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entries tagged with: Jewish Family Service


JFS Conference for caregivers at UJA Federation

When an elderly parent or spouse begins needing daily assistance, the caregiver faces often overwhelming dilemmas: How can I manage a balance between my own young family and responsibility for my parent? How can I find time for myself? What options exist for respite and long-term care?

Sheila Steinbach, director of clinical and adult care management at Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, is familiar with these questions on both a professional and personal level.

“It can be a complex, overwhelming situation and we receive quite a few inquiries on this subject from ‘sandwich generation’ children and spouses,” said Steinbach, who is herself in the position of helping to tend older and younger family members.

On Nov. 15, the agency will present “Caring for a Loved One: You are Not Alone” at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Drive in Paramus, 12:45 to 4 p.m.

The conference is co-sponsored by UJA-NNJ, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, and Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne.

“So many of us are dealing with this situation, and it was clearly larger than our client base,” said JFS Bergen & North Hudson Executive Director Lisa Fedder, who travels frequently to Baltimore to see to her own mother’s needs. “This is a community-wide problem, and we wanted to reach out to as many community partners as we could.”

Fedder added that the economic crisis has contributed to the stress felt by many family caregivers. “What pushed this issue to the forefront now was the fact that money has become tighter and many people are no longer able to juggle all the balls by themselves. If we can help answer their concerns, we hope they will be able to be more effective in providing care.”

Steinbach and Debbie Turitz, director of Senior Adult Services at the Kaplen JCC, will present a workshop on creating a balance specifically for members of the so-called sandwich generation — a term coined in 1981 by sociologist Dorothy Miller to describe a segment of the middle-aged generation that cares for both young and older family members without receiving reciprocal support.

Other breakout workshops will include “Accessing Community Support Services” by Patty Stoll of JFS Bergen and North Hudson; “Caregivers are Important Too” by Ann Pogolowitz of JFS Northern New Jersey and Devra Kanter of the Bergen County YJCC; and “Creative Planning: Legal and Financial Issues” by Ridgewood elder-law specialist Michael Manna, who also will give a presentation on legal and financial planning.

Stoll will make a presentation on care options in and out of the home. Dr. Terri Feldman Katz, director of the Center for Dynamic Aging in Hackensack, will speak on medical issues of the elderly.

The conference, which is open to the general public, is not only for those already providing care.

Steinbach said that many clients have told her they were suddenly plunged into the caregiving role and were caught unprepared.

“One day the parent is doing fine and then something happens overnight and the adult child or spouse needs immediate answers and resources,” she said. “So we are also hoping to attract people who are not yet in the situation so that they can learn what’s available to them.”

Registration costs $12 by Nov. 10 or $15 at the door. Kosher refreshments will be provided. For information, call (201) 837-9090 or go to


Jewish groups deplore state budget cuts

Jewish agencies braced for the worst after Gov. Chris Christie last week announced more than $2 billion in budget cuts for the remainder of the 2010 fiscal year.

Christie’s address to a joint session of the legislature last Thursday came shortly after the governor declared a fiscal emergency in New Jersey. The cuts, he told the legislature, were “among the hardest decisions any governor could be called upon to make.”

The budget solutions, according to the governor’s office, focus on four areas: targeting savings or areas of over-funding; targeting waste and ineffective programs; identifying areas for long-term reform; and making hard choices in the form of budget cuts. In total, the governor’s plan included 375 line item cuts and program eliminations — and that has the Jewish community worried.

Gov. Chris Christie announced more than $2 billion in budget cuts last week.

“A lot of the money’s coming from the programs for the needy,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents the state’s 12 Jewish federations in Trenton.

As of Tuesday, Toporek was still reviewing the governor’s proposals but he had already pinpointed areas that would hit Jewish organizations.

School aid is taking a large hit as the government plans to withhold $475 million. Many of the state’s school districts have surplus budgets, according to Christie, and no district will lose more aid than it has in its surpluses. The cuts, however, will affect the large number of parents who send their children to day school and rely on state aid for busing. Under state law, towns and cities that provide busing for their public school students must also provide it for private school students. If public busing is available, day-school students can ride those buses for free for up to 20 miles. Parents whose children travel farther than 20 miles have to pay for bus service but receive a state reimbursement of $884. Under Christie’s proposal, that number has been cut in half.

Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of the State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee, declined comment on the cut.

Among the other programs sent to the budget guillotine is New Jersey After 3, an organization that funds after-school programs. Jewish Family Service of Bergen County receives $186,000 annually from New Jersey After 3 to run programs at four Cliffside Park elementary schools that attract more than 235 youngsters weekly. With New Jersey After 3 facing a cut of $5.24 million, the local programs are in jeopardy, said Lisa Fedder, JFS’s executive director.

“Across the state at least 10,000 kids will no longer have an after-school program, depending on when these programs shut down,” she said.

Jacob Toporek

JFS planned to meet with the Cliffside Park superintendent on Feb. 18 to discuss funding options. One solution may be to ask parents to pay for the program, although Fedder recognized that many of the parents cannot afford it. Unless a funding source is found, the program will close, she said.

“We’re looking at all the alternatives because we want desperately to keep the program open,” Fedder said.

Englewood also has a New Jersey After 3 program, which is now in danger, said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who had been a candidate for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Gov. Jon Corzine.

“People will become educated as they see that, although there is room to cut fraud and abuse, what really is being cut is programs that are important to many of us, and in particular many of us in the Jewish community,” she said.

After-school program asks for help to ensure survival

After-school program asks for help to ensure survival

New Jersey After 3 has created an online petition urging the governor to restore its funding. The hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are the most dangerous for children, according to the petition, and cutting the program’s funding would close programs at more than 100 schools across the state.

