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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.”

 
 

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.

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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.

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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

www.change.org/njafter3/actions/view/keep_12000_kids_safe_save_afterschool_programs_in_new_jersey

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.

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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.”

 
 

Jewish agencies cheer as N.J. After 3 wins back partial funding

After months of wrangling and arguing, New Jersey’s 2011 budget passed the legislature last week with many of Gov. Chris Christie’s cuts intact. To the relief of the Jewish organizations that had lobbied for it, one organization, New Jersey After 3, returned from budgetary no-man’s-land and saw its state allocation partially restored.

New Jersey After 3 received a $3 million allocation, down from $10 million the previous year. Approximately 12,000 students across the state attend New Jersey After 3 after-school programs. Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson administers the program in Cliffside Park and JFS is one of many organizations that went to bat for New Jersey After 3 during the budget debates.

“I was really delighted to see some funding restored and see the commitment on the part of the state to the children and families who really desperately need the programming,” said Lisa Fedder, JFS’s director.

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New Jersey After 3 provides funding and support for after-school programs, like this one in Cliffside Park administered by Jewish Family Service of Bergen County. Courtesy Jewish Family Service

Fedder was unsure about how the $3 million would be divided among the program’s more than 60 partner organizations. In past years, JFS has charged parents only a $200 registration fee, but as fears of funding cuts grew, the organization and the school district began looking into other fee-based funding models.

Fedder expects the 2010-11 program to charge a small registration fee in addition to a monthly charge, although those numbers have not yet been set. Fedder noted that as funding decreased this past year, the program was able to accept fewer children. While some 300 children were in the program during the 2008-09 school year, JFS had to cap enrollment at 235 this past year. Fedder expects a minimum of 100 children for the new school year. The program will also expand from first- to eighth-grade students to include kindergarten and pre-K as well.

Still, funding remains a major concern, especially for families that rely on the program to care for their children after school.

“I’m concerned there may be families who cannot afford even our very low fees,” Fedder said. “I don’t know how that will play out.”

Christie announced a series of budget cuts in February, including a more than $5 million cut to New Jersey After 3, to close a $2 billion budget gap for the 2010 fiscal year. The governor continued to slash spending across the board ahead of the 2011 fiscal year, and New Jersey After 3 expected to see its funding dropped entirely.

More than 300 children attended JFS’s Club Ed after-school program in four elementary schools in Cliffside Park. New Jersey After 3 had slotted $186,000 for JFS during the 2009-10 school year, but that was sliced to $93,000 after Christie’s 2010 budget cuts. JFS had received approximately $300,000 from New Jersey After 3 in 2008-09.

JFS’s director of school-based services, Suad Gachem, testified before the Assembly budget committee in April in support of New Jersey After 3.

“If these programs are to disappear,” she said during her testimony, “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.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents the Garden State’s 12 federation in Trenton, worked through various networks to persuade Trenton to restore funding to several programs. Toporek did not expect to see the New Jersey After 3 funding in the new budget.

“New Jersey After 3 was a very pleasant surprise,” he said.

Bergen Family Service also runs a New Jersey After 3 program in Englewood, which District 37’s Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle helped create.

“It is an important program first and foremost for our children,” Weinberg said. “Although [the restoration] didn’t begin to fund what it should have funded, at least we got some of the money back.”

Members of the state Senate and Assembly Democratic caucuses put forward the programs they wanted most, and in the end, “a chorus of voices” restored partial funding.

“People are going to have to realize that this budget was really balanced by an increase in property taxes as the result of a loss of state aid to schools and municipalities, and then by the loss of programs that are important to all of us,” Weinberg said. “It’s not magical.”

 
 

UJA-NNJ reaches out through Kehillah Cooperative to share costs, save money

The national recession has resulted in decreased donations to charities across the board, but it has also spurred local Jewish organizations to enter a cost-sharing initiative that could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey convened a July 29 meeting at its Paramus headquarters to highlight its successes in the year-old Kehillah Cooperative — the federation’s role in the wider Kehillah Partnership — and draw new organizations to the program. To date, 29 organizations have signed up and collectively saved more than $300,000 on electric bills. (The Kehillah Partnership is a group of community organizations banded together to realize savings in cost and programmatic resources.)

“The sole purpose [of the cooperative] is to try to save the Jewish community money,” said Dan Silna, former president of UJA-NNJ, as he welcomed attendees.

The federation expects participating organizations to save another $125,000 by the middle of next year, said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager, who explained the program to some 50 representatives of more than 30 communal organizations.

Eight organizations have recently signed contracts to join the electricity cost-sharing program, while four more are reviewing the program, which could lead to annual savings of $125,092 for these 12 groups, according to UJA-NNJ.

The federation solicits bids from companies for electricity, shipping, credit-card processing, and office supplies, among other providers, Holland explained. The company with the best prices then becomes the supplier for the entire cooperative. For electricity, for example, the federation arranges for a single supplier, such as ConEdison or Suez, through PSE&G. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.

