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Jewish agencies: Food stamps are ‘kosher’

As the economy slowly emerges from what some analysts have called its worst downturn since the Great Depression, government aid programs continue to attract new applicants.

One such initiative that has received a lot of attention recently is Families First Electronic Benefits Transfer, more commonly known as the food stamp program.

According to the Department of Human Services, in December 2009, more than 284,000 households in the state received food stamps, representing an increase of 53,941 since December 2008.

“Food stamps and Medicaid programs are really the first stop-gap measure that people fall back on to try to maintain self-sufficiency,” said Marc Schiffer, director of the Passaic County Board of Social Services.

Schiffer noted there has been a large increase in applications for food stamps and Medicaid in the past year. Conversely, the state’s welfare programs have not increased at the same rate.

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Gone are the days of paper certificates exchanged for food. The food-stamp system has become more modern and discreet. The Division of Family Services in New Jersey’s Department of Human Services uses the Electronic Benefits Transfer System. Recipients receive monthly allotments on a Families First debit card, which can be used to buy most grocery items. They cannot be used for alcohol, tobacco, or non-food items.

“It does not put someone into a spotlight,” Schiffer said of the card. “A lot of times it’s invisible to other shoppers.”

Despite the inconspicuousness of the card, the decision to go on food stamps can be difficult, especially for people in the upper-middle class. White-collar jobs have been hit hard, according to Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson. Because of this, she said, pride can often get in the way of somebody signing up for the program.

“Unfortunately, there are some people who feel a stigma attached to receiving food stamps,” she said. “There are some people who won’t take them even though they are eligible.”

About 15 percent of JFS Bergen’s more than 1,900 clients receive food stamps. About 5 percent of those eligible won’t join the program, according to Faith O’Connor, care manager in the adult case management department.

One JFS client on food stamps is an elderly Holocaust survivor, O’Connor said. He suffered a stroke a number of years ago and has been unable to work. He and his wife depend on the program.

“It’s difficult, yet it has served to help them tremendously,” O’Connor said.

Most people look at food stamps as a supplement to help them meet their nutritional needs, Schiffer said, despite any stigma that may be attached to the program.

“At a point in time, unless your circumstances change, you have to make a decision of having the resources to feed your family or feed your pride,” Schiffer said. “Most people make the decision to feed their family.”

Passaic County, he pointed out, is home to the third-largest number of recipients in the state. Essex County has the highest number of recipients.

Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service & Riskin Children’s Center of Clifton/Passaic, estimated about 100 of JFS client families receive food stamps.

“We’ve come a long way in helping people accept that if they are needy and trying to keep their families together, then they need to access whatever government programs there are, and this is one of them,” she said.

So-called entitlement programs are more acceptable now, she said, because of the difficult economy.

“It’s normative at this point,” she said.

Adina Yacoub, assistant administrator at the Bergen County Board of Social Services, no longer sees a stigma attached to the program. Her department encourages all people who think they are eligible to apply, she said.

“We tell them it’s tax dollars at work,” she said.

Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, has noticed more willingness among her clients to seek out the food stamps program. Still, she said, there remains an uneasiness about making that first call to JFS for financial help.

“Many don’t reach out until there’s a crisis,” she said. “They might be on the verge of losing their house, unable to pay for medical insurance, filing for bankruptcy…. People tend to turn to credit cards to pay their bills, but once they max out, that creates a major crisis for them.”

In the past few months the number of calls for financial assistance has doubled, she said.

When a person applies to the food stamp program, the state runs a check on his or her financial situation. On average, according to Schiffer, an individual stays on the program for six to nine months.

“It all depends on their circumstances,” he said.

A majority of grocery stores accept the EBT card, according to Yacoub. An informal survey, however, of seven Bergen County kosher markets revealed that none of them accept food stamps, although a representative of Teaneck Kosher said the market is working on it. Kosher Konnection in Passaic accepts the EBT card.

The benefits of signing up for the program, Yacoub said, include attracting more shoppers to the store. The government guarantees payment, so the only disadvantage, she continued, is some paperwork.

