In the teeth of the Great Recession of 2008, with many Jewish professionals caught up in the economic bloodletting, UJA-Federation of New York launched Connect to Care. It was the charity’s central response to the economic downturn, and it provided, at various locations across the metropolitan area, one-stop support for the unemployed and under-employed trying to dig out of a life-crippling hole.
Now, a decade later, the one-stop social-service approach is back this time as a way to fight the stubborn problem of Jewish poverty.
Even as most economists believe that the economy is humming along — New York City job growth outpaced the national average for a full decade, from 2006 to 2016, according to Bloomberg — Jewish poverty persists, and in some estimates is even growing.
With an investment of some $35 million — believed to be its most extensive anti-poverty initiative to date — UJA-Federation is setting up, in partnership with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the Central Queens Y, two Community Resource Hubs that will offer a wide variety of social services. And the charity is installing digital food-ordering programs at the nearly three dozen food pantries in Greater New York under Met Council auspices.
Jeff Schoenfeld, UJA-Federation president, described the hubs and digitalized food pantries as “a different approach to lifting people out of poverty,” beyond “maintenance.” He framed it as an attempt to centralize the array of social services offered by UJA-Federation agencies, with the improved food pantries both guarding the dignity of recipients and serving as an entry point for people who may need other services.
The initiative comes at a potentially perilous time for social services. It coincides with possible cuts to programs like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps that Republican lawmakers are said to be mulling in order to pay for the $1.5 trillion tax cut in the recent tax overhaul bill.
And it comes as the popular Masbia kosher soup kitchen, the only one of its kind in the city, is now operating in three locations (Borough Park, Rego Park, Queens and Flatbush) — a sign of the city’s poverty problem; Masbia has served more than 2 million meals since it opened its first branch in 2005.
“While unemployment has gone down, the cost of living has gone up.”
One of those who stands to benefit from the anti-poverty initiative is Rami Duran, a Jewish resident of Kew Gardens. He takes a bus and a subway once a month to a small house on a side street off of 108th Street in Forest Hills that is the site of the Central Queens Y’s Food Pantry, part of the anti-poverty initiative.
The Central Queens Y, located in an area that is home to tens of thousands of emigres from the former Soviet Union, is one of the first four agencies to change its Food Pantry to a digital system. The others are the Shorefront JCC in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; the Gural JCC in Cedarhurst, L.I.; and the Met Council’s warehouse in central Brooklyn.
Duran, who works as a waiter in a local restaurant and as a counterman in a takeout place, said the items he brings home in plastic bags — rice, peanut butter, apple sauce and several types of vegetables — help him provide his family more balanced meals. And he said he encourages families in his economic position to participate in the newly efficient digitalized Food Pantry, which reduces waiting time when he picks up his monthly order.
“The process is much easier,” he said. “There was little waiting.”
People eligible to receive food from the pantries, which supplements what they get from their salaries or food stamps, can place their orders from their computers at home; or, if they do not own a computer, they can quickly do it on iPads at the food pantries.
Recipients “purchase” food on a points system based on family size and their dietary needs — healthy items “cost” fewer points, encouraging recipients to maintain better diets.
Under the old system, where recipients would choose what they want from the shelves and refrigerator of the CQY Food Pantry, they would usually have to stand in line for a half hour or more, said Mindy Nisanov, food pantry coordinator.
Her Food Pantry went digital in September. Now, she said, the whole process takes a few minutes. “This is the new wave.” She or volunteers pre-package the orders of recipients, who often show up pushing supermarket carts.
“Word has gotten around,” Nisanov said, adding that about 100 families have joined the Food Pantry registry since it went digital.
The elderly or homebound may send their aides to pick up the orders.
While the majority of people participating in her Food Pantry are from the former Soviet Union, other recipients include members of the Iranian, Chinese, Korean and Spanish-speaking communities, Nisanov said. “We don’t turn anyone away.”
The digitalized system is designed to keep track of available food, monitor ordering trends and minimize waste, said Eric Goldstein, UJA-Federation CEO.
The expected efficiency of the new programs may “significantly increase the number of people served” by the UJA-Federation network of social service agencies, he said. Currently, the food pantries serve about 230,000 needy New Yorkers, according to the charity.
“With Jewish poverty at unacceptable levels in New York City, UJA made the critical decision to significantly enhance our anti-poverty efforts in order to help bring more people from crisis to stability,” Goldstein said. “The digital choice pantry system promotes dignity and health, as well as dramatic efficiencies in food delivery. We designed the hubs based on best practices in the field. They will offer a broad range of complementary social services under one roof — a strategy proven to move people towards self-sufficiency.
“With the need so great in our community, this is by far the largest anti-poverty fundraising effort in our history.”
“With the need so great in our community,” Goldstein said, “this is by far the largest anti-poverty fundraising effort in our history.”
He said the initiative, begun during the philanthropy’s centennial year in 2017, was not proposed in response to the possible reduction in federal funding. “We began [planning] this before any” of the discussions of government cuts,” he said.
UJA-Federation officials are still scouting locations for additional hubs in Brooklyn and Queens; opening dates have yet to be decided.
When the new hubs are in operation, they will offer social services that will include employment training, legal advice, help in applying for government benefits, financial counseling, emotional support and low-interest loans, said Danielle Ellman, CQY president.
David Greenfield, Met Council’s executive director, said that the low jobless rate obscures the challenges faced by retirees and low-wage workers.
“We expect to see more people struggle financially in the future. The biggest immediate area of concern are seniors, especially Holocaust survivors.”
“While unemployment has gone down, the cost of living has gone up,” he said “We expect to see more people struggle financially in the future. The biggest immediate area of concern are seniors, especially Holocaust survivors.”
According to the UJA-Federation mission statement that announced the initiative, “A Bold Vision for Confronting Poverty in UJA-Federation’s Second Century,” some 560,000 Jews in New York City, Westchester and Long Island — out of a total Jewish population of 1.5 million — live “in poverty or near-poverty.”
Lily Izquierdo, a Queens College senior from Brooklyn, has volunteered at the CQY Food Pantry for the last year, and now brings home for her family from the food pantry. She said she has witnessed an increase in the Food Pantry’s efficiency.
The recipients notice the improvement, she said. “People are very grateful.”