Alan* and his partner Bonnie* wish they did not have to rely on government assistance to survive, but the last couple of years have been rough and they have no choice.
“I have a lot of shame and guilt,” admitted Alan, 34, who previously ran his own business in Pittsburgh. “We are currently receiving medical assistance, food assistance, utility assistance and WIC assistance — our daughter was born this past June. I had to close my company down around the same time.”
A creative side business run by Alan and Bonnie, 29, had to be shut down as well in 2018 “mostly due to our financially tumultuous personal lives,” he said. “It’s been a challenging couple of years.”
Alan and Bonnie, who live in the East End, are among the one-quarter of Jewish Pittsburghers who face economic insecurity. Alan and Bonnie are both young and American-born, defying a common stereotype of the poor Jew. And while they have found Jewish connection through a Chabad center here, they are non-Orthodox.
They are also far from alone. Many Jewish Pittsburghers are struggling financially, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University. In fact, 25% of local Jewish households lack sufficient savings to cover three months of living expenses; 13% cannot afford to cover an emergency $400 expense; and 13% have skipped at least one rent, mortgage or utility payment in the past year.
Twenty-three percent of Pittsburgh’s Jews describe themselves as “just getting by” “nearly poor,” or “poor.” Twenty-four percent are not confident in their ability to afford their own retirement. Seventeen percent have annual household incomes of below $25,000.
Financial insecurity cuts across boundaries of age and denomination.
For Alan, who was raised in a Conservative congregation, and Bonnie, who was raised by Orthodox parents, life has been hard since 2015, when Alan had to suspend operation of his business due to a licensing issue. During the eight months it took to get things sorted out, the business suffered damage to its brand and the loss of employees.
While his business was in flux, Alan never missed payroll, but he did have “to make the difficult decision to not pay the government; I didn’t pay payroll tax during the slow period,” he said.
That decision led to issues with the IRS, which compounded the couple’s troubles. And, to make matters worse, in October 2018, Alan discovered that three employees had been stealing from his company for the past two years. While the money stolen amounted to just $5,500, said Alan, it was “a lot, especially for a small business that was struggling.”
“There were a lot of bad cards being dealt from 2015 until I had to close the business in June 2019, shortly before our child was born,” Alan said, adding that the couple’s wedding, which had been planned to take place before the birth of their child, had to be postponed.
Bonnie currently goes to school 40 hours a week to learn computer programming while Alan stays home to “watch the baby and do odd jobs here and there.” From June to September, the couple made rent money by liquidating items from their now defunct company.
“Every month it felt like we made it by the skin of our teeth at the last second,” said Alan, who now works at a restaurant on the weekends when Bonnie is not at school so they don’t have to pay for childcare.
“We are holding out until (Bonnie) graduates when she is hopeful she will get a job, and we can afford childcare and I can start looking for my next true career,” Alan said.
Financial insecurity can have an effect on Jewish communal participation. Alan and Bonnie cannot afford to pay dues to a mainstream congregation, and are uncomfortable asking for a waiver. Their connection to the Jewish community is now through the Chabad of Monroeville. Rabbi Mendy Schapiro has helped the couple with a baby-naming ceremony and has given them money from his discretionary fund to buy food for the High Holidays and Passover. The couple also attended High Holiday services at Chabad.
Facing the stigma
There is “a stigma in the Jewish community as well as the secular community about being in a financial struggle,” Alan said.
Although, on social media, other “20 – and 30 – somethings are trying to de-stigmatize that, I noticed that de-stigmatization ends when you get financial help from the government,” he said. “There is still a tremendous amount of stigma against people who use food stamps or WIC or have medical assistance. There is a lot of shame that I associate with having to use these benefits. I feel that particularly in the Jewish community — not that there is an intentional stigma — but I feel like we are so close and we want to share with everyone in the community how good we are doing.”
Sara*, 45 and single, has similar feelings.
Struggling “to make ends meet,” she relies not only on government assistance, but on her family. Although she is not as involved in Jewish communal activities as she once was, she occasionally accompanies her family to the Reform congregation to which they belong.
“I’m on food stamps and health benefits, Medicaid,” said Sara, who lives in the East End. “I hate the fact that I’m on it. It’s hard. It is somewhat of an embarrassment getting help from the government. People like me don’t want to be on it. There is a stigma attached, but I don’t know what other resources are out there.”
Working as an aid for a child with special needs, and as a part-time babysitter, she loves her work. “The problem,” she said, “is I’m not eligible for (employee) benefits” because her hours vary each week and do not consistently total 20.
Her family, she said, “makes sacrifices” so that she “can live in a safe neighborhood, and have a safe car.” But sometimes expenses arise for which she needs extra help.
“I recently needed a few thousand dollars for vision therapy that health insurance didn’t cover,” Sara said. She was able to get funding from the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh to help pay for some of the sessions.
HFL is one of five local Jewish organizations that come under the umbrella of JFunds, which includes the Jewish Assistance Fund, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, the Jewish Scholarship Service and Israel Travel Grants.
JFunds’ organizations served 700 households last fiscal year and distributed $1.3 million, according to Aviva Lubowsky, who coordinates JFunds. Because two JFunds’ affiliates — HFL and SOS Pittsburgh, which is administered by the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry — are nonsectarian, not all those helped by JFunds are members of the Jewish community.