“It’s out there in the community for people who need it,” Fedder said. “I would hope people take advantage of it.”

 
 

Clifton-Passaic Y slated to close

Amid budget troubles, federation had sought merger with North Jersey

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The YM-YWHA building at 199 Scoles Ave., Clifton Josh Lipowsky

One year ago the YM-YWHA of Greater Clifton-Passaic celebrated its grand reopening, and the dedication of a newly renovated half-million-dollar playground. One month ago the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic, facing budget deficits and major drops in its fund-raising campaign in recent years, decided to sell the Y, a 105-year-old institution and the only Jewish community center in the Passaic-Clifton area.

The Y, also known as the Tri-County JCC, houses the federation, Jewish Family Service, the Riskin Children’s Center, and the Holocaust Resource Center. Federation leaders say they intend that these agencies would remain open after the sale of the building but remained noncommittal about Y programming beyond September 2011. The Y still expects to offer camp for the summer of 2011.

The board voted to sell the building at its July meeting and put the building on the market later that month. Community members did not learn about the move, however, until they received a letter in early August.

“The decision has been brewing for several years,” Ed Schey, the federation’s executive director, told this newspaper last week. “It became very difficult these past several years to maintain the services we want to at the Y. We just don’t have the wherewithal to continue.”

He pointed to a diminishing donor base as the result of a donor’s death or relocation out of state. Late donors’ families often don’t continue the tradition of contributing, he said, while those who move away shift their dollars to local charities.

The changing demographics of Passaic — the city has experienced a boom in its Orthodox population in recent years and is home to 10 Orthodox synagogues, while Clifton has one Conservative shul — has also played a role. While Y leaders estimated at least 50 percent of the Y’s users are Orthodox, the federation has not been successful in fund-raising in that community.

Ten years ago, the federation’s campaign raised more than $1 million. Schey would not provide specifics but said the campaign today is about half of that. According to 2008 tax forms, the latest on file with the website Guidestar.org, the federation collected $5,162,965 in total revenue between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, but faced expenses of $5,583,671 — a deficit of more than $400,000.

Just to open the doors of the Y — paying for electricity, heating, and other basic needs — costs approximately $600,000 a year, according to the Y’s executive director, Kenneth Mandel. With the federation facing a $1.5 million budget deficit, he said he was saddened by the decision but understood it.

“I look at this building and say this is a community asset,” he said. “By selling this building you’re never going to be able to have a building like this again.”

The Y has approximately 1,300 members including family units, and Mandel estimated that about 1,000 people pass through the doors each day. This year’s summer camp is at capacity, with 600 children enrolled.

The Y’s operating budget is $2.7 million; it receives $178,000 from the federation and the rest is raised from other sources. Each year the staff wonders if that will be the final year, Mandel said, but various grants and last-minute donations have kept the building afloat. The Y staff took a 10 percent pay cut last year, representing a savings of $200,000, Mandel said.

The federation had looked at merging with one of its neighboring federations, but plans to merge with the Jewish Federation of North Jersey in Wayne fell apart when that organization merged with the UJA of Bergen County & North Hudson to form UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. From 2002 to 2008 the Passaic-Clifton federation held conversations with the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, but those talks eventually broke down.

“We didn’t want to be in a position next September to say, ‘We’re closing tomorrow,’” said Mark Levenson, who concluded his eight-year presidency of the Passaic-Clifton federation in June. “We have been deliberating for a long time to come to what I call a soft landing.”

The 7-acre property went on the market last month, Levenson said, although he would not disclose the asking price or the broker.

The federation is not shutting down, Levenson emphasized, acknowledging rumors that followed the sale’s announcement.

“The campaign will continue; what federation does will continue,” he said. “We are not closing the federation. The federation absolutely is in control and the implementer of this decision.”

The federation board is open to ideas to save the Y, Levenson said, but only a large infusion of dollars will work.

“Unless there is some real concrete plan of real funding to help address the gap in keeping the building going, good intentions just don’t get us there,” he said. “We need actual real cash to keep the building going.”

