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Giving back by helping out

Pro bono program takes off in Bergen County

Lisa Fedder, left, Alice Blass, Joy Kurland, and Leah Kaufman
table class="caption">image David Siegel, left, and David Giller
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 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,

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 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.”


JFS focuses on Jewish men in interfaith relationships

Effort is funded by Berrie Innovation Grant

The challenges facing interfaith families are more than just deciding between church and Chinese food on Christmas day. Often, the Jewish partner doesn’t have the answers to his or her spouse’s questions, and Judaism can disappear from the home because of that.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is partnering with Jewish Family Service of North Jersey to launch “How Should I Know?” geared toward Jewish men in interfaith relationships. The three-session program, which will begin in October at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, is meant to strengthen both partners’ knowledge of Judaism and spur them to create a Jewish home, organizers said.

“It’s focused on the assumption that Jewish partners in interfaith relationships have all of the answers to their non-Jewish partners’ questions,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Manhattan-based JOI. “That’s an erroneous assumption. What this program does is help the Jewish partner prepare to answer the questions that their non-Jewish partner would have about basic Judaism.”

“How Should I Know?” is meant to empower Jewish men in interfaith relationships, says Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey. Courtesy JFS of North Jersey

The sessions will include discussion on why be Jewish, how to create a Jewish home, how to articulate to a non-Jewish spouse the desire to create a Jewish home, how to handle lifecycle events, and how to address holidays — both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“Traditionally women tend to be the ones to focus on the religious aspects within the home,” said Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey. “Through this JOI initiative we’re helping men find their own voices and be able to articulate what they would like to see.”

JFS held an outreach program in Fair Lawn last year for parents of adult intermarried children. That program attracted 15 participants and more on a waiting list. Kaufman isn’t sure what kind of response the JOI program will receive but she is hopeful

“We felt through JFS we can provide Jewish men who are in these interfaith relationships with the education and support they need, provide them with some tools, and help them navigate the issues that obviously come up with interfaith marriages,” Kaufman said.

JOI received a Berrie Innovation Grant last year from the Berrie Fellows Network, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation, that went toward development of its “For the Men” initiative, targeting men in interfaith marriages. In addition to “How Should I Know?” the initiative includes “The Nuts and Bolts of Raising Jewish Children,” with such topics as becoming a Jewish role model, holiday and lifecycle celebrations, and how to answer questions about life, death, and God.

Earlier this year, JOI held a pilot program of “How Should I Know?” in Indianapolis, Ind., which received positive feedback, according to Olitzky. If the Wayne pilot is successful, JOI will circulate the program nationwide.

“Our goal is always to provide low-barrier access to programming, particularly for those interfaith families but also for those unengaged by the Jewish community in general,” Olitzky said. “This is a reflection of the increasing openness that the Jewish community is showing to interfaith families, and I welcome that change in attitude and approach.”

JFS hopes to repeat the program if it is successful, according to Kaufman. Because of the Berrie Grant there is no charge to participants for the pilot program. If JOI cannot provide funding for future programs, JFS will continue the program on its own, Kaufman said.

“We’re just very excited to be able to partner with JOI, especially on this new initiative,” she said. “There is a need for it in the community and I hope this will be successful.”

For more information on “How Should I Know?” call Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at (973) 595-0111. For more information on “How Should I Know?” call Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at (973) 595-0111.


Fair Lawn Jewish Center shofar blasts hearten area shut-ins

Members of the Shofar Corps are, back row from left, Seth Seigel-Laddy, Danny Stolar, Stuart Alper, Sophie Goldberg, Miranda Alper, and Sima Alper. In front are Alyssa and Kayla Seigel-Laddy, Jonathan Marcus, Adam Alper, Chloe Goldberg, Risa Anczelowicz, and Melissa Gotlib. Sammy and Leah Flanzman and Zachary Shinkar are not pictured.

The Shofar Corps of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel sounded the ram’s horn last week for people in Fair Lawn and Elmwood Park unable to attend synagogue services during the High Holy Days. The corps, made up of 13 preteens and teenagers and four adult volunteers, learned about the shofar and trained to both sound it and call the four notes sounded during the holidays. They also practiced conducting a special shofar service that was written by corps members last year.

