Economic turmoil puts pressure on Jewish community

The food pantry would not open for another 40 minutes, but already about a dozen people were waiting in the parking lot, many holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the blistering San Fernando Valley sun. Before day’s end, more than 100 people, Jews and non-Jews alike, many coming on foot or by bus, would visit SOVA’s Van Nuys pantry to apply for food stamps, register with a dietician and, most certainly, receive the groceries they need — literally — to put dinner on the table.

So began a regular day at one of the three pantries SOVA Community Food & Resource Program operates throughout the city, evidence of an experience that has become familiar for a growing number of indigent families across Los Angeles.

These are tough times for all Americans. The drama working its way through the economy — surging gas and food prices, crises in the housing and financial markets, climbing unemployment rates and a dismal overall outlook — has been written into the American Jewish story, too. That much is abundantly clear from a trip to SOVA.

Monthly traffic at the food banks has more than doubled since 2002, to about 5,600 client visits in June, the busiest month since Thanksgiving. Only about 10 percent of those who come are homeless; the overwhelming majority are unemployed or, increasingly, underemployed.

This is, of course, exactly the need SOVA exists to fill. But these days there is no way its 15-person staff can fully compensate for the swelling demand on resources and the shriveling of public and private support.

“You are really talking about a perfect storm in the social service world of not being able to raise private dollars to make up for the sagging or lagging public dollars,” said Paul Castro, executive director and CEO of SOVA’s parent, Jewish Family Service (JFS).

The scariest reality for many organizations is how unclear the future remains. So far, many charities report that fundraising is on pace with last year, but at the same time, officials admit the situation could go south in a hurry if the economy doesn’t improve. The demand for resources continues to climb each month for many, but social service organizations’ financial health won’t be fully known until donors write their final checks for 2008.

Already there are signs of belt-tightening: Last month, when SOVA’s executive director left for another job, she was replaced by Joan Mithers, JFS’ director of community programs and staff training. Mithers new role was blended with her old, and that position was frozen. More trimming is expected as soaring food costs continue to push SOVA’s $1.5 million budget upward. And that is assuming end-of-year fundraising can live up to budgeted expectations.

That story could be told this summer over and over throughout the world of philanthropy in general and Jewish communal service specifically.

“It’s really a catch-22,” said Jay Soloway, director of career services for Jewish Vocational Service, which through June this year has seen a 50 percent spike in referrals from SOVA and an increasing number of clients holding master’s degrees.

At the same time, in May, United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for North American federations, adopted a $37 million budget that was $3.2 million lighter than the previous years and included the reduction of 32 jobs.

Last month, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) announced that it would cut 60 jobs, including 52 in Israel, to deal with a $60 million budget deficit, due, in large part, to the dollar’s dropping value and the rising cost of work abroad.

And locally, Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the Reform college is evaluating the practicality of shaving a day off the workweek. Windmueller said other institutions and organizations are doing the same.

“The question [nonprofits] have to come up with,” Windmueller said, “is whether this is viable for their operations, for meeting state law with hourly earners and whether the expectations of their donors and members and clients can be met in the context of a four-day workweek.”

Some organizations will choose to borrow heavily to sustain programming, while many will cut back services and reduce staff, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Others will choose to collaborate or merge with another organization, and a few will likely call it quits.

Nevertheless, a broad survey of Jewish schools, synagogues and social service agencies big and small — from the JDC to Project Chicken Soup — depicts a mosaic of caution and pragmatic optimism, an awareness that the sky is not yet falling, but it very well could.