August 17, 2019

When The Going Gets Tough, Where Do You Go?

Annette Klein opens the door to her mid-Wilshire duplex and excuses herself to finish getting ready for a weekend in Newport Beach with her 6-year-old daughter. She starts talking, asking tons of questions and reminiscing about vacations she used to take when she was at the top of the entertainment industry. Her home, her movements, her New York cadence and confidence make clear she is a woman accustomed to success.

Except that Klein (not her real name), who is around 50, is on unemployment compensation and owes $30,000 in credit card debt. A few months ago she received $1,500 as an emergency cash grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to pay her rent, and her daughter is now on scholarship at Temple Emanuel Day School. (The much-needed weekend in Newport will cost her nothing, thanks to a friend.)

Klein was a vice president for a large entertainment firm for 19 years until 2005 — the same year she got divorced — when her position was eliminated. Living on severance and savings, she took some time off to spend with her then-2-year-old daughter and to regroup. She started job hunting in 2007 and has pursued everything from corporate jobs to work as a nanny, but she is still unemployed. She is now scraping the bottom of her pillaged 401k.

“It’s been very humbling and very scary,” she said. “I don’t have a husband; my family is in New York, and I find that when I call people I worked with for years, or people I helped, they don’t return my calls. Nobody wants to step up in the corporate world. The Jewish world is the only place I’ve gotten help.”

As the global financial crisis nears the one-year mark, its effects are sinking deeper, including into the Jewish community, where rabbis, communal leaders and social service providers are seeing a spike in the number of people — from the chronically impoverished to the formerly middle class — finding themselves with empty refrigerators, unpaid bills and homes approaching foreclosure.

Those same leaders attest to one hopeful sign: The Los Angeles Jewish community has responded to this crisis with well-coordinated sensitivity, even in the face of serious fundraising challenges and government cuts that have forced budget cuts.

The safety net stretches from small synagogues to the top offices in Federation: Congregations have created networking and service-bartering programs (see story on Page 14); the community’s social service organizations have shifted diminishing resources to serve more people; the Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have established initiatives ensuring that organizations can provide, and clients can access, the multiple services needed to handle the ripples of losing one’s job, home and security. Federation and the Foundation have earmarked $1.5 million to go directly into the hands of individuals or service agencies by the end of this year.

“The Jewish institutional response and the Jewish communal response to the economic crisis has been remarkable,” said Richard Siegel, interim director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Individuals, agencies, synagogues and umbrella organizations “have responded quickly, creatively and with a level of seriousness that this situation requires,” Siegel continued. “I think it has been an extraordinary example of a community responding to a crisis in a concrete and deliberative way.”

At the same time, sagging fundraising and government budget cuts have meant that many agencies have had to slash services even as more people need help. Giving everyone what they really need is nearly impossible, leaders say.

“Communities generally agree that they are doing more, but often far less than what the bottom line needs are,” said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR and a professor of Jewish communal service. Windmueller recently published a paper on the impact of the economic crisis on American Jewry, and he said Los Angeles scores high for its response.

“We often negate federation systems and say they are problematic, out of date and structurally impaired, but in these kinds of critical times they reassert their core value,” Windmueller said. Agencies, he said, need to be prepared to stay in this for the long term, as Jewish poverty becomes more widespread.

For her part, Klein remains optimistic her situation will turn around quickly. She hopes to start her own business — “I’ll have made $1 million by next year at this time, and have a house with a backyard so we can get a dog,” she promises — but meanwhile she is grateful for the help.

“It was strange getting that [Federation] money, but I felt gratitude and I felt deserving of it, because everyone needs help once in a while. I’ve loaned people money when I was making money and people couldn’t pay their rent,” she said.

Kids help pack groceries for the needy every Thursday at the Tomchei Shabbos wearhouse.

Even as Klein’s hardship is becoming more common, her willingness to get help is something many Jews have to learn how to do.

Jewish tradition teaches that keeping yourself healthy and sustained is a top priority — tzedakah, after all, starts in the home — but many Jews have a hard time accepting help, much less searching for it.