For more information, visit

With cuts to after-school programs and N.J. Transit, Weinberg warned, some parents may be forced to quit jobs to take care of their children after school or because fare hikes could make commuting too costly.

Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne does not run a New Jersey After 3 program, but its director, Leah Kaufman, is concerned about the impact of these cuts on future funding.

“Applying for grants through the state is going to be more and more difficult,” she said.

The Assembly budget committee planned to meet Feb. 17, and Weinberg said the Senate budget committee would meet soon, as well, to discuss the cuts. Christie, she said, is doing exactly what he promised to do in his campaign: Cut expenditures without raising income.

“All of us are going to come to the realization that cutting spending means cutting programs all of us depend on,” Weinberg said.

“I know these judgments will affect fellow New Jerseyans and will hurt,” Christie said during his address last week. “This is not a happy moment.”

Christie’s remark, however, was little consolation for those affected. With the government already predicting a $10 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year, Jewish organizations were bracing for another round of cuts.

“Obviously the state needs to have money to run and cuts have to come from somewhere,” Fedder said, “but I hate to see it done on the backs of the most vulnerable and the people without voices.”

Toporek was pessimistic about the state’s 2011 budget, noting that many of these cuts may continue into the next fiscal year.

“These are just the cuts to make up the $2 billion shortfall indicated now through June 30,” he said. “If this is a harbinger of what’s going to happen, the next budget is going to be very painful as well.”


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.


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.”


Jews mixed on public-school cuts

Members of the state legislature held a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Bergen Academies in Hackensack to hear concerns about the proposed 2011 budget. From left are Assemblywoman Joan Voss, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, Sen. Bob Gordon, Sen. Paul Sarlo, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and Assemblyman Fred Scalera. Josh Lipowsky

Public school teachers and students took to the streets this week in protest of last week’s statewide school board elections, which resulted in a rejection of almost 60 percent of New Jersey’s school budgets. As they struggle with high costs in the day-school system, Jewish communal leaders appeared mixed in their reactions to the emerging battle between the governor and the public schools.

Gov. Chris Christie is hailing the mass rejection as approval of his calls for schools to cut spending, including implementing a salary freeze for teachers. The state’s day-school system appears to have escaped largely unscathed, according to Howie Beigelman, the Orthodox Union’s deputy director of public policy, although community leaders are always concerned come budget time.

“We were extremely worried going into the budget; there were rumors of all kinds of cuts,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “But as far as Jewish schools go, we are seeing the same amount as last year in the [state] programs we use most — transportation and such — other than the lunch program, which has been inexplicably cut.”

State funding for non-public school lunch aid accounts for only 5 percent of a more than $8 million budget for the programs, according to Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee. That funding is a victim of Christie’s cuts, but the other 95 percent, which comes from federal funding, remains intact.

The state cut $7 million in technology aid to day schools in the 2010 budget, Pruzansky said. The schools have struggled to make up that funding but, in the proposed 2011 budget, they escaped the major cuts that will affect the public schools.

“On the whole, non-public schools are still hurting,” Pruzansky said. “The only thing we can be thankful for is there was no [major] decrease in aid.”

Pruzansky lashed out at the New Jersey Education Association for not accepting the governor’s call for a wage freeze for teachers. Public school teachers typically earn much higher salaries than their day-school colleagues, he said.

“Non-public school teachers are sacrificing far more than their public-school counterparts,” Pruzansky said. “The heroes in education today should be non-public school teachers who do more with less.”

For Yavneh Academy in Paramus, last year’s technology grant cut meant a loss of $27,500, according to the school’s executive director, Joel Kirschner. Though the day-school system appears to have escaped the budget ax in the coming cycle, the cuts to the public schools are still disturbing, he said.

“We work closely with our public schools, and it’s hard to advocate for the needs of the yeshivot when public school funding is being questioned,” he said. “However, we should still try where at all possible.”

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, head of school at Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, sympathized with her public-school colleagues.

“Our hearts go out to the students and the families and the teachers in the public-school system,” she said. “We hope that the financial crisis will be averted in the near future.”

Teachers gathered outside state Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s Teaneck office last week and students across the area walked out of schools in protest on Tuesday. Weinberg (D-37) and state Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-36) and Bob Gordon (D-38) held a community forum at Bergen Academies in Hackensack on Tuesday night, which attracted about 100 residents from across the county who mostly spoke out against the budget cuts. In response, Gordon called the budget proposal “reckless” and accused Christie of a “reverse Robin Hood” mentality.

“The legislature will put its own impact on this budget,” Weinberg told the audience at the end of the meeting. “We are going to be your advocate.”

Some Jewish organizations are going to bat in Trenton for public-school programs facing cuts in the new budget. Suad Gacham, director of School Based Services for Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, testified before an Assembly budget hearing last week about New Jersey After 3, an after-school program in danger of losing more than $5 million in state funding. JFS runs one program in Cliffside Park that attracts more than 235 youngsters weekly and may face cancellation.

“If these programs are to disappear,” Gacham told the budget committee, “30 to 40 percent of the children would be latchkey children, coming home alone at a very young age to an unsupervised home until their parents return from work. Children would be at risk.”

Praising the work of public-school educators, Lisa Fedder, executive director of JFS, called Tuesday’s student walkouts “an exercise in democracy.”

“For some, it may be their first exercise in democracy — how you identify a cause and take steps to express your point of view,” she said.

Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, issued a statement earlier this week condemning the student walkouts.

“First, students belong in the classroom,” he said. “Students would be better served,” he added, “if they were given a full, impartial understanding of the problems that got us here in the first place and why dramatic action was needed.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association of Jewish Federations, said it has been working with other organizations advocating against the cuts rather than taking a lead.

“The governor’s seeking a shared sacrifice, and I think the agencies and the people we’re advocating with recognize that,” Toporek said in a telephone interview. “But they’re very much concerned that the impact on the clientele we deal with may be a little greater than the impact of the shared sacrifice on others.”

