A Helping Hand

BONNIE RIVA RAS describes how synagogues are helping unemployed members cope and find jobs

by Bonnie Riva Ras

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The burst of the housing bubble in 2007 and the economic downturn that followed has affected our kehillot and their members across North America.

Even affluent communities are facing economic pain, including joblessness and home foreclosures. Woodland Hills in California’s San Fernando Valley is such a place. According to the federal government, the value of homes there has dropped considerably; in some sections of town the decline has been more than 30 percent. Many people owe more than their houses are worth, so they cannot sell or refinance them if they lose their jobs. And it’s not so easy to find a job. California has an 11 percent unemployment rate, the second highest in the country, and the second highest foreclosure rate.

In 2008, the rabbi at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Stewart Vogel, and its president, Doug Wolf, decided that it was imperative for the kehilla to reach out to congregants who have been hurt by the recession. Working through the structure of its Community of Caring program, which was established to help congregants do social action work, the kehilla established a group it calls CHAI (Congregational Help and Information). It is run by the Community of Caring’s director, Jeff Bernhardt.

CHAI’s first action was to send a letter to the congregation looking for skilled professionals who would offer their services pro bono to other congregants in such areas as loan modifications, foreclosures, employment services, and counseling. Bernhardt matched the congregants who had an expertise with congregants who needed it.

Leslie Davis, a bankruptcy attorney and Temple Aliyah member, worked with five people through the Chai program. She counseled them on options and represented some of them in bankruptcy proceedings. “The economic situation is not getting any better in California and the banks are not working with people to give them loan modifications,” she said. “There is a high foreclosure rate but filing for bankruptcy will stop a foreclosure.” Davis noted, however, that sometimes people came to her too late to be able to stop a foreclosure. California has a $125,000 exemption limit on home equity, so even if people have a lot of equity they may still lose their homes.

Another Temple Aliyah member, Elana Eisner, is a psychoanalyst who offered counseling services to congregants suffering because of the economy. “People lost their jobs and homes and their families were falling apart because of the stress,” she said.

“These people went from economic highs to great lows. We live in an affluent area and people are not used to dealing with economic stress.”

“The Chai program created a resource brochure divided by topic of nonprofit and government agencies that could provide aid,” Bernhardt said. Chai received a grant to partner with local synagogues, and it worked with Jewish vocational services. Once a month a professional would meet with congregants and help people find new employment.

The Los Angeles Federation operates an emergency grant program for people affected by the recession. Bernhardt helped fill out applications for one-time grants for medical bills, emergency repairs, and mortgage payments. He estimates that he has sent grant applications for about 40 congregants.

At Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire, Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett gave a Yom Kippur sermon about the need to help people in the congregation who are struggling with unemployment and home loss.

The congregation has been very receptive, and members have been sending Spira-Savett information about jobs in the area. Congregants have volunteered legal help, counseling, resume writing, and help with packing and moving when families are unable to remain in their homes. The congregation has paid the fees for workshops and professional associations. Beth Abraham held a career transition series sponsored by the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire that included interviewing skills, networking, and training in how to use technology in job searches.

“The last few years have been really tough for many of our congregants,” Spira-Savett said, adding that no one has been turned away from the synagogue for being unable to pay dues or religious school fees.

At Temple Am David in Warwick, Rhode Island, Rabbi Richard Perlman has established an employment connection. He matches people offering jobs with people searching for them.

Last year, this is how the employment connection was described in the kehilla’s newsletter: “If we can help to facilitate members by helping members get together, there is no better way to support our Temple Am David family through these difficult economic times. Remember, all correspondences will be confidential. Rabbi Rick will only forward information with permission of both sides. Who knows, maybe we can help each other – and if not – remember, we are a family and we care.”