Local agencies set forum on financial crisis
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Local agencies set forum on financial crisis

Even with a new president-elect, experts predict that the economy will get worse before it gets better. As a result, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the area’s two Jewish Family Service agencies believe it is more important than ever to showcase their services.

On Feb. 10, community leaders – including representatives from Jewish Family Service of Bergen County, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of North Jersey, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the YJCC, Daughters of Miriam, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis – will come together at an economic crisis forum, under the auspices of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Leadership Forum.

According to Joy Kurland, director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the gathering will “serve as a resource fair for all agencies dealing with the crisis or offering services.”

After an emergency meeting last month, UJA-NNJ’s senior staff divided up to tackle different aspects of the crisis, said Kurland, the point person for the project. She explained that the marketing and communications department will work with rabbis to keep them informed, ensuring that they alert their congregations about federation services.

Kurland also noted that the planning and allocations division is monitoring the impact of the economic crisis on the federation’s beneficiary agencies, as well as on synagogues and day schools. In addition, the Commerce & Professionals Division and the Physicians & Dentists Division are coordinating pro-bono services offered by lawyers, real estate experts, dentists, and doctors.

Part of the problem facing the federation is that many people associate Jewish charity with Israel or other emergency aid, such as earthquake or hurricane relief, and are not aware of its local services, said Kurland.

“This is a different type of crisis – on the domestic level,” she said. “We want to be as responsive, if not more, than we have been in other situations. This is here in our own home territory.”
The crisis has already played a role in UJA-NNJ’s annual Mitzvah Day, which took place earlier this month. The federation held blood and bone marrow drives, as well as computer recycling and clothing drives. One new effort was the Dress for Success drive, which collected business attire for people interviewing for new jobs through Jewish Family Service.

“We want to do as much as we can do,” Kurland said. “We’re serving as a resource and a clearinghouse for information and assistance in whatever way people need it.”

She added that February is an appropriate time to hold the forum because the crisis will likely have grown worse and more people will be looking for help.

Lisa Fedder, executive director of JFS of Bergen County in Teaneck, predicted that the downturn will have a larger effect on this year’s holiday shopping season, causing stores to see fewer shoppers and thus fewer profits.

“People are losing jobs increasingly and that has a ripple effect,” she said. “Christmas shopping is going to be down. It’s going to keep spinning out. More places are going to close before we start recouping.”

Leah Kaufman, executive director of JF&CS of North Jersey in Wayne, said there is usually a gap between the time people lose their jobs and when they reach out for help. While the JFS organizations have already seen increases in requests for assistance, Kaufman predicted those numbers will quickly increase in the coming months.

“What we’re observing now is really the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “It’s going to really escalate come January.”

Pride is another obstacle to requesting aid, said Kaufman, noting that many of the people hit hard by the downturn are used to sending small donations to help in a crisis rather than having to reach out for help themselves. Because of that, she said, they may be reluctant to call for help until they become desperate. Those feelings should not be dismissed, Kaufman said.

“That phone call is extremely difficult to make,” she said. “There’s a lot of pride that goes into it.”

Because many hit by the crisis are not used to asking for help, she added, the main challenge is to inform people of what’s available.

“I don’t think people know who or where to turn to for resources,” Kaufman said. “The forum would be wonderful for that as a way of educating the community.”

Fedder echoed Kaufman’s remarks on the necessity of alerting the community to available services. But the service organizations haven’t escape unscathed either, as their donor base has been severely depleted because of the crisis.

“I’m hoping that those who are able to help either directly through cash or comparable donations or volunteering will do that,” Fedder said. “We’re stretched to the limit, there’s no question.”

JFS is anticipating a rise in demand for its Kosher Meals on Wheels program from 22,000 in 2007 to 24,000 this year. JFS predicts a 16 percent increase from 2007 to 2008 in the number of people requesting vocational services, and a 60 percent increase in the number of people seeking help paying rent.

Fedder recalled a recent request for help rewriting a résumé from a hedge fund manager. In another instance, after UJA-NNJ ran an ad in The Jewish Standard advertising the JFS and JF&CS programs, a man who was hard of hearing came to the JFS office holding one of the ads and wrote a simple text message for the JFS staff: “I need help.”

“Every time you talk about the needs out there in the community you raise people’s awareness, and people want to step up to the plate,” Fedder said. “Most of us want to do the right thing. I’m hoping that those who are able to help either directly through cash or comparably donations or volunteering will do that.”

JFS is projecting 45 new counseling clients, 75 new requests for vocational services, and 30 more Kosher Meals on Wheels clients. The organization is bracing for an additional need for at least $174,000 to cover this growth.

JF&CS has seen a rise in requests for its counseling services and Kosher Meals on Wheels program. Older adults facing rising food costs are concerned about how they will make ends meet, she said. She also noted that while the organization had previously done little as regards vocational counseling, it is now looking to start a program in that area.

“Our main objective right now is to provide the community with what it needs,” Kaufman said, pointing out, however, that JF&CS has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in donations from last year. And with more uninsured clients seeking counseling, the organization is losing income on that front. In addition, the government is offering fewer grants than in the past.

“We have to just explore the avenues,” Kaufman said, adding that she is confident that JF&CS would be able to meet its own financial requirements in order to continue its services. She and Kurland pointed to examples of how the community has stepped up in the past, and they believe it will again.

“In the end, it’s very gratifying that we’re in a community that is such a caring community,” Kurland said. “Many times you’re not aware of it until something like this. People come forward and when there’s a need, people do respond.”

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