‘We are always trying to put ourselves out of business’

‘We are always trying to put ourselves out of business’

Project Ezrah’s executive director describes the organization’s quiet help

Students from Naaleh High School in Fair Lawn do volunteer work for Project Ezrah.
Students from Naaleh High School in Fair Lawn do volunteer work for Project Ezrah.

Ezrah means help, and for 21 years Project Ezrah has been quietly helping Bergen County residents. Quietly, because so much of the organization’s important work happens behind the scenes to ensure the privacy of the local families who benefit from its services at some point in their lives.

In 2001, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, a distraught man confided in long-time Teaneck resident Rabbi Yossi Stern that he was out of work, he did not have health insurance, and his wife needed an expensive life-saving surgery. Rabbi Stern did not have the money to fund the surgery, but he wanted to assist the couple, so he took it upon himself to quickly raise the necessary funds. At the same time, he realized that there was an important need for such help in the community.

Rabbi Stern worked with Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, who then headed Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun — he’s now its rabbi emeritus — to start Project Ezrah and ultimately dedicated the last 12 1/2 years of his life to the organization. Over the years, Project Ezrah has grown to encompass many programs that provide job search counseling, financial assistance, case management and financial education.

Rachel Krich took over the helm of Project Ezrah in 2020 when her predecessor, Robert Hoenig, retired.

Rachel Levinson was born in northern California and grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a family that was very philanthropically involved. Her grandfather established a family foundation, and she has been involved in it since she was very young. “I’ve seen nonprofit work for many years from the donor perspective,” she said.

The Levinsons moved to Elizabeth for a year when she was in 12th grade, and she graduated from Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth. The family then moved to Brooklyn and Ms. Krich enrolled in Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, where she majored in history and minored in political science. Next, she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Teaneck’s Farleigh Dickinson University and began her journey in Jewish nonprofit work.

“I wanted to spend my days doing something meaningful,” Ms. Krich said, explaining her career choice. “The Jewish community has amazing infrastructure and support, and helping to provide those services is important to me. I find this work very rewarding.”

Ms. Krich and her husband, Daniel Krich, a pediatric pulmonologist at Westchester Medical Center, live in Fair Lawn. The Kriches have five children: Ariella goes to Naaleh High School in Fair Lawn, Aryeh and Shoshana are students at YBH of Passaic, Alex is 3, and Max is 1.

Ms. Krich began her career at the Shorefront Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn. That organization is part of a network of social service organizations that provide services to their local communities. Shorefront’s surrounding community was made up mainly of seniors, many of whom were Russian immigrants. Services included a large kosher food pantry, immigration assistance, case management work, and a variety of social services. Ms. Krich remained at that organization for about 10 years, first as site director, then as executive director. When the opportunity to lead Project Ezrah came up, Ms. Krich was excited to be able to “bring my experience to the community I live in.” The shorter commute was an added perk.

Rachel Krich

Project Ezrah assists Bergen County families, Ms. Krich said. “We may help the person who sits behind you in shul or the family of a child who rides the school bus with your child. We help your neighbors the way you would if you knew they were hurting, and we help in a way that helps them not need our help anymore.

“As an Englewood-based organization, we tend to work with most shuls in our immediate vicinity and to have a close relationship with most of the shul rabbis,” she continued. Rabbis often refer clients to Project Ezrah, and sometimes rabbis and rebbetzins remain involved throughout the process. Although most of those relationships are with rabbis within the Orthodox community, Project Ezrah offers its services to all Bergen County residents.

Project Ezrah will celebrate community heroes at its annual dinner scheduled for Saturday, December 10. The honorees are people who play an active role in helping the organization help the community. (See box.)

Project Ezra has grown significantly over the past 21 years, Ms. Krich said. The original focus was on providing crisis support. Clients would ask for help, or be referred to the organization, when they were experiencing significant financial hardship, and Project Ezrah would step in with immediate job search assistance, health care, or basic living expenses.

But the outreach has evolved over the years. While Project Ezra’s original two pillars of a job development program and a case assistance and financial assistance program remain its core missions, these services are now more extensive and offer help to a wider range of community members. “Instead of waiting until people reach a crisis point, we have expanded our services to include programs that offer help earlier and are designed to prevent families from winding up in a crisis situation,” Ms. Krich said.

The job search assistance it offers has become much more extensive. Project Ezrah now provides a range of services that are available to the entire community including help with strategizing a job search; creating or updating a resume; networking online, including setting up a LinkedIn profile; interview preparation, and salary negotiation. “We can also refer candidates to employers we work with,” Ms. Krich said. “Last year the organization held a job fair, which was very successful at connecting job candidates with potential employers.”

