|The new director of project Ezra, Robert Hoenig of Teaneck, is intent on being an advocate for job seekers.|
This is a tough economy that we live in.
It can be hard to find a job, and hard to think straight when you lose one. It’s hard to figure out how to reorient yourself, how to present yourself, how to maintain at least the faÃ§ade of confidence.
And it’s also hard to figure out how to pay your bills at the same time.
Project Ezra, founded in 2001, has provided help to local Jews ever since then. It was the brainchild – and really, by all accounts, the heartchild and soulchild too – of Rabbi Yossi Stern of Teaneck, who was its first director, and led it until he died unexpectedly in February. His work not only allowed many people to find work, but also helped support them and allowed them to maintain their dignity as they searched.
Its new director, Robert Hoenig, just began his work in earnest this week; with the chaggim over he can concentrate on learning the specifics of his new job. He will learn as much as he can as quickly as he can, and then begin to chart his own direction, he said.
Mr. Hoenig comes to the job as a strong manager; he had been in hospital administration for 39 years. “Executive management, financial management, financial planning and development – those are important parts of hospital administration,” he said. “I will be able to apply those skills and experiences in this setting, where there are an enormous amount of great things going on.”
One difference between his hospital work and what he foresees his work in Project Ezra will entail is that in his new job he will be able to interact with people as well as to deal with abstract issues of management.
Mr. Hoenig was born in Flatbush, grew up in Monsey, N.Y., and lived in Riverdale, N.Y., for a decade, but for the last 29 years he’s lived in Teaneck. He’s very active in the Jewish community – not only is he a full member of Congregation Rinat Yisrael and an associate member of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, he is also a gabbai at the Sweat Minyan, which draws about 100 men to Kaballat Shabbat most weeks. (The minyan, whose name is a play on the southwest Englewood area of Teaneck that houses it, has been around for about 35 years. It is not a full-service shul. Instead, it provides services at times when the people who live near it do not want to take the longer walk that would be necessary to get them to their main communities.)
Mr. Hoenig also coaches basketball for the Torah Academy of Bergen County.
Project Ezra has “two major areas of assistance,” he said. “One is employment, and the other is financial assistance.” They interact with each other, he said – they couldn’t not – but they are equally important. “And it is fantastic to watch the staff develop programs and initiatives in those areas.” He is enthusiastic about the eight-person staff, and reports that he is particularly impressed by “the way they conduct themselves. They are very dignified people, and they treat people not only with dignity and respect – which are very important – but also with confidentiality. That is critical.
“I am very impressed with what I see.”
Two members of Project Ezra’s staff work with the employment division, Mr. Hoenig said. They came to Ezra with experience in the field. “The division director came to us with a lot of experience with a recruitment firm. He decided, though, that he wanted to be a client advocate.
“That’s why he’s here.”
When job-seekers get in touch with Ezra, “even before they come in to meet with our people, they will be expected to do a couple of deliverables right away,” Mr. Hoenig continued. “They are asked to send in their paperwork, and also three professional references. That’s really important.
“And then they come in – we schedule a first appointment within a week, so we can work together to map out a plan.
“It’s very different from working with a private recruiter,” he said. Although job seekers might not always remember this, private recruiters – headhunters – work for prospective employers, not for them. (It’s very similar to working with a real estate agent – house hunters might think of the agent as on their side, but really she’s not. She’s working for the owner, and even more meaningfully, at base she’s working for herself.)
“Our people really care, and they really work for the job seeker,” he said. “We want them to do well.”
Even though he has not been on the job for very long, Mr. Hoenig said, he already has seen job seekers come for a first interview. “I have witnessed a person come in very depressed and upset. They don’t walk out from that interview happy – but they do walk out with their heads up.
“They know that there is a plan, and that somebody is going to be working with them and advocating for them.”
Project Ezra is nonprofit. It does not charge clients fees. Its counselors do not work for commission, “but because they care. It takes a tremendous level of energy – and they have it.”
When it comes to financial assistance, Mr. Hoenig said, “We know that people are at what we hope is a temporary glitch in their lives. Their finances are in trouble. They need help.
“We help them with a budget plan, and sometimes with some financial assistance. We have a very structured and formalized set of criteria, and we go through it with people very carefully.
“We treat them with dignity. We don’t want them to feel lousy about it. It’s not their fault. We will help them.
“And we have had some great success stories. People have come to us in serious financial trouble, and now they’re doing great.”
Project Ezra is a resource for the entire Jewish community, Mr. Hoenig said. Its official catchment area covers Teaneck, Bergenfield, Englewood, Fair Lawn, Fort Lee, New Milford, and Paramus – “the heart of Bergen County” – but it turns no one away. Although it was created and developed by the Orthodox community, it is open to all Jews. “Everyone is welcome here – and everyone comes,” Mr. Hoenig said.
Barry Sklar of Bergenfield sits on Project Ezra’s board of trustees, and he was deeply involved with the search process that found Mr. Hoenig.
“We engaged in a comprehensive search,” Mr. Sklar said. “We saw a lot of resumes, had a lot of interviews.” Candidates ran the gamut, he added; some had been deeply immersed in the Jewish community but had no experience outside it. Others knew the nonprofit world but not the Jewish one. Some were lay leaders who had the enthusiasm but not the expertise to move from the volunteer to the professional side; others were thoroughgoing professionals who lacked the knowledge of the community or of Yiddishkeit.
Mr. Sklar stressed Project Ezra’s unique role in the community, and its mission of providing confidence and dignity to all its clients, and giving financial assistance to those who need it. He is proud both of the organization’s goodness and of its rigor.
When families are most in need, they turn their financial records over to Ezra’s professional staff, he said. Those professionals “delve deeply into the family’s finances.” That way, not only do they know how much the family actually needs ““ “sometimes the aid is meaningful,” Mr. Sklar said – but they also can work with the family to help them develop and maintain a budget.
It’s easy for families to develop problems, he added. “They are often somewhat burdened with significant day school tuitions – those numbers add up quickly.” But “the goal is for families to become financially independent and graduate” from their need for aid.
The community’s rabbis are an important resource for Project Ezra, Mr. Sklar said. They were “involved actively in the job search process; they vetted the leading candidates,” Mr. Sklar said.
“Project Ezra started out as an adjunct to Bnai Yeshurun,” and it developed “at the urging of a lot of the rabbis,” he added. “Many of the rabbis have been sounding boards and consultants, on a regular if no-name basis.”
Rabbi Yosef Adler, who heads both Rinat Yisrael and the Torah Academy of Bergen County, is among those rabbis.
“I think it’s a wonderful appointment,” Rabbi Adler said. “He is highly qualified, and he brings a lot of exuberance and enthusiasm to the position. He is well liked in Teaneck. Both he and his wife, Donna, are always willing to go out of their way to help people.
“I think he will be able to bring a different face to Project Ezra. I think he’ll be incredibly dedicated to the job, and I hope it will continue to grow under his leadership.
To learn more about Project Ezra, to find out how to get help, or to donate to help others, go to www.ezrah.org.