San Diego Jews Living in Poverty

November 25, 2011, Judd

Barbara “Bobbie” Kerker is one of many poverty-stricken Jews in San Diego.

Her checkbook shows a balance of $44.70 left in her account. It’s only the end of the first week of June and there are three more weeks until her next monthly Social Security and SSI payment of $890 will clear. Until then, she’s left to live off of $64.70 for the rest of the month.

“It’s not even the tenth yet,” says Kerker with a single muted chuckle.

Kerker lives at an assisted living complex called Golden Paradise in National City, one of the lowest income-earning areas of San Diego.

Golden Paradise sounds like an idyllic place to live. With its pink-flamingo stucco exterior. reminiscent of Miami’s pastel cityscape, the facility appears from the outside to be an oasis, sheltering its frail elderly residents from the hustle and gang turf wars in National City.

“Yeah, some paradise,” says Kerker sarcastically. She is 76. Her 450 squarefoot apartment costs her $750 per month, not including food. Her kitchen consists of a small microwave oven (but no stove top range), a micro-fridge and a small sink and pantry, in which contains Kerker’s breakfast this morning, PopTarts.

“Everybody stays in their room. I have nobody to talk to or to walk with. The only people I see on the balconies and patio are the smokers. I have no family or friends to come visit me. I am very lonely,” she says, in her rocking chair, head tilted to the side, staring into space with far-away eyes.

Kerker is in better physical shape than most of the residents here, several of whom walk with strollers, bent-over at nearly 90-degree angles with atrophy. The staff is friendly here and there are several social outlets, but Kerker suffers from depression.

Both of Kerker’s adopted children died tragically, her son in an automobile accident; her daughter by suicide. Kerker has suffered from epilepsy for most of her life. She can’t go for walks by herself because she might fall down and hit her head if she has a seizure.

A divorcee of nearly 40 years, Kerker has once married for 15 years to a jeweler and lived in splendor, in a 2000 squarefoot home in L.A.

The karmic circumstances that led Kerker to now live in destitute poverty, off of less than $900 a month, eating one-half of her airplane tray-sized TV dinners at a time, matter little.

Without the food, visits and support of JFS, Kerker’s situation could potentially be much worse.

What matters is that Kerker is a Jewish soul swept under the rug. It’s not that she’s forgotten – after all, how can something be forgotten if it wasn’t known to exist in the fi rst place?

Because most Jews and non-Jews alike stereotype Jews as being financially successful. Jewish poverty is treated as an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp.

But according to UJF statistics, released in 2006, out of the 89,000 Jewish residents in San Diego County, approximately 21 ,000 Jews – 24 percent – live off of a total household income of $35,000 per year or less.

About 10 percent of Jewish households here live on less than $19,000.

“It’s not true that most Jews have money,” says Kerker, who has been in financial straits for two years, ever since her Section 8, subsidized independent-living situation ended because of her worsening epilepsy.

In another low-income area, Lemon Grove, lives Dorothy Cox. Cox feels blessed to live here, despite the fact that her apartment complex was recently soiled by drug-addicted vagrants and was the scene of a stabbing.

Even though she herself stumbled upon the bloody knife, Cox doesn’t want to leave. Her rent is only $350 a month.

Exposed to a chemical spill in 1990, Cox’s lungs have incrementally deteriorated. Her bronchial tubes occasionally drown in fluid and have to be packed with baby powder. She feels breathless every few months and is constantly hooked up to an oxygen tank.

Though possessing an abundance of positivity, Cox survives off of $100 a month for nutritional sustenance. Having been the victim of a rape several years ago in Los Angeles, Cox was punched in the mouth during the attack and subsequently had four plates installed in her mouth. Now she is $10,000 in debt from dental procedu res.

“Nobody cares about providing dental work for seniors, but teeth are one of the first things to go when you age,” says Cox, who no longer is able to leave her house on her own.

Should every well-off Jew be a financial donor to a Jew living in poverty? “There are a lot of Jewish people doing really well, making six figures,” says Ron Zollman, president of the Board of Directors at JFS, “saying to themselves, ‘there are people richer than me, so they can fund the Jewish charities.

“This is not in accordance with Jewish values,” he says.

San Diego’s wealthy Jewish community can certainly do more to help Jews in financial, emotional and physical need. Guilt should not be the catalyst for financial aide; being conscious the problem exists and the Jewish commandment of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) is enough motivation to help the less fortunate.

To donate to JFS (which offers 50 programs for Jews  including Serving Older Holocaust Survivors, Crisis Case Management and the Hand Up Youth Food Pantry), call (858) 637-3000 or go online: wwwjfssd.org

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.