Democratic legislators have promised to make changes to the budget, but Christie has also vowed to veto any significant reversals to his cuts.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” said JFS’ Fedder. “I know that people are dealing with some very difficult issues. There are not any easy answers.”


Jewish Family Service’s WISE program empowers victims of domestic violence

Loss of income is only one effect of the economic downturn, says Sheila Steinbach, director of clinical and adult care management services at Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson.

“The downturn has caused higher stress levels in families. Over the past two years, I’d say we’ve seen a 50 percent increase” in the number of women who report domestic violence, said the Teaneck resident, whose agency recently won a $45,000 grant to help abused women.

The monies — a Stop Violence Against Women Act grant awarded through the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety — will provide counseling and employment services to 24 domestic violence victims.

Sheila Steinbach

“We’re very excited about this,” said Steinbach, who developed the concept.

Pointing out that the program’s acronym, WISE, stands for “Women, Independent, Strong, Enriched,” she said, “research points to the fact that economic hardship and dependence, or lack of financial independence, is one of the biggest factors” compelling women to stay in an abusive household.

Steinbach is hopeful that by giving abused women the skills they need to find and keep a job, the program will empower them to move forward. The WISE program will use staff from both the JFS Job Search Network and clinical department.

“We’ll work together as a team so we’ll know if something from the clinical end is interfering with their finding a job,” said Steinbach, adding that part of the agency’s work is to reduce the shame and stigma associated with domestic violence.

“We’ve been running a support group for a year, the same six or seven women, and the level of support among them is unbelievable,” she said, noting that the women — “from all ethnic, religious, sociological, and economic groups” — remain in touch even outside the group.

The number of Jewish domestic violence victims seems to be proportional to those from other groups, she said.

“But I have a gut feeling that they [experience] more shame and embarrassment,” she added.

She is hoping to begin the first of the year’s three program cycles during the first week of October. Each cohort will include eight women “who are appropriate for the program,” in terms of both clinical needs and economic position. For example, they must be unemployed, underemployed, or looking to enter the workforce.

Each session will last for eight weeks and include intensive individual therapy as well as group therapy.

Steinbach said that each year, businesses lose millions of employee days because of domestic violence issues. WISE will provide sensitivity training for employers and, when necessary, dispatch a “work coach” to mediate problems between job holders and employers.

“We have the ability to have on-site help,” said Steinbach, promising that “we’re not saying goodbye after eight weeks. There will be an aftercare group and up to a year of support groups even after they’re finished.”

The WISE program “uses the existing strengths of our agency,” said Steinbach, noting that Bergen County experiences some 5,000 domestic violence offenses every year “and there are never enough services.”

“It just makes sense to help [abuse victims] gain employment,” she said. “They feel less isolated, less ashamed. We support them as they make healthier choices in their life.”

She said that the JFS program would undoubtedly engender resistance among abusive spouses, “so confidentiality is of the utmost importance to us.” Part of the clinical work will be to help participants build a safety plan.

“If they feel they can make it on their own, then they can get out of the relationship,” said Steinbach, adding that the program will include family counseling for victims and their children “so they can come in and work on those issues. We’re looking at it as a holistic approach.”


Autism: the pain and the progress


On Yom Kippur of 1996, Albert Enayati saw fellow congregant Sara Lee Kessler walking to Cong. Ahavath Torah with her husband, Robert Miller. He had never met her — he belonged to the Englewood synagogue’s Sephardic minyan — but he recognized her face. Kessler, an award-winning broadcast journalist, was then the new health and medical correspondent for New Jersey Network.

Mustering his courage, Enayati approached Kessler and asked her to consider doing a segment on his autistic 7-year-old son, Payam. “Maybe because of the Jewish holiday she couldn’t say no to me,” he recalls thinking.

Enayati was then president of the state chapter of an autism advocacy organization seeking government funds to establish a gene bank for autism research. “I was hoping she could help us get publicity. I explained that autism is pretty devastating and consumes your life. It affects everyone in the family.”

Payam, on the severe end of the autism spectrum, was difficult to control. He would dart out of the house, into traffic, start fires, and have great difficulty sitting still in school.

“I promised Albert that I would do a ‘Healthwatch’ story about Payam and I became so interested in autism that I’ve been reporting on it ever since,” says Kessler.

Her work over the past 14 years has culminated in an hour-long documentary, “Decoding Autism,” to air on NJN1 Sept. 27 at 9 p.m., Oct. 3 at 4 p.m., and online at Kessler reported, wrote, and produced the piece.

“Autism spectrum disorder” describes a range of neurodevelopmental conditions that affect a child’s language development, social skills, and often IQ. Children with autism commonly have heightened sensitivity to touch and noise and display a range of behavioral abnormalities. (See sidebar.)

Jake Weinstein, SINAI’s associate director, stands with a student, on the autistic spectrum, being called up to the Torah at school upon the occasion of his bar mitzvah. Courtesy Sinai

With one out of 110 American children now being diagnosed with some form of autism, and one out of 94 in New Jersey, it is widely considered “the No. 1 childhood health issue in America today,” in the words of Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks. Kessler set out to find what is driving this alarming trend.

She visited the labs of top autism researchers, interviewed families, and talked with educators using early intervention techniques such as applied behavior analysis (ABA). Progress is being made as various theories are tested, but for now there is no clear cause or cure.

What is clear is that autism — or “the autisms,” as one of the experts puts it — knows no racial, cultural, or economic bounds. It is not a Jewish disease. Yet Jewish families affected by the disorder face unique challenges. How can they integrate a child into the Jewish community who cannot be educated in a Jewish setting and cannot attend synagogue services? How can they make a bar or bat mitzvah?