“One of the biggest challenges is the shame people feel,” said Jeff Bernhardt, director of Temple Aliyah’s Community of Caring outreach program. “How do you help people who don’t let you know they need help? How do you help people who would rather sell all their furniture before they let the rabbi know they may lose their home? How do you help a Jewish person recognize they are eligible for food stamps?”

What this meltdown is proving is that no one is immune from the possibility of moving from the giving end to the receiving end.

“We’re seeing a growing population of people who call themselves middle class — they’re in the financial industry, in the entertainment or the mortgage industry. We’ve had people who were well prepared — they had savings to live on for a year. But after a year, the money is all gone,” said Joan Mithers, director of SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, a food pantry.

“What volunteers and staff can see clearly at SOVA is that there isn’t a big distinguishing line between those who have enough to eat and those who don’t,” she continued. “How many paychecks away from it are any of us? One paycheck? Five paychecks? How long can anyone go?”


Emergency Cash

Last March, Federation launched a $500,000 Emergency Cash Grant program, $250,000 of the funds coming from the Jewish Community Foundation. The simple premise: Give people a meaningful amount of money quickly. By filling out a one-page application, recipients, who must be Jewish, can get up to $750 for individuals, $1,500 for families of up to four, and $1,800 for larger families.

“There was complete alignment among every decision maker that we had to make this as non-bureaucratic as possible,” said Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president of Jewish Federation, who oversees the umbrella organization’s focus on serving the vulnerable. “We are cutting checks faster than we have for anything else.”

As of June 30, the fund had given a total of $260,000 to 195 families.

Grant recipients apply either through a Federation agency or 16 synagogues and other organizations that can verify applicants’ claims.

“We are partnering with people on the ground who are making a difference in the community, so we’ve been able to stretch the safety net,” Cushnir said.

Federation also allocated an additional $100,000 to social service agencies above what had been budgeted for the year.

Cushnir acknowledges that the amount of a single grant might not be enough to be life altering, but it can cover a month’s rent or insurance premiums, or be enough to fix a car needed for job interviews. One family used it to clear up a pharmaceutical bill so their medications wouldn’t be cut off. A father in his 40s who had been evicted used it to pay for a cell phone and post office box so he could continue his employment search while living in his car.

“We had to do a balancing act to try to help as many people as possible and at the same time try to provide real help,” said Cushnir.

The grant process also brings the applicant into the social service network so they can be referred to other front-line agencies .


One-Stop Shopping

Because people in need often require more than one kind of service, Federation also has worked on creating one-stop shops. It hosted two resource fairs in the last few months, and its northern arm, the Valley Alliance, has hosted two meetings with agency and synagogue leaders to coordinate and link services.

More than a year ago, Jewish Family Service (JFS) set up a centralized phone line (877-275-4537), where callers can give all their information to one social worker, who then connects them to the appropriate agencies.

“Once you have to make that call for help, which is very difficult, you don’t want to have to run all over the place and get shunted from one office to the other to get to the right place,” said Vivian Sauer, associate director of JFS. “It goes along with the whole mindset of making things as easy as possible for people who now have to ask for help who never had to ask before.”

The number of calls to the central intake line has climbed to about 30 a day, most related to the financial crisis — once-comfortable families who now have no income, no medical insurance, long-pending rent or mortgage payments. Many also have marriages on the brink of dissolution and children reacting to the anxiety.

JFS serves 180,000 meals to seniors — more than its government grants support.

But just as demand has jumped, government funding has been cut, and philanthropic dollars diminished. Clients who used to pay on a sliding-scale system now have nothing to give.

Already, JFS has had to shutter two of its five storefront counseling centers. Programs aimed at supporting the elderly, abused and disabled are on the chopping block due to California cuts.

“What we are trying to do is maintain at least a minimum level of safety net services for the Jewish community so that people will have a place to turn to,” Sauer said.

In the last year, Federation restructured its allocation system so that agencies like JFS, which used to get operational budgets, now have to apply for that money in open competition with other organizations.