New vendors include Systrum, which Holland said could save $200,000 of a $2.5 million annual communal gas bill; FedEx, which he said could save $150,000 annually on shipping costs; and iPayment, a credit-card processing service that Holland said could save between $65,000 and $150,00 for the cooperative.

Participating organizations do not, however, have to sign up for every service offered, he said. More participation means more leverage, though, he added.

“The more participation we get, the easier it is for me to go out and swing a big stick,” he said.

Holland stressed that there is no fee to join the program, nor does the federation receive any fee from the vendors.

The program appears to have already had a small impact for Jewish education.

Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland saved a combined $24,000 through the cooperative’s electrical group-purchasing plan, according to UJA-NNJ.

Electrifying numbers

The Kehillah Cooperative has saved 16 organizations $304,874.61 in electric costs from July 2009 to June 2010, according to UJA-NNJ.

The Frisch School and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and The Moriah School in Englewood, also recently signed up.

“We really believe this is a value to the community, something we’re set up to do,” Miriam Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s marketing director, told the Standard. “It’s something we can give back to the community.”

Since last week’s meeting, Holland has received at least 25 e-mails about the program. The economic downturn has been a driving force, he said.

“When everybody’s doing very well, people aren’t looking at this closely,” he said. “To think outside the box and join together as a community — the economy drove that.”

Attendees at the meeting who were already active in the Cooperative appeared happy with their choices.

“You can see what the savings have been and what the potential is,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, one of the groups participating in the cooperative’s gas and electric aspects.

“This is what federation should be doing,” said Wally Greene, executive director of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and former director of the federation’s Jewish Educational Services. “I look forward to seeing more.”

Who's in?

The following organizations are part of the Kehillah Cooperative:

Bergen County Y, a JCC
Daughters of Miriam Center/The Gallen Institute
Jewish Family Service of Bergen County
Jewish Home Assisted Living
Jewish Home at Rockleigh
Kaplen JCC on the Palisades
Cong. Beth Abraham
Cong. Beth Sholom (Teaneck)*
Cong. Bnai Yeshurun*
Glen Rock Jewish Center*
Jewish Center of Teaneck
Temple Beth El of Northern Valley*
Temple Sinai of Bergen County*
Frisch School
Gerrard Berman Day School
Moriah School
Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey
Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County
Yeshiva Ohr Simcha
Yeshivat Noam
Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities
Cong. Beth Shalom (Pompton Lakes)*
Cong. Shomrei Torah (Fair Lawn)

*In addition to these synagogues, supplementary or nursery schools operating within these institutions are independently participating in the Kehillah Cooperative.

 
 

You’ve come a long way, baby

Women’s work

Barbara Kaufman, former president and now program chair of the National Council Section that will host Gloria Steinem Sept. 21, said the group is “always interested in finding speakers who share the same point of view we do — pro-women, pro-children, pro-families.”

She pointed out that the Bergen County Section, with some 1,200 members, is one of the largest contingents in the 100,000-member national volunteer organization.

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Lisa Fedder

Kaufman, a Bergenfield resident who has been a member of the group for some 45 years — though she was not active during the years she pursued her own career in public relations — remembers that “the key issues in the 1960s were equal pay, still a key issue, and a woman’s right to work. In those days, men were leaders of the workforce and there were few women heads of companies.”

“Women were in a whole different place,” she said, noting that most of her peers were stay-at-home moms. But at a time when activists such as Betty Friedan were encouraging women to become more independent, “many of my friends went to graduate school and then went back to work.”

Kaufman pointed out that the history of NCJW itself reflects the changing role of women. According to the group’s website, in 1893 Hannah G. Solomon of Chicago was asked to organize the participation of Jewish women in the Chicago World’s Fair. When Solomon and her recruits discovered that participation would consist of pouring coffee and other hostess duties, they walked out.

“They wanted to become part of the brain trust,” said Kaufman, adding that today’s NCJW president, Nancy Ratzan, was appointed to the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009 by President Obama and was present for the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Despite such legislative gains, Lisa Fedder, executive director of the Teaneck-based Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, said that the issue of equal pay has yet to be resolved.

Fedder, whose agency includes a Job Search Network, said that she has not seen obstacles to women getting jobs.

“In fact,” she said, “and recent findings reflect this, it is sometimes easier for women to find work, perhaps because they are generally paid less than men for equal work.” She estimated that women earn about 80 percent of what men do.

In addition, she noted, “There are some issues resulting from women leaving the workforce for years to raise children and having a hard time getting back at the same level or higher.”

“We have also seen a lot of women who were homemakers who have been forced into the job market because of the economy. They have had a very hard time getting the skills necessary for today’s workforce and translating their activities into a résumé that will catch [an employer’s] eye.”

She said the agency’s Job Search Network, which collects and publicizes job listings, can help women deal with some of these problems through career counseling, job search coaching, support groups, and computer training.

L.G.

 
 

Autism: the pain and the progress

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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 http://www.njn.net. 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.)

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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.”

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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.”

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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

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David Engle and his clown at a carnival held at Camp Acorn.
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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.

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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 www.CFCOW.org — 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.

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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.

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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.”

 
 

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

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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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