Poverty is a reality for many. For those looking for help, jhelp is available to guide those in need.

By Perry Ohren

I grew up in Cincinnati, born in 1962 at Jewish Hospital. I learned, indirectly, that Jews didn’t have problems. Jews didn’t drink too much … No substance abuse. Jews didn’t beat their partners … No domestic violence. Jews, of course, had the best jobs … No unemployment. And Jews provided for their families … Certainly no poverty! While people wanted to kill us Jews throughout history, in the 1960s and ’70s where I grew up, things seemed pretty OK.

After receiving my master’s in social work in 1991 from the University of Michigan, my first job was at Jewish Family Service (JFS). That’s when I really learned the need for JFS. People had real problems; they were really hurt and were hurting others. They had trouble keeping their jobs, paying their bills …they were impoverished, in many ways. Social problems are equal opportunity employers.

A recent Detroit Jewish community survey found that respondents didn’t know how to seek help for problems they were encountering, including financial ones. In response, jhelp was created. It wasn’t rocket science, just a portal, a platform, to lessen barriers to help our neighbors figure out resources to become self-sufficient, pay their bills, save for the future and so much more.

Let me introduce you to some people we’ve assisted through jhelp:

  • Sarah is a single woman in her 30s with two children. She has an advanced degree and temporarily stopped working to care for her ill parents.
  • Jerry is a 55-year-old single man with bipolar disorder who struggles to maintain employment.
  • Elaine, the breadwinner in her family, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease that caused her to go legally blind.
  • Mrs. Schwartz is a Holocaust survivor who has lived in the same home since 1968, has no family in town and needs hearing aids.

The stories of Jewish poverty, being Jewish, wanting to live Jewishly, but being one small problem away from homelessness, are rampant, and they are not declining. And these stories aren’t just in Brooklyn. They are down the street in Oak Park and Southfield and all over Detroit.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which helps fund jhelp, recently hosted a national gathering focusing on poverty in the Jewish community. The jhelp model in Detroit was offered as a way to assist those with pressing financial needs. At a second gathering, the annual conference of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, 400 of us talked about poverty in a different way.

While none of us has figured out how to end poverty, many know how to help people who are impoverished. JFS spends hundreds of thousands of community dollars a year to help people avoid hunger and homelessness, often through food vouchers and payments to landlords and utility companies. This is usually with partner agencies, including JVS, Hebrew Free Loan and Yad Ezra. It’s always part of a plan toward self-sufficiency. While some of the problems we confront are one-time, others are chronic, often inter-generational. It’s not always easy to help, but help is what we all must do.

With Passover upon us, let us all recognize that there are those in our community who are still enslaved by poverty and recommit to do more to assist them. We have to do better. For Sarah. For Jerry. For Elaine. And especially for Mrs. Schwartz!

Perry Ohren is a social worker who is the professional leader of JFS and the board chair of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies.


Previous articleWeekly Torah Portion: From Disgrace To Praise
Next articlePassover History in Detroit’s Jewish Community