Project Ezra also offers a variety of classes, open to the entire community, on topics including resume building, effective interviewing techniques, taking charge of your career, behind the scenes of a job search, and best practices for speaking over Zoom.

Though most of the people who use these services are experiencing some financial difficulties, they are available to the entire community. “We find that having these services open to everyone takes away a certain level of stigma and makes those who really need the help more willing to utilize the services,” Ms. Krich said. “And when job candidates who are not struggling financially benefit from this assistance, they tend to become donors or to offer pro bono services to our clients. Everyone winds up helping each other.”

The financial assistance program has also grown. It originally offered very comprehensive assistance, consisting of financial help, financial micromanagement, and guidance on becoming financially stable. While this approach — called the Partner Program— still is used, two other programs were added in 2021 to support people who need less extensive support.

Students from Naaleh High School in Fair Lawn do volunteer work for Project Ezrah.
Children work with their parents as volunteers. Here, they make tzedakah boxes on Winter Family Fun day.

The Spark program is for people who require only a small amount — a spark — of help. It connect clients with eligible services, including such community resources as food pantries, government benefits for which they are eligible, and professionals who provide pro bono work.

The Boost program is a better fit for people who need more help. Boost was designed to support people who find themselves in a situation “that is challenging but not dire,” Ms. Krich said. It offers budgeting help and some temporary financial assistance.

There seems to be a need for this broader range of services. The number of clients enrolled in the core financial assistance or job search assistance programs has increased significantly since the Boost and Spark programs were added. “We went from serving about 180 families in 2019 to serving about 270 in 2021 and about 500 so far this year,” Ms. Krich said. “I think we are seeing more clients because we offer a wider range of support now.”

The goal of the services is to help clients become, or remain, financially independent, Ms. Krich said. So all three of the financial assistance programs help clients review and track spending and learn how to budget and spend in a mindful way. “We are always trying to put ourselves out of business,” she said.

Project Ezrah also tries to forestall the need for its financial assistance services by disseminating financial information into the community. It does so through a variety of classes and seminars that are open to the entire community. One such program is Aisle, aimed at engaged or newly married couples. Other classes provide information on mortgages, monitoring credit, and mindful budgeting. “As we work with clients, we look for the types of issues that tend to get people into a difficult financial situation and try to educate the community on those types of issues to help prevent others from winding up in the same position,” Ms. Krich said.

In 2020, Project Ezrah added the State Health Insurance Assistance Program. SHIP counselors are state-certified to help people navigate Medicare. “We find that many people in the community gain a lot by getting an impartial guide to help make their Medicare decisions,” Ms. Krich said. “In 2021, we provided 50 SHIP counseling sessions and are currently well on our way to seeing many more than that during the current open enrollment period.”

In the last couple of years, Project Ezrah has added new programs offering one-time grants for such expenses as day camp and school vacations. Another new offering is a Passover grant, to help cover the additional costs associated with the holiday.

These programs serve a variety of functions, Ms. Krich said. They help people who are mostly fine with day-to-day expenses but need just a little assistance with one-time expenses. These programs also present another point of entry to Project Ezrah’s services; more often than not they lead to a family getting additional services.

Another recent addition is the baby gemach. The gemach, which used to be an independent entity but recently came under the Project Ezrah umbrella, loans equipment and provides diapers and formula. It serves about 300 families each year, most of whom do not receive other Project Ezrah services.

In addition to the services added over the past couple of years, a Young Leadership Council was started to help educate a new generation of Bergen County residents about Project Ezrah’s important work.

“Looking forward, we are planning to create a grocery gift card grant opportunity similar to our Passover grant, but it will be open all year,” Ms. Krich said. The program is being started by Jared and Debra Okun in memory of Ms. Okun’s brother, Zev Horowitz. “This will be just another door to enter Project Ezrah for clients. A client will be able to reach out for help with food and get to know us and, hopefully, if greater intervention is needed, be willing to work with us more.”

What: Project Ezrah’s 21st annual dinner

When: On Saturday, December 10, at 8 p.m.

Where: Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood

Honoring: Dr. Shoshana and Rabbi Chaim Poupko; Tziporah and Avi Koslowsky; the Project Ezrah baby gemach volunteers: coordinators Ginnie and Avi Fried, and Tamar Chaitovsky, Stacy Horowitz, Deborah Pearlman, Sipporah Tracer, and Shana Schmidt

Reservations: go to Ezrah.org

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