Rabbis and social workers are teaming up to assist and counsel congregants in economic distress.
Two MetroWest agencies, Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service, brought clergy and social workers together for a three-hour meeting on Feb. 23.
The rabbis learned about agency services available to congregants, from psychological counseling to help in the job search. The agency heard about the pressures that are coming to bear on area Jews as the local job market remains stuck in the doldrums.
“Our goal was to review the range of safety net support resources which are available in the MetroWest Jewish community,” JFS executive director Reuben Rotman told NJ Jewish News. “Ultimately, we are looking for a team approach, one in which the work of JFS or JVS complements the support that rabbis and synagogue communities may be able to offer.”
The two groups sat in a horseshoe pattern around a conference table at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David, an Orthodox synagogue in West Orange. The rabbis represented the Conservative, Orthodox, Lubavitcher, and independent movements.
Rotman chaired the meeting, backed by JVS executive director Leonard Schneider. Both agencies are partners of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
“Our world is still reeling from a recession like no other,” Rotman said as he opened the meeting. “We have seen not only the indigent and chronically poor, but those who have never before been without resources, including agency board members and synagogue leaders,” he said. “We are seeing people who have needed to rethink their entire lifestyles and with those decisions come a lot of upheaval.”
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of AABJ&D spoke of the “burden we feel as rabbis when people come to us out of desperation. They come to us and are literally begging. Just imagine the pain we feel having to turn somebody away, even if it may be for a good reason.”
Case manager Debbie Lesser outlined some of the financial aid JFS helps steer to needy clients. She said she assists people in applying for food stamps and subsidies for utility bills.
“Unfortunately we are getting people who are not used to being at that level, and when they hear ‘food stamps,’ that is where a lot of stress takes over,” Lesser said. “They say, ‘Oh, my God. I worked on Wall Street. How can I be getting food stamps?’”
And the pain extends even to those lucky enough to have savings or working spouses.
“A lot of people in my congregation are not destitute, but their future has been ruined by the recession,” said Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.
“When you throw day school tuition into it, the additional expenses represent a value you are reluctant to give up,” said Zwickler.
Others noted that some of their congregants fear being stigmatized because of their economic setbacks.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell said that potential clients may be reluctant to seek help at social welfare agencies, in or outside the Jewish community. He suggested that such people “be able to have their consultations at shul. Then, hypothetically, they will be comfortable to move to the next level.”
Betty Jampel, coordinator of case management services at JFS, spoke of the emergency services her agency can provide or recommend.
“If there is a PSE&G bill that is six months behind we will catch them up with our own funds,” she said. “We will provide immediate financial assistance if someone is in crisis. Then we will link them up with programs they may be entitled to. We are talking about sustainability.”
At one point, the conversation turned to a touchy subject: whether the harsh economy has exposed a gap between reality and the unrealistic expectations of those living in relatively affluent suburbs.
“I cannot count the number of people whose financial difficulties come back to a moment when they were feeling more affluent than they really are,” said Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
Zwickler wondered whether “it is time to start educating the community about affluence as the expectation of our lifestyle. We have many wealthy people in our community, but whether it is the concept of keeping up with the Joneses, I am wondering whether as rabbinic leaders there is something we can do by trying to address this together and saying to our community ‘maybe things are not like they used to be.’”
After the meeting adjourned, Rotman said some rabbis had expressed interest in helping struggling congregants in such areas as supporting aging parents and working with divorcing congregants and special needs families.