“Part of what gets people involved in the practice of Judaism is the rituals, and that’s a huge problem for an autistic child,” says Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, which runs a weekly program for young working adults with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder affecting social skills but rarely intelligence.

“Someone on the high end of the spectrum can learn to read Torah and may even be skilled at it, but part of how we celebrate [b’nei mitzvah] is being part of a community: Hebrew school, prayer service, and celebration. Without those markers, the community has no way to engage you.”

Bassie Taubes says that “kids at TABC are great” to her son, Yosef Dov, who attends the SINAI branch there.

Bassie and Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck prepared carefully for the bar mitzvah of their autistic son, Yosef Dov, two years ago. “We worked with a behaviorist and wrote a social story with a brief narrative to describe what the day would be about,” says Bassie Taubes.

(A social story is a tool for teaching social skills to children with autism and related disabilities. It provides detailed information about situations that a child may find difficult or confusing.) The story explained to him, his mother said, “that there would be a lot of people and noise, and people may want to touch him, and how he could stay calm.”

In Cong. Tzemach Dovid, his father’s synagogue, Yosef Dov was called to the Torah and was honored after services at a kiddush. That Saturday night, his family threw a party whose guests included client families and volunteers from the Paramus Friendship Circle — a Lubavitch program that recruits teens to interact with special-needs children in their homes.

“That day was a highlight of his existence,” says his mother. “It’s rare for kids with autism to be celebrated. He talks about his bar mitzvah all the time.”

Yosef Dov’s aunt, Esther East, is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Clifton-Passaic. “I know many Jewish families with autistic children, who can be anywhere on the spectrum from pervasive developmental disorder to Asperger’s syndrome,” she says. “Like any child with special needs, [a child with autism] has an enormous impact on the family — stress on the parents, confusion until a diagnosis is established, uncertainty about prognosis, lack of adequate educational resources within the Jewish community, extraordinary financial demands for education and treatment, long-term care issues.”

Reporter Sara Lee Kessler with teens at The Children’s Institute, a school in Verona, for children on the autism spectrum. From left are James S., Natalie C., Emily V., and Philip C.

Last year, her JFS hosted a day of presentations for parents and professionals by Dr. Ami Klin of the Yale Child Study Center, an international expert on autism who appears in Kessler’s documentary. “Everything he said was memorable,” recalls East, “but I think the most poignant and significant message he had for parents was the necessity of creating opportunities in life within the reality of their children’s capacity — opportunities to live life to the fullest and most independent quality.”

One of the parents who came to hear Klin was “Vivian,” a Passaic County mother of a 9-year-old severely autistic boy. When “Baruch” was officially diagnosed as autistic at 2 1/2 at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, his parents assumed he would eventually be able to go from public school to a yeshiva, “even if not the same yeshiva our other kids attend. But he’s still not in a yeshiva and I don’t know that he ever will be.”

Vivian has not found a Jewish school that could offer Baruch the one-on-one intensive services he receives at a private school in Maplewood whose director, Dr. David Sidener, was interviewed for “Decoding Autism.” Another Orthodox family has two sons in the school.

Baruch cannot go to shul with his siblings and peers. “I can’t see taking him into services because there’s no guarantee he’ll be quiet, and if he went to the children’ groups he would need one-on-one attention,” his mother said. His only formal Jewish setting is a Sunday morning program, Jewish Education for Special Children, housed at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

Rabbi Yisroel Schwab, director of JESC, said a fair percentage of the program’s 50 participants from ages 3 to 22 are on the autism spectrum. Some do not speak. All of them receive some form of prayer education, Hebrew reading, holiday projects, Bible stories, and music, as well as Jewish dance for the older kids. This skill helps them feel more comfortable at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

“We use a multi-sensory approach,” says Schwab, who has ABA training. “For instance, for a non-verbal child we teach ‘Torah’ as a sight word and later you might see him hugging a play Torah in music class. We do see results, but in small steps.”

Vivian recites the Sh’ma to her son every night with the hope that perhaps he’ll be able to say it himself by the time he’s a bar mitzvah. She believes Baruch strongly perceives the special atmosphere of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

“His favorite foods are cholent and kugel, though he’s not a great eater. I make them every week for him. He’s always drawn to watch the Shabbos candles and his favorite songs are Jewish songs. You just get the feeling he relates to things Jewish.”

Yosef Dov Taubes was the sole Orthodox child in his special-needs public school class when he was younger. His mother recalls the October day he came home from school with a pumpkin and begged his older sister to carve a face into it for him. “We were the only rabbinic family with a jack-o-lantern on Halloween,” she says with a wry laugh.

Since the age of 9, he has been one of the autistic children who make up about a quarter of the students at the SINAI Schools, a network of Jewish programs for special-needs children housed within day schools. He attends the branch at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Kids at TABC are just great to him,” says Bassie Taubes. “They take him out to lunch and come over on Shabbos,” along with volunteers from the Friendship Circle. “He’s our youngest child — our other kids out of the house — and he doesn’t have the social network that other teenagers have.”

Dean Laurette Rothwachs says some of SINAI’s autistic students are mainstreamed for half the day. “But they need a lot of support because even if they are fine academically they can’t get through the rigors of communication and socialization. We have behaviorists on staff and where appropriate we use ABA methods.”

Several years ago, SINAI tried offering a self-contained program specifically for children with autism. But it could not meet New Jersey’s enrollment requirements for state funding qualification. “The costs were exorbitant and we couldn’t sustain it over time,” says Rothwachs.

Because SINAI works within mainstream schools, it is not appropriate for all autistic children, she adds. “If a student would be overwhelmed by that setting we cannot take them. They must be ready for that situation. We did take one child who needed a one-on-one behavioral therapist and is now completely integrated into our classes. We have started offering that to many more kids who we feel could benefit.”

