht orthodox jews do.. look closely and you will see theres so much more depth in tht! andjews please take caution everyone is lookign at you you are bieng noticed and its in ur power to make or break someons view of orthodox jews. Thank YOu!

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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 six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book. For more Q&A, follow his new video series, Ask Rabbi Jack, on YouTube.

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