If that system chips away at core agencies, as many fear it will, mobilizing resources to respond to a crisis could be more difficult next time.

“When you downsize or take apart the system, what do you lose?” Windmueller asked. “If you have a weakened JFS, whether due to reduced support by Federation, reduced state and federal funding, or by the general effects of the downturn in the economy, you can’t as quickly rev it up and reconstruct the delivery services in times of crisis.” 

But Michelle Wolf, assistant director of Federation’s Serving the Vulnerable Pillar, said the restructured system allows for quick and broad action.

“We are building partners outside the traditional network, so we can do an environmental canvas and see what is happening, where we can connect programs to each other and where we can partner with them,” Wolf said. “Rather than just looking inside ourselves, we look out into the community.”


It’s Not About the Food

One traditional agency that is at ground zero in this crisis is SOVA, where demand is up nearly 50 percent this year.

Seventeen employees — six of them part time — and 200 volunteers will fill 90,000 orders at pantries in Van Nuys, Pico-Roberston and the Fairfax area by the end of 2009. Clients are allowed 16 pounds of groceries per household member, about a week’s worth of dry goods, canned food, diapers and baby food, and fresh dairy, meat, produce and bread.

Touch of Kindness, an independent organization that home-delivers weekly grocery packages to about 250 families through its Tomchei Shabbos arm, has increased its clientele by about 25 percent, according to volunteer director Rabbi Yonah Landau. The organization also provides appliances, clothing, diapers and help with rent and expenses.

Tomchei Shabbos and SOVA both say to ask for food indicates larger problems.

“Hunger isn’t just about needing food — it’s about not having access to all kinds of resources you need,” SOVA director Mithers said.

All first-time clients at SOVA meet with a resource specialist who connects them to government programs or other nonprofits. For the last three years, the Community Connections program has provided onsite counselors from Jewish Vocational Service, lawyers from Bet Tzedek legal services and representatives of government aid organizations.

A similar approach underlies the Jewish Community Foundation’s Jewish Family Relief Network, which funds front-line service providers and links them through a shared database making interagency referrals simpler.

The Foundation launched the network in May after applications for Cutting Edge Grants, the Foundation’s mechanism for seeding new programs in the Los Angeles Jewish community, fell by about 50 percent.

At its February board meeting, the Foundation decided to redirect $1 million of the Cutting Edge money toward community relief; $250,000 went to The Federation’s Emergency Cash Grant program and $750,000 created the Jewish Family Relief Network.

The network funds services for new clients at five programs — Jewish Family Service, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters (JBBBS), Jewish Free Loan, JVS and the Bureau of Jewish Education. Since May, nearly 300 families have been entered into the database.


More than Money

Joshua Entis benefited directly from the Jewish Family Relief Network. Entis had already received a $5,000 scholarship from JBBBS to attend Portland State University, plus more help from JVS and Jewish Free Loan. The Jewish Family Relief Network enabled JBBBS to give him another $2,500 — much needed, since his mother, who suffers from debilitating depression, had to stop giving Entis food money when her work hours were recently cut. His father is not in his life.

To Entis, the money he gets from JBBBS, while appreciated, is secondary to other help he has received from the organization.

Since he was 8, Entis has been matched up with volunteer big brother Doug Braun. Braun, whose own children are grown, takes him snowboarding, to baseball games and introduced him to good music. He also taught him discipline.

“Doug put inside my head that I need to try as hard as I can and not give up and have a positive attitude, because if I’m doing that, I can do whatever I put my mind to,” Entis said.

He spends summers working at JBBBS’ Camp Max Straus, where 1,000 low-income children from all backgrounds get a free summer camp experience in the Verdugo Mountains.

JBBBS has 200 matches like Entis and Braun, all Jewish, and another 300 matches between high school and lower school students. The organization boasts four times the national retention rate of other big brother organizations, but budget cuts recently meant layoffs, said director Margy Feldman.

Feldman is trying not to cut into client services, since 90 percent of clients are living at poverty level and now some volunteers, in addition to client families, are asking for grocery cards, discretionary fund money and Emergency Cash Grants. She has been referring more people to JVS and Jewish Free Loan.


