From Privilege to Poverty… What I Learned in the Move

I spend most of my work time on a campaign to increase public funding for after-school programs. These programs are necessary to young people’s academic success and personal development. So why doesn’t every public school offer a quality after-school program?

The answer involves power—those who depend on after-school programs haven’t wielded enough power to influence city, state and federal budget decisions. As an organizer, I understand power in two ways: organized people and organized money. We all know how organized money works—individuals or businesses use money to influence decisions to reflect their self-interest. Most individuals and communities don’t have enough money to move their interests, but they are not powerless. When they are organized, people use different kinds of power—numbers, votes, the media and more.

My job as an organizer is to help figure out ways to turn up the volume on the voices of those who are fighting for social, racial, economic and environmental justice in their/our/my communities. I encourage people to speak out about their experiences, and I spend a lot of time listening, hi my work, I think about power constantly— my campaign’s power, my community’s power, my own power.

Living through my parents’ violent divorce, I began to struggle with issues of power from the time I was very young. Lawyers, social workers and police were major players in my life from the time I was 5 years old until I left for college at age 18. I grew up thinking that all young people dreaded going home at the end of the school day. While most children turned to their parents and communities for protection, I carried around a police detective’s business card “in case I needed anything”.

Most of my friends seemed to enjoy participating with their families in synagogue events. I grew up feeling like my family was an embarrassment to our congregation. At the rabbi’s suggestion,  had two bat mitzvah services because my parents refused to be in the same room with one another. As a result of the chaos that my coming of age caused, my younger sister and brother decided they didn’t want a Jewish education.

While I did manage to find allies in teachers and friends through the worst of those years, my family and friends strongly encouraged me not to share my experience. My parents explained that there was no need to bring attention to myself, especially if it meant becoming a focus for people’s pity. My friends’ parents worried about me disrupting their children’s “healthy” childhoods with stories about my “unhealthy” family. Living through my parents’ divorce taught me that even those I love and trust can use power irresponsibly, most of the time without thinking about it.

Growing up in my particular family also taught me about the link between money and power. My father is a wealthy and established surgeon. Until I was 5, my mother was a stay-at-home mom. After the divorce, and losing my father’s financial support in court, my mother struggled to find a job that would support three children. For the first part of my childhood, I lived primarily with my father. I went to private school, had a catered bat mitzvah party at a large hotel, went on exotic vacations and had access to my own car at 16. But these gifts came with larger-than-life expectations of success, loyalty and silence. My father had been a flawless student—I was to follow in his footsteps, even if it meant keeping a distance from my friends and coming home directly after school every day to study. I was told I was my father’s “special little girl,” much more like him than like my mother, who was unpredictable, unreliable and an alcoholic. (I knew she drank a lot, but so did he. Was this accusation true?) We had a secretly close relationship (I was the “chosen” child, the one who understood him). But that relationship left me feeling burdened, alone and guilty.

I had been given the power to arrange my own custody schedule, but had never dared to use it. When I was 16, it seemed a viable option for leaving my father’s house. One night, after everyone else had gone to sleep—my father often stayed up late watching television and drinking—I simply said to him, “I want to talk about changing my custody schedule to spend more time with my mother before I go to college.” I got the reply that I had feared: “If you do that, don’t come back.”

I left the next morning with a bag of clothes and a handful of things that were important to me. I moved to my mother’s apartment in the city. Like my mother, I had my father’s financial support pulled out from under me. I did odd jobs at my private high school as part of a makeshift financial aid package that administrators designed to keep me at the school. I worked after school and during the summers to help pay my living and school costs. I struggled with grant and loan applications and juggled several jobs to finance college. Through all this my mother and I fought endlessly about what we could and could not afford. She craved a different lifestyle than the one she was living, while I was more than happy to leave the pain of my privileged life behind.

While in college, I began to understand the role that class and power played in my life. I had a private high school education and the manners and mannerisms of an upper class woman. My financial reality, however, was very different; my tuition was heavily subsidized with grants, loans and work-study programs. I spent all of my spare hours working in my dorm’s kitchen, cleaning dishes and serving meals. My closest friends were the other students who worked in the kitchen, and the full-time kitchen staff. I discovered that I couldn’t relate to students who didn’t have to work, didn’t know how to clean up after themselves and took their time and place at the college for granted. I learned that if I spoke up about what it felt like to be a low-income person at an elite, private college, I found other students who felt similarly and who also thought they were alone. As I connected to others and as we began to talk openly about our experience, we found students and staff on campus who were willing to listen. Building these connections helped me feel more powerful.

And then there’s the Jewish world. My experience growing up in two (equally Jewish) social classes has made me realize how class plays out in the Jewish community. As an activist and feminist, I am committed to initiating the conversation about class, wealth and power that I didn’t have growing up. So far, that commitment has meant continuing to tell my story despite the discomfort I feel and the discomfort it may create for listeners. For example, when I was invited to speak to the Jewish Funders Network as a leader of the rising generation, I used my time to talk about how my family history has shaped my relationship to money, power and the Jewish community. I described how having or not having money at different points of my life affected my vision of how our community can use power justly and more consciously. I invited participants to begin to discuss their own stories around class and to think about how deeply power dynamics created by money (or lack of money) affect us all.

The conversation I envision begins with acknowledging the class diversity in the Jewish community and recognizing the wealth and resources available to our community as a whole. We need to acknowledge our privilege, and then talk about how we navigate it, think about it, and use it.

When we assume or allow others to assume that all Jews are affluent, white and heterosexual, we are using power. When we build Jewish schools that provide expensive educational experiences only to children in our community, we are using power. When we allow Jewish businesses and organizations to employ workers—both Jewish and non-Jewish—at less than a living wage and without offering them benefits, we are using power.

The conversation needs to be informed by the history of social class in America so that we can think about how the American Jews can use their relatively recent privilege in more humane ways. As Jews—and Jewish women—enter the ranks of the power elite, we need to think about how we can “do” upper class differently than we’ve seen it done in this country. Throughout American history, class power has been used to separate (geographically and institutionally) communities with wealth from communities without wealth. We need to learn to use our class power to insure that these communities are integrated and to democratize decision making.

The conversation needs to include those who have not traditionally had decision-making power in our community: Jewish women; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning Jews; Jews by choice and their children; working class and low income Jews; Jews of color; non-Jews (especially those of color) who work in Jewish organizations and agencies; single Jewish parents; Jews single by choice. If this dialogue is to reflect the true diversity of our community, every one of our (amplified) voices is necessary.

Erica Katske is the New York City Organizer for the Coalition for After-School Funding, a project of Citizen Action of New York.