For those Jews still looking for work, the fact of being without work is taking its emotional toll. “We’re not a crisis center, we’re not a mental health clinic,” though the Connect to Care social workers comfort the distressed and refer the seriously disturbed to mental health professionals, says social worker Jill Schreibman. “I get [clients] crying all the time, people thinking about suicide. People are anxious and depressed and worried.”
For The Jobless, A Place To Reconnect
A glimpse into the recession’s lingering impact in the Jewish community.
Steve Lipman • The Jewish Week
Ann Klein packed a tuna fish sandwich for lunch one recent morning, stepped in her car and headed south from her apartment in northern Westchester. A half-hour later, at 9 a.m., she parked outside a quiet White Plains office building near Westchester Airport, took the elevator one story up and sat down at a computer in a small cubicle.
But it wasn’t just another day at the office.
Until mid-afternoon the unemployed printing executive worked at the computer, and schmoozed with people in the row of adjacent cubicles and with the office staff.
Like Klein, 49, the other people in the cubicles at the Westchester office of UJA-Federation of New York’s Connect to Care initiative that morning were victims of the lingering national recession.
Like Klein, most of the people who come to the seven New York area sites of Connect to Care — which was established in 2008 to bring together a number of social-service agencies under one roof — are middle-aged, the last age group traditionally rehired as the economy slowly improves.
Like Klein, the clients of Connect to Care, all Jewish, keep coming, often on days when they have no specific task at the free computers, phone lines, fax machine and photocopy machines.
“There are people here. It’s not isolating,” says Klein, who closed her small publishing-advertising firm in 2003 and found other work in her field until last year. She says she has sold her house, moved into a rented apartment, and supported herself with unemployment insurance and her savings.
In October, still looking for a job, she read about Connect to Care in her synagogue bulletin and came to the White Plains office, a modest suite whose windows overlook treeless woods and geese grazing on the lawn.
Klein isn’t alone.
Despite statistical evidence that the country is pulling out of the recession, it’s largely a jobless recovery, with the national unemployment rate still above 9 percent and the people who come to Connect to Care, mostly 45 to 65 years old, still out of work. In a sign of how hard the recession has hit the New York area, Connect to Care officials say they have helped some 30,000 families since its launch. Those families were likely listening closely Tuesday to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, which focused heavily on the administration’s effort to create new jobs.
Tom Weibrecht, 54, a former capital projects manager who comes to Connect to Care from his Bedford apartment at least three times a week, lost his job last July. It was one he had held for 18 years. Weibrecht says he learned much from the initiative’s staff members and seminars. Among the new skills he is being forced to re-learn are how to write a resume and how to look for a job.
“After 18 years in one job,” he says, “you lose all those searching skills.”
Weibrecht has sold his house and moved into a rented apartment, a move that “lots” of his friends in the Jewish community have made.
It’s a struggle to stay positive. “You have to keep busy, you have to keep focused,” Weibrecht says. Connect to Care “is invaluable. It’s an environment where you’re surrounded by people who know what you’re going through.”
For Jill Gold, a Chappaqua resident for 25 years who lost her communications job in November, “the hardest of part [of unemployment] is that it’s very lonely.” She is divorced and her grown children live out of the house. “I’m here all on my own. There are no kids around.”
Gold, 56, says the workshops she has attended help in the job-hunting skills she has not used “in many years. I was feeling very lost at how to approach this.”
“It is very clear that unemployment is still an issue,” says Gail Magaliff, executive officer of the FEGS Health and Human Services System, a Connect to Care partner. “There is a huge need” for the services Connect to Care offers.
A recently released demographic study of Baltimore’s Jewish community found that the number of Jews who are “just managing” economically has risen from one in five to one in three in the last decade.
No comparable current figures are available for New York’s Jewish community — a similar survey here by Ukeles Associates will be completed next year. But the extent of Jewish poverty here is probably equal or greater, says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
New clients show up regularly to Connect to Care’s Westchester site — no appointment is needed — and some of the dozen cubicles are always filled, says Anita Greenwald, program coordinator at the White Plains site.
“We have people who come in every day,” Greenwald says. “Our daily traffic numbers haven’t subsided.”
When the initiative was launched in 2008, in response to the economic collapse, many of its financial counseling sessions centered on such topics as budget planning and resume building; today, talk of bankruptcy and foreclosures is more common, Greenwald says.
As part of its outreach to the wider Jewish community, Connect to Care sponsors some of its activities, including business seminars, and meetings with social workers, at several synagogues in the New York area.
Westchester Jewish Community Services runs the White Plains site of Connect to Care. Other participating organizations are FEGS, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Hebrew Free Loan Association. The Westchester site is the only Connect to Care office housed physically away from the Jewish community. The other six sites — in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, Nassau County and Suffolk County — are located in Jewish centers or Y’s, community council buildings and similar venues.
In addition, the state’s Small Business Development Center offers weekly counseling at the Westchester office.