There was no such alternative when Payam Enayati was young. “He is severely disabled, so there was no way to have him get a Jewish education,” says his father, “but he knows about going to shul.”

Enayati credits Ahavath Torah’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin and former Sephardic minyan president Albert Allen for welcoming Payam, who now lives in a group home. “It was difficult to control him, but nobody got angry if he disturbed the services. He’d play with the curtain in front of the Torah ark and Mr. Allen was very understanding. Everyone made us feel welcome.”

After that Yom Kippur meeting in 1996, Kessler interviewed the Enayati family and other parents at Payam’s school. She also attended a hearing in the New Jersey legislature about funding for the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange at Rutgers, the nation’s first collaborative gene bank for the study of autism spectrum disorders.

“I imagine that was the first time a reporter talked about autism in the state of New Jersey, and we were so grateful because the legislation passed,” said Enayati. “And she didn’t stop there. When Gov. [Christie] Whitman was to sign the law, Sara Lee did another NJN piece that day, and she interviewed me.”

He believes Kessler’s reporting helped secure a later piece of legislation that established Rutgers as a “center of excellence” for autism research. In 2006, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a resolution lauding Kessler for her humanitarian efforts.

“The more I reported on autism and saw what a devastating disorder it was, and the struggle of people like Albert Enayati to create a gene bank, I could not turn my back on the issue,” she says. “He knew it was important to get past the emotions and look at the science. I wanted to do a documentary on it for years, but it took a long while to get the funding together.”

Kessler says she hopes “Decoding Autism” will raise awareness about autism spectrum disorders “and give real hope to families impacted by the disorder.”

The main advance she discovered is that scientists are now convinced autism is a brain connectivity disorder. “Everywhere I went, the brain was front and center. And gene research seems to support that theory.”

Autism experts now know that people who are autistic have larger brains, but they do not know how this contributes to the disorder. Others have found that brain signaling delays may be the cause of autism’s signature communication difficulties. Researchers are studying younger siblings of autistic children, believed to be at greater risk, to see whether the development of the disorder can be halted with proper intervention.

All of this may be academic for the families of older autistic kids like Payam and Yosef Dov. Autism generally does not disappear in adulthood. “We don’t know what the future will hold,” says Bassie Taubes. “That is the big question.”


Teen spirit: Age proves no barrier to community activists

David Engle and his clown at a carnival held at Camp Acorn.
David Engle and fellow volunteers — and Clifford — at an event held for the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson.

Seventeen-year-old David Engle has helped plan carnivals since he was 8.

“We started out doing (Temple Israel of Ridgewood’s) carnival together,” said his father, Howard. “But David started doing more and more things, and in the past two or three years he has been running it on his own.”

Also for the past three years, the Glen Rock High School student has taken his carnival know-how on the road.

While in ninth grade, David founded Carnivals for Children on Wheels, organizing free events for thousands of disadvantaged and disabled children in the New York and New Jersey area.

In recognition of these efforts, the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City presented him with its Youth Community Service Award as part of its Hometown Heroes program.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” said his father, pointing out that David’s commitment to social action began when he decided to do something to honor the memory of his grandmother.

“When I was six months old, I lost my grandmother to cancer,” said David. “Although I never knew her, I have dedicated much of my volunteer life to helping eradicate this disease.”

When he was 10, he raised $500 for The Valley Hospital’s cancer research department. And when he entered 10th grade, “I began my three-year commitment to Relay for Life as chair of my grade’s fund-raising committee.”

The run — a project of the American Cancer Society — “brings together more than 3.5 million people to celebrate the lives of those who have battled cancer, remember loves ones lost, and empower individuals and communities to fight back against the disease,” according to the organization’s website.

David Engle

David’s involvement grew in his junior year, when the Glen Rock contingent raised more than $50,000. This year he is co-chairing the project for the second time.

Perhaps most impressive is David’s Carnivals For Children On Wheels project, “born out of a desire to bring movable carnivals to children who could not otherwise enjoy them.” “Some family members had serious doubts; they thought the hurdles I would have to overcome were too great,” he recalls. “But their skepticism just fueled my drive to prove them wrong, and I did.”

His organization — whose work is showcased at — has run dozens of carnivals “for all kinds of children: poor, homeless, disabled, abused, and even pediatric cancer patients.”

David wants to reach even more youngsters and is studying sign language at Bergen Community College at night so that he can also serve deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

“Getting my business off the ground required an enormous effort,” said the young volunteer. “I had to manage budgets, solicit volunteers, customers, and corporate sponsors, engage in ongoing fund-raising and publicity, build and transport game booths, purchase inflatables and prizes, as well as hire clowns, magicians, and face-painters.”

“To get more ‘bang for my buck,’” he bought plush toys direct from a Pennsylvania factory, worked with a company to recruit corporate sponsors to donate giveaways, and negotiated with a distributor of prizes to reduce their rates in exchange for placing their logo on the carnival’s website.

“Since my company could not buy new carnival games, I built them from scratch using scrap wood from a lumber yard,” said David. “Running each carnival has required a lot of planning — fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle — and I have loved every minute of it.”

The teenage businessman said that, at first, “Many did not take me, a 14-year-old ninth- grader, very seriously.” Only the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson was willing to accept his offer, allowing him to run a carnival in its social hall for 350 inner-city children.

“My 25 high school friends were the carnival volunteers,” he said, adding that “although the volunteers had never been exposed to children of poverty before, the experience had a profound impact on them [and] many have eagerly volunteered to work at my carnivals again and again.”

Once other organizations saw what his group had accomplished, “they jumped on board,” said David, who has also been nominated as a community hero as part of a campaign launched by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“In many ways, all of us associated with the carnivals have grown,” he added. “I knew all my hard work was worth it when a little girl, who just experienced a carnival, exclaimed, ‘This is the best day of my life!’ Then, when I saw children share the toys they had just won at my carnival with their brothers and sisters, I was touched. It made me proud.”