The idea sprang from a conversation last year between the synagogue’s Rabbi Ronald Roth and Stuart Alper, president of the Men’s Progress Club. Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, provided a list of 10 seniors who wanted to hear the shofar. The Men’s Progress Club donated shofarot for the corps members to take home and practice, printed the services, and provided dinner to the members after they visited the seniors. Through the Men’s Progress Club, the corps — which broke into four groups — also gave honey cake to the seniors, a symbolic and traditional gesture to welcome in a sweet year.

Alper told of visiting a man who “was quiet and seemed content to just listen, but after we read a story about a rabbi who blew the shofar on a ship that was heading for disaster, he slowly began to open up,” Stuart Alper reported. “Amazingly, he was on a ship being deployed to Korea during the Korean War on Rosh HaShanah, and landed in Korea on Yom Kippur.”

Adam Alper, 10, added that the man “told us a story about when he fought in Korea. When I blew the shofar, I could see his face light up with joy. He seemed very happy and I thought I saw him start crying when we finished our service.”

Danny Stolar, a high school senior and a two-year corps member, said he “was very shocked when [the man] started to cry. I believe I truly realized how meaningful our gesture of sounding the shofar was at that moment. Until then, I’m not sure I fully appreciated what we were doing and how important it was for these people.”

Risa Anczelowicz recalled the group’s visit to a woman who “was very friendly and outgoing and really excited to see us…. After I blew the shofar the first time she came over and gave me a hug and a kiss.”

Seth Seigel-Laddy, who coordinated the event, led a group that visited a Holocaust survivor. “It was great to see her face light up each time the kids sounded the shofar,” he said. “She told us that the Auschwitz portion of the readings reminded her of her childhood…. She briefly recounted her youth while on the run [from the Nazis]. Before leaving she asked for the kids to blow another tekiah gedolah.”

“She was only 18 when the war started,” added Chloe Goldberg, 10. “She now is in a wheelchair and tries to take advantage whenever she can of being around young people.”

Kayla Seigel-Laddy and Jon Marcus sounded the shofar at another home the group visited. The man “wasn’t really talking at all,” Kayla said. “But then I blew the tekiah gedolah; he started smiling when he heard how long I could hold the note.”

The third group, lead by Sima Alper, was composed of three bat mitzvah-aged girls, Melissa Gotlib, Sophie Goldberg, and Alyssa Seigel-Laddy, along with two-time corps member and recent bat mitzvah Miranda Alper.

“I went to the same house that I went to last year, with a woman who was on oxygen and could not get around very well,” said Miranda. “She said that she couldn’t wait to see us again next year, and how much she enjoys our visit. I hope I get to visit her again.”

“One of the homes we visited was ([that of) an elderly couple,” Sophie said. “The husband, Rolf Saloman, was a Holocaust survivor who was in hiding in Holland for three years with a Catholic family. His sister-in-law met Anne Frank at Auschwitz, and he met Otto Frank after the war in Holland and became very friendly with him.”

Melissa said, “When I blew the shofar, they said that they never heard a girl blow it before. I was really proud of myself.”

Ilene Flanzman lead the final group, which included her two children, Sammy and Leah, and Zachary Shinkar. Sammy and Zach are two-time corps members.

“Our group was so fortunate,” said Flanzman. “We had the pleasure of meeting an Auschwitz survivor who was a participant in the ‘Paper Clip’ movie. He showed us his Israeli army photographs, a medal given to him by David Ben-Gurion, and many other citations…. He shared some stories with us on his training for the Israeli army and about his liberation from Auschwitz. We all felt so moved when we read the segment in our service about Auschwitz…. The gentleman was so thrilled to watch young people blow the shofar as he never had the opportunity to learn to do it. He wanted us all to sign the service, which he wanted to keep.”

Leoni and Rolf Saloman are visited, from left, by Alyssa Seigel-Laddy, Melissa Gotlib, Miranda Alper, and Sophie Goldberg.

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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