There is a famous Hebrew phrase that defines an important concept in Jewish community life - - without bread (literally, flour), there is no Torah. The idea behind this is both clear and profound: in order to create a strong Jewish life, a community must create for itself a strong economic base. Despite the virtues of another famous rabbinic phrase, - trust in God - which many have understood to mean that God will provide if we only have faith, and despite the concluding lines of the Birkhat HaMazon, which suggest that the righteous are always rewarded and will never go hungry, the fact is that Jewish communities throughout history have learned through bitter experience the wisdom of the first phrase.
Indeed, many communities of great learning have collapsed due to difficult economic conditions that have undermined the ability of the community to support their institutions for Torah study. The famous kabbalistic community of Safed suddenly collapsed in the early seventeenth century because the it was built on too narrow an economic base: a single, successful textile industry. When this declined rapidly, due to external factors, it caused the fall of the community and the subsequent migration of its scholars to other lands. Another example is the renowned Polish yeshivot of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which nearly disappeared altogether around the country because the Jewish communities that were running them were in too much financial trouble to be able to continue their support.
In a wider sense too, however, communities have needed a strong economic base in order to survive. We have already mentioned the fact that Jewish communities were tolerated largely because of the contribution that they were able to make towards the economic prosperity of their host country. There are many examples in history of Jews who were welcomed with rights and privileges to societies that felt they could profit by a particular Jewish contribution to their economy. There are almost as many examples, however, of societies that marginalized and even expelled the Jews when their importance to the economy had run its course.
In the modern world, some argue that this situation has changed, and that Jews are now part of the national economy in which they live. Their rights are guaranteed as part of the democracy in which they function. They are no longer dependent on their economic and social usefulness to ensure themselves a secure role in general society. A great deal can be said for this argument.
Nevertheless, we have seen that, in times of national crisis in many democracies, tensions have often developed around the Jews’ role in society. In such situations, even the economic success and importance of the Jews does not automatically protect them from hostility; sometimes, in fact, it can cause this negative attitude. However, their economic strength and ‘usefulness’ - as the host society sees it - tends to guarantee the Jews’ situation in times of crisis. We thus suggest that the old rules of the game are not totally redundant even in the modern world. With respect to our first suggestion that, without a strong economic base, a community will be hard-pressed to maintain its main institutions, it can be argued that such economic strength is just as important today as ever it was in the past.
We have thus looked at two reasons why the significant factor of the economic strength of a modern Jewish community needs to be assessed when examining the situation of a Jewish community. A third reason connects with the internal welfare tasks that the community takes on itself, which we have already discussed. These demands are plentiful, even in the wealthiest of communities. In New York, a wealthy community by any standards, many tens of thousands of Jews within the community live below the poverty line. In Argentina, the country’s economic instability has plunged many thousands of Jews into economic crisis.
The economic health of each community is, of course, a direct reflection of the economic health of the individual family units that comprise the community. The community story is ultimately the aggregate story of the stories of its individual families; the rise or fall of the community represents the aggregate rise or fall of its constituent members.
In the modern Jewish world, the general assumption is that most Jews have tended to improve their economic position in democratic lands over the last few generations. Communities that all started as immigrant communities, their members’ usually arriving with much ambition but little capital, have tended to work their way up the economic ladder. This is largely reflected in the occupational changes that have taken place inside many Jewish families. Most immigrants tend to begin their new lives in a society engaged in manual labor, but many Jews have tended to move on to professional or managerial positions by at least the third generation.
It is assumed that, short of unexpected setbacks and crises, the economic position of families will improve with this change in occupational structure and that this will become evident, not only in the lives of the individuals, but also in the life of the community. This brief outline may be correct as a generalization; however, it does not mean that this is the story for all the families within the community or for that matter, for all communities. This is what we are about to examine.