Through daily programs and occasional seminars, the Connect to Care sites — most of the staffers work part-time, on loan from the other agencies — offer employment and career-transition services, networking advice, mock interviews, financial consultation and budget assistance, emotional counseling and spiritual care, computer training, assistance in applying for government benefits, and help in writing resumes and cover letters.
“This is more than [just] finding jobs,” says Alex Roth-Kuhn, Connect to Care project manager. “We try to take the stigma away” from being unemployed, Greenwald says. Some clients come in dressed in suits, carrying briefcases, like they are going to work, she says.
The 2010-2011 budget of Connect to Care, which was established as part of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission with an initial $6.8 million 15-month grant, and another $4 million (minus the start-up costs) the following fiscal year, ends in July. Its 2011-12 budget is being determined now.
“In responding boldly to the economic crisis by creating Connect to Care, UJA-Federation has developed an important model for the future of the Jewish community. It creates multi-service centers that can serve people holistically and provides access to far broader segments of the community,” UJA-Federation Executive Vice President John Ruskay says in a prepared statement. “Everyone recognizes the importance of sustaining this in the future, and we intend to embed it in our work as we move forward.”
“At the core, [Connect to Care] is a Jewish value,” says Roth-Kuhn. “It’s no longer ‘us and them,’” those with and those without. “It’s only us.”
Through its contacts in the Jewish community, Connect to Care has served 30,000 families and helped find some 600 jobs for unemployed clients, according to its statistics.
The jobs-found number at the Westchester site — posted on a dry erase board in Greenwald’s office — was 180 earlier this month. Clients peek into her office daily, for a look at the latest “landed” figure, for a shot of communal confidence, Greenwald says.
For those still looking, the fact of being without work is taking its emotional toll. “We’re not a crisis center, we’re not a mental health clinic,” though the Connect to Care social workers comfort the distressed and refer the seriously disturbed to mental health professionals, says social worker Jill Schreibman. “I get [clients] crying all the time, people thinking about suicide. People are anxious and depressed and worried.”
According to Connect to Care figures, the White Plains site serves the clientele with the highest average pre-unemployment salary (“six figures,” says Greenwald) of all the sites.
“There’s a lot of shame” among people who have lost prestigious jobs, Greenwald says. “The hardest problem is getting them to come through the door.”
The White Plains office is heimish, with a spread of bagels and other kosher goodies (all donated by members of the local Jewish community) in the front lobby, a stack of newspapers, a lounge with plasma TV and stuffed couches for private conversations, and a conference room where seminars, run by some five dozen volunteers, are held. Seminar topics include: stress reduction, resume writing, self-employment options, learning to use LinkedIn, and structured networking.
In a rack are small pamphlets with titles like “Yearning for God” and “Easing the Burden of Stress.”
The clients, many of whom met each other at the Connect to Care office, pause in their online job search to trade job leads and words of encouragement.
“These types of connections don’t happen when you’re sitting alone in your house,” says Corey Willensky, 55, who started coming to Connect to Care in June. A veteran of the paper distribution industry, he, like Klein, sold his house and moved into an apartment. Now he’s living off his savings.
Willensky (not his real name) says he drives to the White Plains office several times a week, “sometimes five days a week.
“They do pretty much everything for you here,” he says. “They give you hard-and-fast skills.”
Willensky hasn’t found a new job, but he has some leads, thanks to Connect to Care.
“If I didn’t have this place to go to,” he says, “I’m sure I’d be a lot worse off.”
“This is a very positive place,” Klein says. She says she’s sending out, on the advice of Connect to Care career counselors, a more-professional resume. “I’m happy with what I’m sending out.”
Klein says she is optimistic that she will find a new job eventually.
When she does, she’ll probably come back to the White Plains office — to offer moral support to still-unemployed people, to keep in touch with the staff members and the new friends she’s made there. “There’s nothing like having an open door five days a week.”
What The Jewish Week misses is the age discrimination that keeps so many of these people jobless. Companies don't like to hire older workers for many reasons, one of which is that the cost of providing them with medical insurance is higher that with younger workers. Another is that retirement looms for these workers, and so do the odds that they will partake of a company's retirement plan, which also costs the companies money. Younger workers are less likely to fully vest in these plans, because they will in all likelihood change jobs and companies several times before retirement, and their retirement is many years away.
The Jewish community offers no real job retraining, something that could help these people greatly. Why it does not do so is probably because most of the social service functions the Federations fund are really paid for by government grants or are referral agencies for government programs, and the government does not seem to be doing much funding in this area these days.
The Jewish community could start its own internal jobs program, a modern day version of the old WPA of the Great Depression. Many of these out of work professionals could be modestly paid to do things the Jewish community needs, from teaching adult education classes to tutoring kids to working on programs that already exist and are understaffed.
Will it happen? Will real job retraining programs happen?
I believe it is unlikely.