One of CJP’s key missions is to help Jewish families struggling with poverty. This is especially true at Purim.
“It’s important to pause in a celebratory moment and remember how hard it is for people who are struggling,” says Sarah Abramson, CJP’s associate vice president of caring and social justice, who says that CJP has assisted roughly 2,000 households within the past 18 months through its anti-poverty initiative.
“This is a way for us to demonstrate that being in financial distress is a small part of who you are. Over 70 percent of clients have a college degree. Our friends who are struggling have a lot to offer and are not solely defined by their financial situation,” Abramson says.
Abramson understands poverty in the Jewish community from an intimate perspective: She’s the former executive director of Yad Chessed, an organization that provides financial assistance to Jewish families in need, whether they require immediate help paying a utility bill or don’t have enough money to buy food. “Yad chessed” means “hand of loving kindness.”
“If a person can’t pay their rent and might be evicted, we may pay their rent. If they need a phone to get a job, we pay their phone bill,” says founder Bob Housman, who started the organization pro-bono in 1989.
On Purim, Yad Chessed works with 85 synagogues, colleges and day schools across Massachusetts to collect and give away matanot l’evyonim—gifts to the poor, in the form of grocery-store gift cards to places like Brookline’s The Butcherie—to more than 600 Jewish families in need.
Families receive a voucher, and on Purim they find out how much the voucher is worth based on donations received. The voucher works as cash at The Butcherie and at other area supermarkets like Star Market and Market Basket. Last year, the program raised about $120,000 for hungry families throughout the area.
“For many years, people didn’t think about Jewish poverty. But many Jews are poor, and poverty does exist. It’s becoming more well-known now, but the whole reason I started Yad Chessed is because nobody was dealing with the problem,” Housman says.
Housman was so moved to help needy Jews that he began running the program as an “extracurricular activity,” he says, while still working full-time as a computer programmer.
“My job didn’t get as much attention as it should have because I’d be getting phone calls from rabbis, social workers, people in need,” he says. Housman eventually retired to focus on Yad Chessed full-time, taking no salary and serving as the only employee.
Today, the organization has grown to include multiple social workers and partners closely with CJP and other Boston-area social service agencies as part of CJP’s anti-poverty initiative. In fact, CJP’s central phone line for families in financial distress (1-800-CJP-9500) is now housed at Yad Chessed and staffed by a social worker. Yad Chessed’s mission, however, remains the same: To help the most vulnerable, at Purim and all year long, whether it’s supermarket gift cards dispensed every month, interest-free loans or clothing gift cards from T.J. Maxx for children under 18. There is no precise income threshold; an application showcasing financial need is enough.