David is looking beyond the community as well, “thinking a lot about how I should make a more meaningful contribution to the world.”

Deeply moved by last year’s tragedy in Haiti, he has been thinking specifically about “how to create sturdy, lightweight, easy-to-assemble, hurricane-proof housing to serve the needy around the world in times of natural disasters.”

“Perhaps that will be my lasting contribution,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

David said that in reaching out to help others, “age doesn’t matter. You can always help someone in need,” he said. “Even a small thing can have a major impact, even if it only affects a few people.”

If everyone did that, he said, “the whole world would change.”

David Feuerstein learned about community service by watching his family.

“I’ve always seen the entire family be charitable and do volunteer work,” said the 15-year-old Alpine resident.

David Feuerstein

“I’ve learned that it’s nice to give back,” added David, a recipient in June 2010 of the Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson’s Community Builder Award.

David — who has donated some $30,000 to JFS over the past two years — said the idea of giving his bar mitzvah money to charity arose “when I was looking for a bar mitzvah gift and realized that there wasn’t really anything I needed or strongly desired.”

Shortly afterwards, he received an invitation to a party suggesting that in lieu of presents, guests donate money to charity.

“I thought maybe that was a good idea for me, too,” he said. “But no matter what charity I donated to, I wanted 100 percent control over every penny,” he said, explaining that he didn’t want simply “to write a check, but to know why it’s going there and be sure it’s being put to good use.”

His grandfather, Rabbi Irving Spielman — former rabbi of the Fort Lee Jewish Center — suggested that he donate the money to JFS. The organization, where his mother now serves as a board member, was happy to cooperate with him.

“[Executive director] Lisa Fedder printed out a spreadsheet for me showing every dollar spent,” he said, noting that his first donation went to help a couple who survived the Holocaust. “I paid for food and other needs,” he said.

Later, Fedder invited David and his father to a meeting where children would be selected for camp scholarships.

“They read stories of kids who desperately needed to go to camp because their families couldn’t support them,” he said, adding that he got “very emotional. The stories blew my mind.” One child, he said, had a father in jail; another had a mother with cancer.

Handed a folder of potential campers to fund, he said he couldn’t choose among them.

“Every story got worse,” he said. In the end, he subsidized each of the campers.

And not only has David given his own money, “but my sister and cousin are now into it,” he said, adding that he convinced his cousin to donate her bat mitzvah money to the organization as well.

He has also shared his volunteer spirit with friends at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, N.Y., who join his weekly visits to the Kingsbridge Community Center in the Bronx to work with disadvantaged youngsters.

In addition, David is organizing a JFS bikeathon for Spring 2011 and has already laid the groundwork for the event. He and his father, Robert, are avid bikers.

Shira Feuerstein, David’s mother and co-chair of JFS’s Night of 100 Dinners fund-raiser, said David’s intense involvement as both a donor and a volunteer “has absolutely had an impact” on her son.

“He’s learned what’s going on in the community around him — real needs, not abstract. And he’s developed an appreciation for the wonderful life he has and appreciates everything.”

She said he was particularly moved hearing stories about camp applicants who come from broken homes.

“He knows what a wonderful experience camp is,” she said, and he is distressed when he hears about families without the means to send their children there.

Feuerstein said the people at JFS “have not hesitated to get David involved, even framing a list of the families he’s helped.”

Fedder, who presented that list to him at the group’s volunteer recognition dinner, said, “We wanted him to understand the array of social needs in the community. We educated him about what the needs were [so that he] got a feel for the kind of work we do here.”

Nor has David simply donated money, she said, “but he has stuffed envelopes as well,” doing hands-on work in the office when asked. In addition, “The whole family are some of the most delightful people you’d ever meet,” said Fedder, reeling off their volunteer activities, including regular contributions to the local food pantry.

His involvement with JFS has “definitely taught me a lot about life,” said David. Now, deciding what he wants for his 16th birthday, “I ask myself, how can I ask for a new video game when so many people need so many things, when someone can’t find a job?”

Justin Ort is “a typical middle child,” says his mother, Roberta, describing her 15-year-old as “very giving, very charming, but strong-willed and persistent.”

“When you give him something to do, he just does it,” she said.

Among the things he does is help younger kids at his congregation’s Hebrew school.

Justin Ort

“He acts as a mentor,” she said, explaining that Justin — a student at Wayne Hills High School and at Shomrei Torah’s Hebrew High School —was tapped for this role by the principal of the congregation’s religious school.

His volunteer work there began almost three years ago, when the principal asked him to help out with a first-grade service. He enjoyed the experience so much that he began visiting the Hebrew school every Sunday to work with the younger children — something he continues to do.

“He tries to do everything he can to help at the school,” said his mother, who serves on the synagogue’s executive board.

Recently named Youth of the Year by the congregation’s Men’s Club, Justin has also engaged in numerous community service projects through the Hebrew High School.

Last year, he participated in the Midnight Run Project for the Homeless — which delivers prepared food and clothing to needy people in New York City — together with other members of the congregation.

“I helped organize a big portion [of it],” he said, “getting the supplies we needed” and ensuring that they were distributed. He also has volunteered at soup kitchens and is working on a project to donate materials to Cuban Jews.

Men’s Club president Stuart Millstein said in choosing the Youth of the Year — an award instituted by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs several years ago — he was guided by the input of school principal Karen Weiss, who “enthusiastically presented” Justin’s name.

Millstein, who also participated in the Midnight Run, said Justin seemed “very much to be in a leadership role there,” directing other volunteers and making sure everyone knew what to do.

“He’s always excited about something,” said his mother, whether helping others or learning new skills.