“Almost all the JFunds organizations have the capacity and want to serve more people and disburse more money,” Lubowsky stressed. “We want to be seeing more Jewish applicants at HFL, more applicants overall at JAF, JSS and Israel scholarships.”
But Lubowsky acknowledged that the stigma against those dealing with economic hardship “is absolutely a real thing, and it is a barrier to those people who feel the stigma ever coming to ask the community for help. We need to broaden and normalize the fact that people sometimes will need more money than they have.
“One of the things that contributes to stigma is the perception that Jews are well-to-do,” Lubowsky noted.
“But long ago, Jews were very poor. That is no longer in people’s consciousness. People seem to forget that our roots are a people of very meager means.”
Just getting by
Rebecca* and her husband John*, members of a local Reform congregation, have been struggling since 2006, since John’s former employer downsized and he took a buyout. The couple, in their early 60s, have two children living with them in their Swissvale home, the younger one in college and the older one with autism.
“We are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Rebecca, who is currently working three jobs. John works the night shift at a grocery store so that someone can always be home for their child with autism.
“With every paycheck, we have to look at what bill is that going to pay, what meds are due, and how much will be left over for food,” said Rebecca.
She has tapped local Jewish organizations for help, including the Jewish Assistance Fund, which gave her $1,800 last year to cover auto expenses. The JAF provides grants to people requiring immediate financial assistance without expectation of repayment.
Although Rebecca tried to get a loan from HFL to pay off some debts, she was declined because she had no co-signer, she said.
“We are aware that one of the biggest barriers to our loans is the need to have a co-signer,” said Lubowsky, who serves as the HFL’s director of marketing and development. “Since we do not charge interest or take collateral, this is the agency’s only safety net. Having a community member share responsibility for the loan is also part of the philosophy of communal support that HFL embodies.”
Still, knowing that “the co-signing piece is a frequent barrier,” about a year ago HFL “greatly loosened the requirements to be a co-signer to try to open the gates wider,” according to Lubowsky.
Rebecca and John remain active at their Reform congregation and are grateful to receive a “major discount” in dues, Rebecca said, although the couples still struggles to pay the discounted rate.
“But I send them something every month,” she said. “I am still paying off my younger son’s Hebrew education from three years ago. They have waived some previous bills completely, and I am grateful for that.”
The family also receives a discount in membership dues at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, where Rebecca and her child with autism go to swim.
Rebecca is sensitive to judgment she sometimes feels within the Jewish community.
“I think it is assumed we are not working hard enough,” she said. “These three jobs are to keep us afloat. We are not on easy street.” And she is concerned about retirement.
Jill*, a 42-year-old single mother with a 16-month-old, is worried about retirement.
Living in the South Hills to be closer to her child’s father, Jill depends on SNAP and medical assistance. Because she does not have full-time childcare, she works a part-time schedule at an electronic manufacturing company, about 24 hours a week.
“I don’t think of myself as a poor person in need,” said Jill, but she does “worry because I don’t know where I’m going career-wise.”
Although there have been times when she was active in the Jewish community, she is less involved these days and has passed on attending some events because of the cost.
“The young adult division pricing to some degree is cost prohibitive,” Jill said.
In the Orthodox community in which Ellen*, 49, lives in Greenfield, help is abundant, according to the single mother of a son in second grade and a teenage foster child. She relies on CHIP, low-income health insurance for her family, and the kindness of her friends and neighbors.
The “support here is amazing,” said Ellen, who moved to Pittsburgh three years ago from the East Coast. She pointed to welcoming neighbors always willing to extend an invitation for meals, and to Miriam Rosenblum, who runs Keren Rachaim to help those in need and who “has money for women in the community for yom tov.”
A teacher at local day schools, Ellen works about 20 to 25 hours a week. She received a grant from a JFund organization when her foster child came into her family, and Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of The Aleph Institute “helped me buy clothes for him,” she said.
Vogel regularly helps about 60 Orthodox Jewish families in Pittsburgh — working hand in hand with JFCS — and, with the help of a private foundation grant and government funding, provides services to those in need, he explained.
“We work with 412 Food Rescue to provide fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, hundreds of pounds of food every week, discreetly, in a quiet corner in the middle of Squirrel Hill,” he said. “In addition to that, we are able to help families with a caseworker,” helping them to find loans or grants and addressing domestic abuse, which is sometimes triggered by financial problems.
Ellen also praised the Orthodox community’s many gemachs — Jewish recycling programs that provide useful items for people to borrow — including one for medical equipment and one for clothing.
“This community is amazing,” she said. “People make friends with you and they take care of you.”
Jerry*, a divorced 63-year-old Washington, D.C., native who moved to Pittsburgh 15 years ago, agrees.
Struggling for the past eight years with health issues, Jerry works full time in sales but also receives medical assistance from the government. His take-home pay “just barely covers basic expenses.”
“I’m very impressed with Pittsburgh,” said Jerry, who is immersed in the Orthodox community and lives in Squirrel Hill. He has received career counseling through Jewish Family and Community Services, and around the holidays, Rosenblum provides him with gift cards to buy food. He also has received a loan from HFL.
Still, he had to move to a smaller apartment and continues to owe about $3,000 in back rent. He only has a little over $500 in savings, and cannot afford to attend some of the dinners and Shabbatons in the Jewish community that he would like to join.
“And I’m just assuming I won’t be able to retire,” he said. pjc
*Names have been changed.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at