After an accountant in his mid-50s from Merrick, L.I., was laid off this summer amid the burgeoning economic crisis, he went to meet with his rabbi.
“He felt betrayed by his company,” said Rabbi Charles Klein, spiritual leader of the Merrick Jewish Center. “He also wanted someone to talk to because he didn’t want to show his wife how frightened and hurt he was.”
Another congregant, a 62-year-old man whose business suffered an unexpected six-figure loss, went to the rabbi and Steve Kussin, the congregation’s president, three months ago seeking guidance on how to proceed.
“I went to them for help,” said the man, who requested anonymity. “I was hoping there were those in the congregation would could point me in the right direction.”
And when another congregant came to pay his dues last month, Kussin said, the man expressed concern about his ability to pay because of all the other bills that were piling up.
“We realized that there was a deeper problem here and that the dues were just the tip of the iceberg,” Kussin said. “So we made arrangements for him to defer his dues payments. We said we would never let a bump in finances prevent someone from remaining active.”
Thus, when it came to preparing a sermon for the High Holy Days, Rabbi Klein chose one that would resonate with his congregants — the economic crisis. In it, he challenged his 670-family Conservative congregation to help fellow congregants who are in financial distress.
“Most of us are going through the biggest crisis of our lifetime,” Rabbi Klein said on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. “We need to be able to reach out to help each other, to care about each other.”
He suggested starting a job network within the congregation in which people could list jobs they might have available within their own companies. In addition, he proposed creating a business network for people to help one another professionally.
“You can’t have applause at a sermon,” Kussin said, “but if this had been a performance, there would have been a standing ovation.”
The next day, e-mails flooded the rabbi’s and Kussin’s computers. There were listings for jobs and offers to teach fellow congregants how to update their resumes and to teach strategies for job interviews.
Within a week, $30,000 in checks and pledges arrived at the synagogue office for an emergency fund the rabbi had proposed. One member donated enough to pay the temple dues for three families who might otherwise be forced to leave the synagogue.
“The response was absolutely overwhelming,” Kussin said. “We were intending to reach out to the congregation after the holidays, but they didn’t want to wait that long. Even during the Torah ceremony, people were stopping me and saying, ‘I want to help.’ … It was one of the most gratifying things to me as president.”
A day or two later, Rabbi Klein said he received a letter from a woman who had attended the service as a guest and who said she needed help buying food for her family.
“She asked if I could buy her some Waldbaum’s gift cards so that she could have food in the house,” he said, adding that he sent her several hundred dollars worth of gift cards.
“There are people who have been financially challenged for years and now with heating oil and gasoline costing more, they don’t have enough money no matter how they cut the pie,” Rabbi Klein observed. “They need help.”
He noted that his synagogue serves the middle and upper-middle income communities of Merrick, Bellmore and Wantagh.
“There is a new Jewish poverty out there,” the rabbi explained. “They may have a house and two cars, but they don’t have enough for everything they need — for the car, the house, tuition and other urgent expenses. This campaign is targeted at the people who are victims of Wall Street, who have lost their jobs or whose businesses are failing.”
Each year, Kussin said, the synagogue receives five or 10 requests from congregants requesting subsidized dues. This year, he said, “that number is expected to double.”
A congregant who offered his services, Rob Hochhauser, the owner of Unique Computer Services, said shortly after offering his help he was contacted by a fellow congregant who needed help moving his server.
“I ran over there to help him,” he said. “I spent a couple of hours there. I’m not going to get anything out of it, but we’ll do the right thing for him. We’re all in trouble, and a lot of people are in deep trouble.”
Dan Greenburg, who along with Phil Strassler is chairing the synagogue committee created to facilitate the job network, said they are now “trying to figure out the best way to match congregants with prospective employers.”
Their initial focus will be on those within the congregation, but Greenburg said it “might expand to contacts people have to help people find jobs. … We’ll start small and expand in a controlled way. We can expand to our shuls and maybe in the future have a Web site if there is a big enough demand. The key is to get the cooperation of the congregants who have the potential to help people get a job and who are willing to give a priority to those in the congregation.”
Kussin said there is also talk of holding a “breakfast where people can share stories and business contacts.”
The anonymous congregant who was helped when his business began to fail said such networking is crucial for those who need help.
“Through my experience, I know what an important value that is,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know they can network within the community. I now know who to go to and now more people will be able to find out how and where to go. This is the total essence of community.”
Rabbi Klein noted that he has “never ever felt — except on 9/11— the kind of searing concern that is being communicated now all around us. People who were in good businesses are suddenly feeling that the financial underpinnings are coming out from under them. And I don’t think we have even begun to see the damage this is going to cause to people’s lives.”