From trauma to triumph

Two weeks ago in The CJN, we featured a personal essay by a woman named Ilana. She moved out of her family home at the age of 15, and after that her life descended into poverty. She lived in dank basements, turned to drugs and alcohol and endured a severe assault. She survived on less than $100 a month and contemplated suicide. “My life was a chaotic mess of overdoses, assaults, stitches and abusive relationships,” Ilana wrote.
Last week’s CJN included the story of Miriam, who has long suffered from health problems that made it near-impossible to find employment. She made a conscious decision to live in the Jewish community so her son could grow up with Jewish friends, but it came with a price. As her health deteriorated and the bills kept piling up, Miriam felt defeated. “I was depressed, alone and many times I thought I wouldn’t make it,” she wrote.
In this week’s CJN, Rachel, a single mother, relates her own story. She gave up a promising teaching career to care for her son, who suffers from a rare condition. “The fall from [a] stable life full of hope to the one I live in poverty happened so quickly,” she explains.
These stories serve as a reminder that poverty is a serious issue in our community. According to recent data, just under 52,000 Jewish Canadians live in poverty. Of those, more than 9,700 are children. And as Sheri Shefa reports this week, the problem is getting worse. Between 1981 and 2001, the poverty rate in the Jewish community hovered around 13.5 per cent. Now, it stands at 14.6 per cent, slightly lower than the national average of 14.8 per cent. In Toronto, the Jewish poverty rate rose from 10.9 per cent in 2001 to 12.9 per cent in 2011.
Children, the disabled and single parents are among the most vulnerable. So are the elderly, many of them Holocaust survivors. The situation in Montreal, where the Jewish poverty rate is the highest in the country at 20 per cent, is indicative of the financial challenges facing the older generation.
The good news is the Jewish community is full of individuals and institutions dedicated to eradicating poverty. The three essays in our “From Trauma to Triumph” series illustrate a commitment to improving the lives of our most vulnerable. Each story could have had a far more tragic ending were it not for the Jewish community’s help.
Ilana, Miriam and Rachel (all of whom wrote under pseudonyms) have benefited from the Kehilla Residential Programme, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s housing agency, which offers rental assistance to those in need. These days, Ilana lives in a safe community and is back in university pursuing a master’s degree. Miriam is taking care of her health problems and enjoying some of life’s smaller pleasures, like wearing clothes that actually fit her. And Rachel is able to devote her time to taking care of her son without worrying about how she’ll pay for his medical expenses. 
These three women have been given new leases on life thanks to the Jewish community. But, as the statistics indicate, there’s much more work to be done. — YONI