For example, in preparing for his bar mitzvah, he jumped with both feet into the religious life of the congregation, learning how to lead most parts of the Shabbat service.

“The only part I didn’t lead was Pesukei d’Zimra,” he said. “Now I not only go to shul but lead whatever parts I can,” he added, crediting this achievement to a desire to always learn more, whether in the synagogue or at school.

An accomplished saxophone player, Justin participates in the shul’s Friday Night Live program, which offers musical selections before the beginning of Shabbat services. In addition, the 11th-grader works as a ski instructor, fences in his school’s varsity team, coaches PAL lacrosse and, in the summer, works as a ropes specialist at Camp Veritans.

Justin said he encourages his friends to join him in his volunteer activities.

“I tell them why I volunteer and how I get a warm sense of accomplishment,” he said. “After the first time [they volunteer], they realize it as well.”

“I feel that every time you do something — whether it’s Jewish or helping someone with homework or teaching someone to ski — when they start to understand it, it reflects back on the person who’s helping. You become more of a person when you help someone out.”


One-woman show a lesson in domestic abuse by naomi ackerman

Naomi Ackerman presents her one-woman play about domestic violence to an audience of Frisch students.

How do you get more than 300 high-school juniors and seniors to sit in absolute silence for 45 minutes? If you are the American-born Israeli actress Naomi Ackerman, it’s easy. Ackerman presented her one-woman play “When Flowers Aren’t Enough” to the junior and senior classes at The Frisch School in Paramus on Nov. 10.

A monologue, it tells the story of a young woman, Michal, as she meets, dates, and marries the man of her dreams. Along the way, Michal describes the abuse she endures, verbal at first, which quickly escalates to physical violence.

Michal describes the cycle of violence, in which a violent outburst is followed by apologies and contrition and soon by denial and then by the next violent episode.

In the discussion sessions that followed, students broke into small groups, each led by social workers and professional staff members from Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home). The questions always came up: “Why didn’t she see it coming? Why didn’t she leave him?”

Those questions are at the core of the work that Project S.A.R.A.H., the state-wide program to address issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community, has been doing in New Jersey since its founding in 1996. The character Michal expresses the classic responses of people who are in abusive relationships: denial, disbelief, and even guilt, which leads her to be isolated from her friends and family.

Each year Project S.A.R.A.H. facilitates discussion groups following the play, which is presented at different New Jersey schools, to help educate students about domestic violence and to reach out to those who may be affected. Information about Project S.A.R.A.H. can be found at or from the Jewish Family Service of Clifton at (973) 777-7638.


Rabbis given training in responding to child abuse

Bergen County’s two rabbinical organizations gathered last Thursday night for a joint training session about identifying and responding to child abuse and neglect.

More than 20 rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum heard a presentation by Lisa Fedder, director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, at the agency’s Teaneck office. Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) was represented by Esther East, director of Jewish Family Service of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic.

The joint training session reflected a desire for cooperation by both Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is made up of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis, and Rabbi Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Both bodies were well represented at the session.

“We were specifically looking for something we could do positively together,” said Mark, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, when Rabbi Amy Bolton of JFS suggested the joint training session.

“I think it’s a great precedent,” said Bolton, who is herself a member of NJBR. “Problems like child abuse and domestic violence and illness — the sort of issues JFS deals with — are cross-denominational problems.”

“Bringing the RCBC and NJBR together, sharing our thoughts and insights, was a very positive and worthwhile experience,” said Rothwachs, religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck. “I look forward to participating in such events in the future. The energy at the meeting was positive and will hopefully open the door for future programming as well.”

Fedder presented a definition of child abuse and neglect: Any failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that “results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation.”

Legally, rabbis — and everyone else — are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to Division of Youth and Family Services of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families. The state hotline is 1-877-NJ ABUSE (652-2873).

“Statistically, you will find it in your community,” said Fedder. “It is all around us.”

Much of the conversation revolved around what Fedder called “the gray areas” of abuse that may or may not rise to the level of “serious.”

“Is emotional abuse a mandatory reporting situation?” asked one rabbi. “There are some parents who, unfortunately, scream too much.”

Fedder’s response: “I don’t think screaming alone is reportable. But screaming can be a part of a much broader pattern of emotional abuse, which although reportable, is much harder to substantiate.

“In general, situations tend to escalate to a peak,” she said. “The ideal is to intervene before it goes up the mountain, before it reaches the point where it is clearly child abuse and neglect. That’s when the community response is really important, when JFS or a rabbi or a school can make a difference.”

Fedder stressed that Jewish Family Services, as well as DYFS, have resources to help struggling families. “If you call DYFS in a borderline case, where the child’s not really at risk but it’s not a good situation, then DYFS will try to put supports in place, such as classes in parenting skills,” she said.

“You have an opportunity, when you see problems early on, to get involved,” she told the rabbis.

This week’s training session marked a milestone in formal cooperation between Bergen’s two rabbinical bodies, but the two sets of rabbis have individually promoted awareness of domestic violence and sexual abuse under the auspices of Project S.A.R.A.H.

Both rabbinic bodies are promoting Project S.A.R.A.H.’s fifth annual breakfast on March 27, at Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. 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.”


Economy taxes agency resources

‘Second wave’ of needy feared as nation’s financial picture worsens

Stocking shelves in a food pantry are employees of JFS of Bergen County and North Hudson (from top to bottom) Mimi Paperman, director of elder care; Suad Gacham, director of the school-based program; and Amy Adler, elder care case manager. courtesy JFS of Bergen and North Hudson

In the wake of the economic downturn three years ago, many people in our area turned to local Jewish social service agencies for help, according to those agencies’ directors. Last week, as stock markets seesawed wildly, those same directors said their agencies were preparing for the possibility that another wave of requests for help is on the horizon as uncertainty grips the U.S. economy.