Built On Trust

Sometimes it is the unexpected that sends people to Jewish Free Loan.

Shari Hamel (not her real name) seriously injured her arm and shoulder in a fall last January. She needed surgery, and was out of work for five months.

As a self-employed aesthetician, she wasn’t eligible for unemployment. She had stopped paying for disability years ago. Her husband’s commissions in his sales job had plummeted by about 30 percent since November. And with things so tight, they had opted not to put her on his health insurance plan.

MediCal ended up covering $75,000 in hospital bills, but she still owes the state nearly $4,000. The Hamels, who had always lived securely if not lavishly, have managed to pay the mortgage on their Long Beach home, but now they’re delinquent on property taxes and have $20,000 in credit card debt. Hamel is deeply embarrassed about her situation, so keeps it quiet from her friends.

On the advice of her niece, who had gotten loans for college, Hamel visited Jewish Free Loan.

“They were so respectful and kind, and just very non-intrusive. I brought this pile of bills and paperwork, and it was done so much more on trust,” said Hamel. She received a $3,000 loan to help cover expenses, and also got help applying for an Emergency Cash Grant of $1,500.

Jewish Free Loan of Los Angeles has about $8.5 million out in 2,800 interest-free loans, and demand this year has been up about 30 percent from loan funds that cover everything from medical expenses to college tuition to business startups.

“We’re seeing situations where if two parents are working and one loses a job, the family runs into a difficult situation. We’ve seen this situation before, but never quite like this,” said Mark Meltzer, executive director of Jewish Free Loan.


New Beginnings

Elyssa Berger worked for a title insurance company that was one of the first to close last year.

“It was traumatic,” said Berger, 45, a single mother of two. “I was completely shocked. The money from unemployment didn’t help, and all of a sudden I had this $900 COBRA payment for health insurance.”

JVS had helped Berger 11 years before, after her divorce. This time, a career priorities assessment with JVS helped her realize her goals had changed — her kids were in college, with funds to pay for that, so she didn’t need to earn as much. She decided to go to nursing school. She took some prerequisites and connected with a nurse through JVS’ women’s mentoring program and is now waiting to hear which program has accepted her.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Berger said.

Demand has spiked for JVS’ programs — everything from its job-matching service to resume writing workshops to practice interviews. All of the services are provided for low fees that often are waived.

JVS has seen a shift in its usual clientele of the chronically unemployed.

“In the last year we have seen a major up-tick in the number of people seeking our services who have had fairly stable careers, white-collar careers in a variety of industries,” said Jay Soloway, director of career and business services at JVS.

Many clients haven’t looked for jobs for years and are unprepared for the new methods — online job boards, resumes that get scanned for keywords by computers, new skills required for new fields.

JVS has started its own peer support groups for job seekers and regularly refers people for counseling to Jewish Family Service.

JVS has also shifted resources to be able to handle the higher volume of people. While much of the work is still one-on-one, things like resume writing or developing your 90-second pitch are now handled in group workshops.

Bet Tzedek legal services has opted for a similar realignment. The free legal-aid organization sees about 12,000 clients a year with about 60 people on staff and 1,000 volunteers. Attorneys who in the past might have been put on a time-consuming case are now assigned to loan restructuring work, which is less labor-intensive. Attorneys are also working on getting Holocaust survivors as much as they can from reparation funds, so the survivors can stay afloat with basic necessities.

“From a resources perspective, the need has gone through the roof, and we can help more people this way,” said Bet Tzedek Executive Director Mitch Kamin.

Bet Tzedek is also authorized to apply for Federation’s Emergency Cash Grants for its clients.

And the renewed spirit of collaboration has won kudos all around.

“It’s nice to see the Jewish community’s service providers coming together. We have a good history of collaborating, and now we’re spending a lot of time talking with each other about how we can most effectively meet these needs,” Kamin said.

“It’s a good feeling to be part of a community that really cares and has the expertise, too. The challenge now is to sustain the support for the organizations that are providing such important work.”