When Mitch Morrison, a Passaic resident who is vice president and group editor of CSP Information Group, received the federation’s letter, he quickly began to mobilize efforts to save the Y.

As of Monday, when he spoke to this paper from a business meeting in Utah, he had been trying to organize a meeting with federation leaders for the end of this week. An initial e-mail asking people for help has attracted lots of attention, he said, and he’d like the federation to examine all options from the community.

“Let’s pause,” he said. “Let’s take a deep breath and let’s regroup and see if we can create a model that is truly representative of a broader Jewish community and can we do it under a financial model that not only allows the institution to survive but to thrive.”

Passaic has experienced a demographic change, not a demographic decline, Morrison said. That separates the Passaic-Clifton Y from other agencies in decline across the country. He envisions new models of operation and outreach for the Y that bring in the Orthodox, the Russian émigre´s, the non-affiliated, and Jews from smaller communities nearby.

“If you take the attitude of ‘let’s rebuild this from scratch, what kind of fund-raising model could you create,’ you could potentially create something very dynamic and robust,” he said.

Schey said that the federation would negotiate with a buyer to see if Jewish Family Service, the Riskin Children’s Center, and the Holocaust Resource Center could stay in the building. Whether the federation ends up renting space back from a buyer or if the building will be razed depends on who buys it, he said.

“The executive committee of the federation and board of trustees of the federation will review carefully all of the proposals and make a decision that’s in the best interest of the Jewish community of Clifton-Passaic,” he added.

Edith Sobel, the former editor of the Jewish Community News, praised the federation and its relationship with the paper when the JCN was housed at the Y.

“It was a very wonderful experience for me,” she said.

Valerie Sharfman, director of the Holocaust Resource Center, declined comment.

Jewish Family Services receives $125,000, or about 10 percent of its annual budget, from the federation, which has been “a pretty secure funder,” said Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service.

“We are very saddened by the fact that the financial difficulties have resulted in this loss,” she said. “We’re losing the one communal institution in the Clifton-Passaic community where Jewish people cross-denominationally come together. That’s a big loss.”

 
 

Confessions and warnings

Project S.A.R.A.H. addresses domestic abuse

A young woman tells her mother, “I wouldn’t want a husband like you have…. Every time he comes home, we’re running away to hide in our rooms…. Do you like it when he pushes you around like that? I hate it! I’d rather stay out of his way so I don’t have to watch.”

This is a scene from “Confessions,” a video developed by Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home), to teach yeshiva high school girls about domestic abuse. “Most videos are not suitable for yeshivas to show,” said Teaneck resident Elke Stein, Director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Service of Project S.A.R.A.H. “We received a grant to develop videos that are religiously appropriate, to be used in these schools.”

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“The video project is pitching to a more [religiously] right-wing element in the community,” said Esther East, also of Teaneck, who is director of Jewish Family Services at the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic. “Single-sex schools need videos that speak to them — videos with only women in them, or only men in them.”

“The … videos for young people teach what to look for when they are dating,” said East. One called “The Warning,” is intended for women of 18 to 19 years old who are beginning to date, and portrays a young woman warning her friend about a suitor who is “just not a good guy … a control freak.” She describes an escalating abusive situation she experienced with that suitor and cautions her friend to “keep your eyes open and be careful.”

Another video, developed for young men, shows two brothers discussing a financially abusive girl who forces the boy to overspend on her. “There are emotional, psychological, and financial issues that go into a relationship,” said Stein.

Project S.A.R.A.H. will debut “Confessions” at its fifth annual breakfast on Sunday, March 27. The event will recognize eight physicians who have partnered with Project S.A.R.A.H., and will feature Dr. Susan Schulman, a contributing author in a new book, “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community.” (The book, published by Ktav, was edited by David Mandel and David Pelcovitz; see related story.) Schulman, a Brooklyn pediatrician, was “one of the first to speak out against child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community,” said Stein.

