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Giving back by helping out

Pro bono program takes off in Bergen County

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Lisa Fedder, left, Alice Blass, Joy Kurland, and Leah Kaufman
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table class="caption">image David Siegel, left, and David Giller
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Lori Sackler, left, Alan Sotnick, and Stan Goldberg

“People are really struggling,” said Lisa Fedder, director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson. There are “80-year-olds looking for jobs as receptionists. It’s awful.”

That’s why, when UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey convened its economic crisis meeting in October 2008, organization leaders realized that not only must an economic action plan help increasingly strapped community agencies, but that help must filter down directly to individuals.

That’s why, when UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey convened its economic crisis meeting in October 2008, organization leaders realized that not only must an economic action plan help increasingly strapped community agencies, but that help must filter down directly to individuals.

“We knew that agencies, schools, and synagogues were seriously affected by the economic downturn,” said Alice Blass, volunteer coordinator for the Jewish Community Relations Council. But there was also a clear need for emergency financial assistance and pro bono services.

The call for a pro bono network obviously struck a chord.

“Professionals stepped forward,” said Blass, reeling off a list of volunteer service-providers. Some were recruited through the federation’s Commerce & Professionals arm and Physicians & Dentists division; others came forward on their own.

“We spoke with JFS about the specific types of pro bono assistance they could use,” said Blass, noting that landlord-tenant relations, credit management, bankruptcy, and medical issues were most frequently mentioned.

Some 70 professionals — including accountants, dentists, financial experts, lawyers, funeral directors, and mohels — now participate in the pro bono project, said Blass. There is even a hairdresser, to help people preparing for employment interviews. It is up to JFS to screen the clients who may need pro bono assistance, said Blass, adding that “it’s their call; whatever the needs are.”

Jewish Community Relations Council Director Joy Kurland pointed out that when key federation and JCRC leadership discussed the economic downturn, it was realized that “the need was greater than what agencies could provide in terms of human resources.”

Requests for volunteers drew a wide response and the list “kept growing,” she said.

“I haven’t seen this kind of program — the way we’ve done it in northern New Jersey — anywhere else,” she said. “The JCRC was the point of entry in dealing with the economic crisis, and the pro bono network was created with the campaign divisions that handled the professionals. In other places, JFS agencies handle it themselves.”

“Perhaps because the economic crisis was a local emergency, unlike Haiti or Katrina or the tsunami, we had to approach it differently,” said Alan Scharfstein, UJA NNJ president. “We learned that it’s only when the community acts together as a whole, with federation as the convener and the key agencies as partners, that we can come up with solutions on how to deal with it. The idea of the pro bono network resonated widely and immediately throughout the community and was implemented quickly.”

“The decision was made to fully support the pro bono network and commit staff hours to the running of it,” said UJA-NNJ’s executive vice president Howard Charish. “What’s more, our Commerce & Professionals Division was a natural partner….Its members stepped up to volunteer their services.”

According to Kurland, “We also wanted to take care of the caregivers. We’re concerned about their health as well.” As a result, the pro bono network includes a professional masseuse who offers her services to clinical social workers at JFS.

Leah Kaufman, director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, said her agency has been referring people to pro bono professionals “mostly for legal and financial issues.” According to Kaufman, clients especially need assistance with bankruptcy issues and credit card debt.

“Some need assistance trying to figure out their budgets,” she said. “There are major lifestyle changes that clients are having difficulty adjusting to. They’re in a position they never thought they’d have to be in.”

Some clients, she said, were from middle- and upper-middle-class families, previously earning six-figure incomes.

“Now they find themselves on the verge of losing their homes.”

The agency used more than a dozen pro bono professionals in the past year, she said, whether referring clients directly or calling the professionals on their clients’ behalf.

As for her own clinical staff, “We took advantage of a hand masseuse who came here several months ago. It was a treat for the staff. We had to twist ourselves into a pretzel to find the time.”

Kaufman said she thinks the pro bono program is “a wonderful resource for us and I would like to see it continue.”

So would Fedder. “It’s been a fabulous boost to families in need,” she said, noting that her agency has referred clients for dental and medical problems as well as for financial concerns.

“We also have somebody offering haircuts,” she said, adding that the service was provided to an elderly woman who can no longer take care of herself.

Fedder pointed out that the two JFS agencies screen clients before referring them “so we don’t take advantage of the kindness of strangers. It’s a huge mitzvah these people are doing.”

The volunteers

The professionals in the pro bono network are a mixed lot, but all who were interviewed told The Jewish Standard that they are driven by a feeling of communal responsibility and a desire to “give back.”

David Siegel, who reached out to JFS and offered his services, helps clients with bankruptcy issues and debt settlement.

The Teaneck resident said that “a lot of people out there have problems and they don’t know how, or that they can, address them. They feel stigmatized by the idea of bankruptcy. But you can get your life back on track.”

A business insurance specialist based in New York, Siegel has already spoken with about a dozen people referred by JFS, either “offering some advice on what they can do on their own or referring them to a bankruptcy attorney.”

“The greatest need is for loan modifications,” he said. “It’s becoming very difficult; banks are making it very difficult to get modifications approved.”

He noted that people can go to HUD.gov to get the name of an organization, paid by the government, that does this work for free.

“You don’t need to pay an attorney for that; there’s stuff they can do on their own,” he said. “I guide people toward that.”