“We are bracing for a possible second wave, although the market went up yesterday,” said Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne. “We still don’t know how many people will lose their jobs.”

“We are preparing for a second wave of unemployment if things get worse,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck.

The big increase in clients seeking services for financial reasons came in the aftermath of the economy’s dramatic plunge three years ago, social service directors say. Around that time, local agencies were hit with a wave of Jewish clients seeking their services for financial reasons. In the past week, Fedder said, she noted an increase in calls from individuals seeking help for financial problems, and all directors interviewed noted an increase in anxiety.

Faith O’Connor, information, referral, aid and advocacy coordinator for JFS of Bergen and North Hudson, said, “The anxiety levels and depression levels are skyrocketing.”

“It’s been ongoing, but more so in the last six months,” she added. “‘Til then, people were getting unemployment benefits. Now that’s run out and it’s ‘What do I do?’ People are going to the board of social services for food stamps who never in their lives thought they’d need that kind of help. There is high demand on whatever small help exists for rent assistance and utility assistance.”

Other agency directors reinforced this picture of client anxiety.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty [among clients] around what is going to happen regarding possible entitlement reductions,” said Reuben Rotman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest in Florham Park serving Essex, Morris, North Union, and Lower Hudson counties. “Things are so up in the air politically [and] people can’t even contemplate what that will mean.”

Fedder said, “In the last month, as the budget discussion became so public, no one knew what would happen with benefits and entitlements.”

There “was genuine anxiety,” she said, over such issues as “whether Social Security checks would go out.”

While she noted that the greatest increase in calls for help from clients with financial issues started in the summer of 2008, Fedder said last week that she saw a slight increase in such calls.

“Three years ago, we got 130 to 150 calls a month around financial issues,” she said. “Then by early 2009, we were getting 230, 240 a month, then 250 a month, which was a huge increase.”

That trend has continued for approximately three years, said Fedder, who added that “last week alone, we got 60 calls” related to financial issues, which could reflect a slight, if not statistically significant, increase. She said she noted an increase in anxiety among clients that she speculated might stem from the frenzied stock market fluctuations.

One trend all directors interviewed noted is growth in poverty among the formerly middle class.

“Three years ago, people who were donors, making contributions of $180 or $360 a year, started coming in, a little regretfully, as clients,” Fedder said. When you think of people in need, she said, you do not think of “the mainstream American family, but we are seeing those families.”

The financial problems these middle class clients are struggling with “are deeper” now that they were three years ago, she said.

“Imagine you are 50-something years old, you’ve raised a family, you and your wife both worked, or maybe you were fortunate enough your wife could work [at home] raising the family,” she said. “Let’s say you lose your job. You have to draw on your savings.”

Because “the recession has been tenacious,” she said, savings did not last for very long.

“In the second year, people had gone through their savings, and still could not find work. They could not sell their houses and, in some cases, their families are in similar situations so there is no one to turn to….We are seeing deep, complicated problems.”

Kaufman echoed Fedder’s observations about the increase in demand for help.

“Three years ago, we saw a lot of Jewish individuals who had corporate positions, who were earning six-figure incomes, who had to make major career shifts,” she said. Typically, these individuals sought both vocational counseling and financial assistance.

One client of JFS of Bergen and North Hudson, Harry Perkal, 59, of Paramus, spoke with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday. Unemployed or underemployed for the past two years, Perkal has sought job counseling. He has not sought financial assistance, he said.

His field was human resources, but he moved into finance around the time “financial markets collapsed,” he said. Prior to losing his job two years ago, he said, “I had never been without a job and had never been without income.”

He has taken several full-time temporary jobs in the interim, including as a tax preparer.

At one time, he says, he was a donor to numerous charitable organizations. He can identify with the shock directors say many of their middle class clients experience in having to seek help.

“I never thought I would be on the other side,” he said. “Perhaps falling from grace is the right phrase.”

He has the sense he is not alone. In attending networking events, he said, “I see the same faces for well over a year. People like myself [who are] still looking—all professionals, all people who thought they’d never be out of the labor market or it would be easy to get back in.”

Working as a tax preparer, Perkal said, he saw many people who are struggling. He believes the government’s unemployment statistics underestimate real hardship. “I saw a great many people in foreclosure, people who received unemployment as part of their income for the year,” he said.

At present, he is trying to get a job in human resources. Because he has not held a permanent, full-time job in two years, he believes he is at a disadvantage in seeking employment. “Once you’ve been out of work for more than a year it gets harder,” he said, adding, “It’s sort of amazing how may people are in this position.”

All social service directors interviewed said that increased client need has coincided with stark government cutbacks, leaving the agencies strapped.

Services the agencies provide include emergency financial aid, food assistance (JFS of Bergen and North Hudson has a food pantry for clients of the agency), job counseling, access to job search networks, financial counseling, therapeutic counseling, and elder care management. JFS of North Jersey in Wayne, which also has an office in Fair Lawn, provides child therapy and parenting counseling, as well.

Sometimes the desperation—even among formerly middle class families—is overwhelming. Fedder said she has worked with “good decent middle class people [who] have [had] to make the choice…to feed their children, they’ll skip a meal.”

How to help

Local social service agency directors say they are in need of “gift cards” from food stores such as ShopRite or Stop & Shop, gas stations, and purveyors of other essentials. These items, or the money to buy them, may be donated to the agencies, which will give them to clients. For more information or to arrange a donation, write or call Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, 1485 Teaneck Road, Teaneck, NJ 07666, (201) 837-9090; Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, One Pike Drive, Wayne, NJ 07470, (973) 595-0111; or Jewish Family Service of MetroWest. 256 Columbia Turnpike, Florham Park, NJ 07932, (973) 765-9050.

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