Rich and Poor

Rich and Poor

In this session we explore where our appreciation of Am, of Peoplehood, intersects with our desire for economic freedom – freedom to make a living, and freedom from poverty. We also explore whether our allegiances alter according to where someone may live (B’Artzenu). At the same time we deepen the connection between these issues and our Jewish identity and values, and finally point to inspirational work being done in Judaism’s name in Israel.

Target Population: Adults
Technical needs: Print-outs, computer projector, good speakers, screen, computer, internet connection


When a nation takes responsibility for itself, and takes on the trappings of a State, the scope of its action broadens beyond recognition. The State of Israel, unlike other large Jewish communities around the world, can raise compulsory taxes from all members of the community. With these resources, a Free People in Our Land must make crucial decisions. Should this wealth be redistributed, so that all members of society can live at an equal level, or should taxes only go towards a shared burden of security and general public services? Might there be an appropriate compromise between the two views?

The State of Israel was established by socialists. The same culture that created the kibbutz was later behind the creation of most state institutions. The ruling party for the first three decades of the State had distinctly socialist inclinations. Since the eighties the prevailing wind has changed. Privatization of public companies, kibbutzim gambling (and losing) on the stock market, and cuts in welfare benefits have altered the social landscape beyond recognition.

The gap between the richest and the poorest in Israel is now one of the largest in the developed world.

1. Play Phil Collins’ Another Day in Paradise


  • Do you see your life as another day in Paradise?
  • Does/did the song affect your thinking about the poor and destitute?
  • Does/did the song lead you to alter your behavior towards the poor and destitute?
2. Scaling:

On a scale of 1 to 10, when 1 is low,

  1. How sad does the sight of a homeless person make you?
  2. How angry does the sight of a homeless person make you?
  3. How much does/might the problem of homelessness disturb you in your day to day life?

[The scales are of course entirely subjective, and we are not looking to judge. Indeed, at this stage it is not necessary for people to share their scales. The scales are useful only at the next stage of the activity.]

3. Screen the Alex Levak image.

Leave it on the screen with no comment for 60 seconds.

Discussion question:

  • Look at the three questions that we asked about the homeless in general. If you were to apply the same questions to this particular person, with kippa and Israeli flag, would your numbers alter in any direction?
  • Why? Why not?

[Do we have a greater responsibility towards those of ‘our own’? The desire to support fellow Jews, when contrasted with our desire to help all human beings. Beyond the question of ‘do we care more for Jews’? The question might also be ‘should we care more for Jews’? It is worth being ready for either or both directions of discourse to develop.]

4. Adi Nes exercise

Hand out a print-out of the Adi Nes photo to each participant, without explanation, other than saying that this is another Israeli scene.

[Adi Nes, Untitled (Ruth & Naomi) 2006, from the series Biblical Stories. Courtesy Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel-Aviv (or Jack Shainman Gallery, New-York)]

  • Hand out pens, and ask everyone to draw themselves in the scene. [Walking past? Helping the women?]
  • Depending upon the nature of the group, you may ask for a deeper level of honesty, and ask them to draw themselves in the scene twice: once as they think they would behave in reality, and once as they wish they would behave.
  • Have everyone share their additions to the photos.
Text Study

The name of the photo we have just drawn on is subtitled Ruth and Naomi – Gleaning. It is one of a series of staged photographs on Biblical Stories by Israeli artist Adi Ness (2006).

Ruth, a Moabite, marries Ruth’s son. After his death, Ruth returns with her mother-in-law back to Canaan where they live in poverty. Ruth goes to glean from the fields. According to Jewish law, harvesters must make sure not to gather all the crops: they must leave a small amount for the poor to gather for themselves. Boaz the owner of the land catches sight of Ruth, and moves to help her. This text reveals a great deal about the way in which the poor were treated, and the nature of charity.

“Listen to me, daughter… I have ordered the men not to molest you…”

When she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, “You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves, without interference, but you must also pull some [stalks] out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her.”

Book of Ruth, Chapter 2: 8-16

Chevruta questions:
  • What does the passage suggest about the way the poor tended to be treated?
  • Bearing in mind that Boaz, as we later discover, is attracted to Ruth, what do we think about his generosity towards her?

[If you feel the conversation is moving in this direction, you might throw in information about Rambam’s Ladder of Giving.]

5.  Numbers

When the words ‘poverty’ and ‘Israel’ come up, we tend to assume that Israel is full of needy people living under the poverty line. Yet Israel is also home to many extremely successful people. HaDag Nachash hit fame with their song Numbers, that drew attention to the way in which the State no longer seems to take responsibility for social chasms.

Screen “Numbers


Allow conversation following the song to range freely. The song offers enough food for thought…

6. Where are the poor Jews?

Hand out a copy of the article from Haaretz.

The article points out that in 2007 there were more poor Jews in the United States than there are in Israel…. Read it out together.

Question: What should our role be in alleviating poverty in Israel?

[Do our responsibilities to the Israeli poor alter, when we find that most are not Jewish? And what about Israel’s responsibilities to the Israeli poor? And Israel’s responsibilities to Chicago’s Jewish poor?]

Optional role-plays:
  • A hard-working, committed charity worker at the local soup kitchen comes to plead for funding from the Israel committee of your community…
  • A hard-working, committed charity worker at an Israeli soup kitchen comes to plead for funding from the social justice committee of your community…
Follow up

Your people may be fascinated to learn about BeMa’aglei Tzedek – a young non-profit in Israel that is consciously applying Jewish values to their social justice work. Their key project is the Social Seal – a kind of social justice ‘kosher’ certificate granted to businesses that do not exploit their workers.

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