Siegel said he has put together a brochure that he has distributed through TeaneckShuls, among other outlets. Describing it as “a short booklet that will give you the basics on topics relating to settling various forms of debt, without the need for an attorney,” it covers issues such as second mortgages, credit cards, loan modifications (of first mortgages), student loans, and bankruptcy.

“I have been frustrated at the lack of media coverage on this issue,” said Siegel, pointing out that the Orthodox Union has held several “webinars” on the subject, which people can access in the archives section of the group’s Website, ou.org.

Siegel said that “the gamut of people we’re seeing is pretty wide. We’re seeing those we didn’t expect to. The banks are causing this to continue and to drag out,” he said, since people who could otherwise make deals and modify their loans may now need to file for bankruptcy.

Pointing out the “sad toll” that economic problems can cause, Siegel said that “one client filed for bankruptcy, and his wife filed for divorce. I’ve had to be a bit of a marriage counselor.”

On the other hand, he believes people are becoming more reasonable.

“They’re becoming more realistic with expenses and doing what they can to live within their means. They’re trying to learn from difficult situations.”

David Giller has been reaching out to various charities in Bergen County “to work with them and help them out.”

The Bergenfield resident, an attorney based in Hackensack, said he has spoken with about 30 pro bono clients over the past year, many referred by Project Ezra.

A typical presenting problem “is a person married and in dire financial straits,” with credit card debt, auto loans, personal loans, possibly taken out for business purposes, and a mortgage.

“They’re struggling to find out how to make things work,” he said. “They might just have been getting by for a while and then their industry wasn’t doing well or their spouse got laid off or developed a medical condition.”

“It snowballed,” he said. “I’ve seen many variations of that story. A couple of years ago they were getting by. They’re not people who just went crazy with credit cards.”

Giller said he has seen this story unfold for people of all professions and in all industries.

He has also seen the marital stress that results from these problems.

“I try to help guide them through the cumbersome, time-consuming legal process,” he said, adding that when he’s done, he has sometimes “eliminated several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

“What better way to reach out to people hurting the most, and [do it] within my own community?” he asked, noting that he has also approached various organizations offering to speak on budgeting and money management.

“It’s a way of giving tzedakah without being able to write a big check,” he said.

Tenafly resident Lori Sackler, first vice president/senior investment management consultant at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, stressed that while she has been speaking with individuals referred by JFS, “I’m not giving tax or legal advice.”

Sackler said the issues she encounters are typically the result of people losing their jobs or having significantly reduced income because business is off. They may also be overleveraged, affected by changing interest rates and no longer able to afford their mortgages.

“Typically, we talk about their budgets,” she said, noting that “there’s not a lot I can do, but I can counsel them about looking for part-time work, changing jobs, or consolidating their debt.”

Sackler may also suggest that they speak with their banks to make sure that they’re taking advantage of all options available under the government’s debt-relief program.

So far, she said, she has not been surprised by anything she has seen.

“It’s a reminder that this is happening all around us, not just on the news,” she said. “It’s good for people to talk to professionals, and I hope that more people will do pro bono work. It allows people a forum to speak openly about their economic problems.”

Reverse mortgage consultant Alan Sotnick was prompted to offer pro bono services by Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. “I’ve been doing it for less than a year and have spoken with three people so far,” said Sotnick. “I thought it was time to give back.”

He said that generally, the people he speaks to have incomplete information, or even misinformation, about their situation, often gleaned from well-meaning friends.

“They talk to friends and relatives who are trying to give good advice but aren’t so knowledgeable,” he said.

The Hillsdale resident said he has seen people from all different professions who are in financial trouble “through no fault of their own.”

“Unfortunately, the problem also affects people of all ages,” he added, noting that he has done volunteer work with the elderly, driving a seniors van in his community after he sold his company four years ago.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades is also reaching out to those in need, offering free “Coping with Unemployment” seminars led by Fort Lee resident Stan Goldberg, past president of Fortune Personnel Consultants.

Goldberg, who answers questions about writing résumés and preparing for the interview process, said he thought “giving to the community” would be an appropriate way to deal with the recent loss of his wife.

According to Goldberg, his seminars, which will be offered until March 18, recognize not only that many are unemployed but that others “anticipate being laid off.”

Goldberg said he is interested in creating other forums where people who are out of work “and don’t know what to do with themselves” can meet to talk and network. “It’s nice being able to talk,” he said. “You stay motivated.”

The economic crisis was not a surprise, said Goldberg, a longtime expert in the employment industry. Still, he said, while “we’d been through [similar] situations before this, they were not as bad.” Nor does he think there will be much improvement in the short term.

“People have to be realistic and see if their skills are transferable, or they have to further and enhance their education in areas where there may be job opportunities in the future, doing research on [which] sectors will get better.” Still, he said, “No one has a crystal ball; it becomes a guessing game.”

Goldberg said his seminars are customized to address participants’ individual problems. For example, he said, he may suggest that if someone has gone on five or six unsuccessful interviews, “he may have to start looking to see what has to change. Maybe he’s not dressing correctly, or he’s antagonistic or bitter. A lot of it is chemistry. Employers are looking for someone to join a team.”

In the meantime, JFS-Bergen’s Fedder believes that the pro bono program should continue when the recession ends, since “the needs of the community won’t decrease in the short term.”

“There are kids in their early 20s with no real experience who can’t get their first job; and those 50-plus who won’t get a new job at the same level or with benefits. The recession may end ‘by the book’ but not in the lives of the people we are serving.”

 
 
 
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