The website describes the organization as having many partners and supporters. It is funded by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety–Stop the Violence Against Women Grants Program, as well as the Passaic County Women’s Center, JFS of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic, and private donors. Project S.A.R.A.H. also works in partnership with other JFSes to provide services in other parts of the state. The website further explains that Project S.A.R.A.H. serves Jewish families in New Jersey, seeking to “overcome the cultural, religious, and linguistic barriers that prevent victims from acknowledging the problems of domestic abuse and sexual assault.”

“There’s an enormous shift in the Jewish community, from being in denial that these problems existed in the Jewish community to really wanting to create a safer climate for families,” explained East. “People don’t have to live with abuse. Kids can keep themselves safer.”

Some of the support mechanisms for families provided by the agency include the Shalom Task Force hotline, opportunities for counseling, and the training of professionals in the community. “Abuse is a complex matter, with legal ramifications, financial issues,” said East, explaining that attorneys, physicians, and rabbis can all help families in crisis.

“We train rabbis so they can be as sophisticated as possible in understanding these issues in the congregation,” said East. “Rabbis are often the first point person who realizes there’s a problem in the family. The husband, the wife, or the school may reach out to the rabbi.”

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Elke Stein, director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Service of Project S.A.R.A.H., left, and Esther East, director of Jewish Family Services at the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic Josh Weinberg

“Whatever you do in these family systems in which there is violence or abuse, you have to be careful what you are doing. It can make the situation more explosive, more complicated,” she added. “We felt if we trained rabbis it would make them more effective.”

Another program supported by Project S.A.R.A.H. is the Aleinu Safety Kid Program, which was originally developed by Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles. Project S.A.R.A.H.’s website explains, “The Safety Kid program is a comprehensive school program that teaches children in a fun and non-threatening way how to keep themselves safe from potential perpetrators.”

“They trained us to deliver the program; we are bringing that service into New Jersey,” said East. She reported that YBH of Passaic-Hillel has adopted the program. “We work with faculty, parents, and kids from kindergarten through third grade.” The program focuses on “primary prevention — teaching kids how to keep themselves safe,” she added. Yeshivat Noam of Paramus and Cheder Lubavitch of Morristown are scheduled to participate in the Aleinu program.

“There should be a safety net of different parts of the community that are trained and responsive to anyone who comes through the door,” East said. The doctors being recognized at the Project S.A.R.A.H. breakfast include pediatricians as well as obstetrician/gynecologists. “There are eight physicians who have accepted the opportunity for identifying themselves as partnering physicians. There are many others as well who work with us.”

“Pediatricians are vital community resources that can play a critical role in sexual abuse education and prevention.… [T]he pediatrician can create a ‘teachable moment’ to explain about privacy. This conversation can take place unobtrusively, with little emotional fanfare,” writes Dr. Isaac Schechter, a clinical psychologist in Rockland County in “Breaking the Silence.” He continues, “In a community where pediatricians as a group began implementing this practice … several situations of abuse were discovered and immediately addressed.”

Obstetrician/gynecologists also have a special relationship with their patients, which can provide opportunities to educate and advise women about domestic abuse and may serve as a front line to identify victims of abuse. “Physicians are an access point for people to help themselves,” said East.

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Rabbi Raffi Bilek, a licensed social worker and outreach coordinator for Project S.A.R.A.H., demonstrates how a puppet named Safety Kid is used in the organization’s Aleinu program to teach children about personal safety. Courtesy Project S.A.R.A.H.

Being recognized at the breakfast are Drs. Sema Bank, Ruth Borgen, Efrat Meier-Ginsberg, Wendy Hurst, Steven Schuss, Vickie Shulman, Lynn Sugarman, and David Wisotsky. They have raised awareness regarding domestic abuse by providing information for their patients. Some of them have participated in formal training on abuse, have arranged it for their staff, or are planning to do so.

“Their role is a very important one — to ask the questions if they have some concern about a patient,” said Stein.

The breakfast is scheduled for Sunday, March 27, from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at Cong. Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck. There is no charge for the event. For information, go to www.projectsarah.org. RSVP to (973) 777-7638.

 
 
 
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