In economic slump, congregations aid unemployed
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In economic slump, congregations aid unemployed

Synagogues and their rabbis have been taking on extra roles as congregants have lost jobs in the Great Recession.

They have offered employment-networking programs and informal job banks.

They have offered dues-reductions for people struggling.

And they have been counseling members stressed by economic problems.

Congregational support programs for members who lost their jobs have been both formal and informal.

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes helped establish an employment-networking program with fellow Reform synagogues Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Ramapo and Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, said the congregation’s Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

At the peak of the crisis, “We had a networking group and also a group focusing on job search skills,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

With their change in economic circumstances, “People who never thought they would be in the position of asking for a reduction of dues or tuitions from a Jewish institution – who saw themselves as the benefactors – were now in that position,” said Scheinberg.

“We’ve had a greater number of people who need financial assistance,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter. “Anywhere from someone saying, I can’t afford the whole nut, can you take 10 percent off, to people saying, I can only pay 10 percent.”

Kirshner said that his congregation has successfully encouraged congregants to join as “patron members,” paying extra dues to help make up for those who can’t pay.

“We hope that people who are able to make a difference for those who can’t will make that difference,” he said.

At Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, in Ridgewood, Rabbi David Fine said that “even though we’ve had a number of families who have not been able to pay their dues because of their employment situation, the membership as a whole has increased its giving.”

Fine said that synagogues can “take a leading role in reaching out and giving community to people in need of it, as the community of the work place becomes more transient. That’s very important in trying economic times.”

Barnert Temple created a community support fund “to offer dues relief, in essence,” asking families who were able to support to help the families who were thinking of leaving the synagogue for financial reasons.

“We raised enough money to carry forth for three years,” said Frishman. “It was very helpful for people.”

The first year of the economic crisis had a direct impact on Frishman: The synagogue’s staff was asked to take a salary cut.

The following year, the pay cuts were restored, but on the whole, the synagogue’s budget “is growing tighter.”

At Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge, Rabbi Gerald Friedman has reached into his discretionary fund for synagogue programs that no longer fit into the budget.

Financially, “we’re down. We’re carrying a number of additional families on either partial or more complete scholarships. People can’t shoulder the burdens they used to be able to shoulder,” he said.

With the real estate market still frozen, new families aren’t moving in to the community, he said.

“I’ve heard from some of my grandparenty types that young people can’t move to Bergen County; it’s too expensive still,” he said. “That affects people, when you don’t get feeder families.”

Kirshner said that some congregants have pulled their children out from Jewish day schools.

“Not many. Some. It’s painful. In some cases, they pull their kids out because tuition goes up six percent and they got a 10 percent pay decrease. That 16 percent is tough to make up when you have three or four kids. We do what we can to help them.”

Friedman said that in addition to the financial crisis, members of his congregation lost money in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. All of this added up to what he sees as “a sense of uncertainty, a lack of confidence.”

“Real estate was so sure in America. When the stuff is so shifted around, what do you count on? What’s the rock?” asked Friedman.

Is it religion?

Friedman paused before answering.

“I don’t see a more varied chromatic, more in-depth absorption in Judaism. People who are on that path are doing it. I don’t see a greater proportion of my congregants reciting tehillim, psalms, or suddenly discovering the depth of Shlomo Carlebach’s songs. I don’t know what fills or solaces these terrible doubts. I try to speak the language of the spirit, that life is not only bank accounts and this and that, but if they don’t have this sense of it’s going to be OK, it’s very hard.”

Scheinberg said that he has counseled congregants going through “various kinds of personal financial crises, whether job loss or people who are underemployed or people who are now overworked because they’re expected to do what was previously the work of more than one employee.

“Sometimes I’m able to help them to have the courage to think creatively about new ways to approach their situation. Sometimes it’s helping them to face their fear.

“Often it’s helping them to realize that our lives are so much more than our work, even though we sometimes lose sight of that.

“Hopefully people can remember all the parts of their lives that go beyond career. There’s family and personal relationships, the role that one plays in one’s community, the role that an individual plays vis-à-vis the Jewish people and God. There’s our intellectual lives, our cultural lives, our spiritual lives.”

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