The recession solidified aid to the Jewish community; some are still struggling for recovery.
In June 2009, 15.5 percent of Michigan’s workforce was unemployed as the national economy reeled on multiple fronts, including housing and the auto industry. The unemployed included recent graduates struggling to find first jobs as well as many individuals in mid- and late-stage careers who were stunned at being laid off and worried about finding a job during a deep recession.
Now, more than five years later and amid improved economic conditions, some Jewish families are experiencing the “new normal” in which they have not regained what they lost in the ravaged economy. Today, needs are still there, but they are not as drastic as in 2009, when local agencies had to rally together quickly and efficiently to help those in the community.
“Widespread economic downturns never discriminate based on religion,” said Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “In 2009, it wasn’t long before Jewish Family Service [JFS] and JVS reported an increase in requests for help, so we knew fairly quickly that we needed to bring our agency leaders together, review existing programs and services, talk about what needed to be changed or added — and determine what funding was required.”
JFS experienced a large increase in requests for emergency financial aid. The agency responded with food vouchers, gas cards and emergency utility payments in growing numbers.
During a normal year, JFS receives 400 to 500 requests for emergency financial aid, providing assistance totaling about $500,000. Beginning in 2008-09, such requests expanded to 900-1,000, with expenditures reaching nearly $1 million annually, according to Perry Ohren, then chief programming officer at JFS, who became its CEO in 2011. “Federation raised urgently needed funds and the number of JFS caseworkers was doubled to eight,” Ohren said.
Case workers focused on “wrap-around services to help individuals and families get back on their feet,” said Debra Marcus, JFS chief development officer. “The goal was to avoid homelessness and hunger and to regain stability and self-reliance.”
Hebrew Free Loan Association received increased requests, including more loan applications for basic needs than in previous years when loans often were used for education, businesses, a celebration or adoption. Cheryl Berlin, loan program manager, holds a position created during the recession. Individuals who sought help had more complex situations and sometimes one loan wasn’t going to resolve the issue, she said. Some people had lost their jobs, used up their savings and faced foreclosure.
JVS, the local Jewish agency that focuses on workforce training and job counseling, received requests for services from a wide range of unemployed individuals. There were so many high-level management people seeking assistance that Paul Blatt, JVS executive vice president and chief operating officer, said, “We could have started our own company if we had had the capital.”
Some older individuals, regardless of their profession, needed better computer skills to reenter the job market; these were provided by the Hermelin ORT Resource Center at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. Because many seeking assistance had held the same jobs for many years, they were often unfamiliar with the current job market and job search tools — resources that JVS provided.
Many families were having difficulty with their mortgage payments, and a separate nonprofit organization, the Jewish Housing Association of Metropolitan Detroit, was established to help them. This program was funded by an anonymous donor who wanted to prevent Jewish families from losing their homes through foreclosure, Ohren explained.
From 2008 through May 2011, the agency helped 340 families negotiate loan modifications. With the end of the housing crisis, this organization was disbanded and housing services are now available at JVS.
As the impact of the recession became clear, Federation and its agencies reached out to the Jewish community to offer help. Signs stating “No family stands alone,” with information on how to obtain help, were posted at synagogues, temples and other sites. The Jewish Assistance Network was set up to coordinate services and enhance accessibility. (See sidebar.)
“We wanted to provide a single point of entry for people who needed help,” Ohren said.
Families Still Behind
Today the economy has improved. Michigan’s unemployment rate was reduced to 7.4 percent in August, closer to the national rate of 5.9 percent; both are much lower than in 2008. Job growth is steady, home foreclosures have plummeted and the stock market has achieved some records.
Yet leaders of Detroit’s Jewish service agencies say many individuals and families have not regained what they lost during the recession — that a “new normal” is reflected in a continued high volume of calls and requests to the Jewish Assistance Network and other community resources.
Yad Ezra, the kosher food pantry, provided free food to 1,700 families per month in 2008-09, according to Katie Wallace, marketing coordinator. While that number was reduced to 1,200-1,300 in 2011-12, she explained that this doesn’t necessarily mean a similar decline in low-income families because some former clients left the area to seek jobs. Other families moved in together to save money and now comprise one family unit.
Temple Beth El members and Hiller’s Market have provided fresh food packs for needy members of the Jewish community through its Mitzvah Meals program, which began in 2009. Despite the rebounding economy, individuals continue to ask to be included on the list. According to Mitzvah Meals Chair Deloris Weinstein, “One day you could be up and one day you could be down. People’s situations improve and then they send in checks to donate.”
Ohren explained, “As people’s portfolios get better that doesn’t mean that other people’s situations have improved. It is taking a long time for some to get over the recession. The volume of requests has diminished somewhat, but it takes longer to help people.”
Some who still need help are older individuals who are too young for Social Security, the long-term unemployed and those with health problems.
Blatt of JVS said, “We are not seeing an enormous number of newly laid-off individuals, and new graduates are doing a decent job finding jobs, depending on their fields.”
However, some individuals were not able to find positions comparable to what they had before the recession and need career counseling to help them consider and qualify for different careers.
David Bartek, director of the 211 Help Line (similar to the Jewish Assistance Network) and Business Support at United Way of Southeast Michigan, reports a similar situation in the general community. While requests for assistance have declined somewhat, so has the region’s population, he says. In addition, a lot of people went from unemployment to underemployment and continue to need “sustainable solutions.”
Federation’s Kaufman said, “While the situation has improved for many individuals and families in our community, unfortunately, we’re still not at pre-recession levels. A good number of people in our community are living through a difficult situation that has become their ‘new normal.’
“This is an important reason that support for Federation’s Annual Campaign is so essential. We have to make sure we are providing our agencies with the funding they require to serve everyone in our community who needs assistance.”
By Shari S. Cohen | Special to the Jewish News
Jewish Assistance Network coordinates help for the community with one call.
The Jewish Assistance Network (JAN) began in 2008 as an initiative to counteract poverty and then evolved into a permanent network of 14 agencies of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit that provide social, health and educational services as well as financial aid to the local Jewish community.
A single call to JAN at (248) 592-2650 will connect an individual with one or more agencies appropriate to help with their needs, including emergency financial assistance.