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A Jewish Lifeline In the Economic Downturn

A Jewish Lifeline In the Economic Downturn

In a junior congregation room at the Young Israel of Woodmere, on Long Island, they are greeted warmly at the door and don blue nametags. Some linger by the refreshments; others schmooze in the center of the room. The bold make their own introductions, while the more reserved wait for the formal program to begin.
It looks like a singles mixer, but the more than 100 people — men and women, young and middle-aged — are seeking matches of a different sort. They are job seekers, casualties of an economic downturn that has hit the Jewish communal world particularly hard.
“I’m hoping to find some contacts in the Jewish organizational world,” says Devra Averbach of Hewlett, a former administrative assistant who was one of 52 people laid off by UJA-Federation of New York last month. “They might know of something that’s a good fit for me.”
Howard Lassky of Woodmere says he’s “hoping to find an insurance connection.” As a broker he has seen business decline in recent months. “People are cutting back on insurance if it’s not essential.”
Welcome to ParnasaFest, a volunteer-run free program that has been meeting in major U.S. cities, as well as Toronto and Jerusalem, since February to provide a network for the unemployed, underemployed and employers seeking prospects. “Parnasa” is Hebrew for livelihood.
“The first time we did this, in Washington Heights, 70 or 80 people showed up,” says Susanne Goldstone Rosenhouse, a co-founder of ParnasaFest. “Ever since then it’s been well over 100. The biggest one was in Detroit when there were more than 200. That inspired us to make it more broad and use whatever contacts we had to spread the word.”
ParnasaFest events are planned for Chicago; New Jersey; Columbus, Ohio and Atlanta, and a job posting board on the group’s Web site will be unveiled later this month.
Rosenhouse co-founded ParnasaFest with Dave Weinberg and Dani Klein after they met at a convention on social media and came to appreciate the value of large gatherings for networking “It’s like a kiddush after shul,” she says.
They also appreciate the growing value of online social resources such as Facebook and Twitter for promoting events. “We met on Twitter,” said Amy Shuter, a ParnasaFest volunteer, pointing to Rosenhouse. “It shows the value of using online networking as a way to help each other out.”
ParnasaFest is one of many increasingly interconnected programs that either started in response to the effects of the economic downturn on the Jewish community or have greatly increased their workload and scope in recent months.
ParnasaFest partners with more established organizations such as the Orthodox Union Job Board; Project Reconnect, run by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which recently launched a mentoring program for job seekers, and the Eliezer Project to plan events.
But those attending ParnasaFest events and making use of the other programs face an uphill climb. Job losses in the Jewish community seem to be mounting by the week. The United Jewish Communities recently announced a second round of layoffs and cost-cutting measures, and federations around the country are laying off workers. The Reform movement is in the process of shedding more than 50 jobs from its 225-person workforce. These losses come on top of Hadassah’s announcement several months ago that it had cut some 80 positions, a quarter of its workforce.
“When you go to an event like this, you experience the enormity of the crisis,” said Ellen Aronowitz, employment director of the Nassau County-based Eliezer Project, at the Woodmere ParnasaFest. “These are not entry-level people. They are people who are not working through no fault of their own.”
The Eliezer Project aids financially challenged families in Far Rockaway, the Five Towns, West Hempstead and Oceanside.
On Sunday, some 35 Jewish employment services set up shop at Touro’s Lander College for Women in Manhattan in the second large-scale job fair in two months. Organizers expected 400 people, but the turnout was 710, some 200 of whom were non-Jews. While the event ran from noon to 4 p.m., “at 4:40 people were still coming in,” says Michael Rosner, director of the Orthodox Union’s Job Board. Some 130 people participated in a resumé tune-up workshop while others listened to a motivational speaker and others registered with service providers. “At least now people know who the social service organizations are, which was our main goal,” says Rosner.
In March, a similar event drew some 400 job seekers to Yeshiva University.
ParnossahWorks, a program of the Federation Employment and Guidance Service, has seen a 300 percent increase in its client load in the past few months, estimates Virginia Cruikshank, vice president for workforce development.
“It’s not just the numbers but the caliber of people that’s changing,” said Cruikshank. “People are coming to us with a level of expertise and employment history much more lengthy than in the past.”
And there is even more activity online. A Web site run by the OU’s Job Board, a resource created two years ago, has registered 150,000 unique users, says Rosner, who says some 350,000 people are following his blog posts on career advice.
“We have become basically an online or virtual social service organization,” says the OU’s Rosner. “Besides posting jobs we also host resumé workshops, e-learning programs seminars and ‘Webinars.’” The program has placed 1,260 applicants in jobs so far, including three at the OU itself, he says.
The National Council of Young Israel’s job site has also been heavily utilized with about 1,000-2,000 visits per month, says Chaim Leibtag, NCYI’s chief operating officer. He estimates, based on feedback, that the program places about 40 people per month in new jobs. The program works in coordination with Young Israel rabbis who are “first responders, able to marshal people in their synagogue who are still working and have good jobs and can help others.”
ParnossahWorks is part of UJA-Federation’s burgeoning Connect To Care program, which ties together resources in the five boroughs, Long Island and Westchester. This month, the program will open emergency centers throughout those areas to work with local synagogues to find the neediest victims of the recession.
That includes not only displaced workers but recent college graduates who can’t break into the workforce, people struggling with small businesses and the elderly who are unable to support themselves because of rising costs and diminished savings and investments.
“I had a woman call me yesterday who is 75 and wants to work as an administrative assistant and needs computer skills,” said Cruikshank. “She said ‘I have to work.’ She doesn’t have anyone else to support her.”
Part of the work of these organizations is helping job seekers adjust from fields that are downsizing to areas of greater demand. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has programs to retrain clients as home care attendants, X-ray technicians and emergency medical technicians, fields that are in need of applicants.
Michael Lebowitz, 59, decided to enroll in the EMT classes after he lost his job selling sport accessories.
“I had been in sales for 36 years and really didn’t like the idea of going back into sales again,” said Lebowitz, who lives in Manhattan. He heard from a friend about the Met Council EMT program. “I had always been kind of interested in medicine, and I was always the guy that people go to in emergencies.”
When he completes the program in June, Lebowitz will take a state certification exam and seek employment with the Fire Department of New York, with hopes of eventually attaining the higher paramedic certification and getting a better-paying job with a private service.
“This is a job that can literally make a difference between people living and dying,” he said. “It’s a much different way of seeing the world in a professional manner than selling merchandise to somebody and getting paid for it.”
Based on the number of available job postings she sees, Cruikshank of FEGS says she is cautiously optimistic that a recovery isn’t far off.
“There are glimmers of opportunity that seem to be emerging,” she said. “But it’s going to take a while, maybe more than a year or two, to get back to where we were.”
Deborah Grayson Riegel, a motivational speaker and trainer who specializes in coaching Jewish job seekers and organizations to achieve better results, says she sees plenty of nervous clients these days.
“People are in pain, people are in fear,” says Riegel, who was a sponsor of the Woodmere ParnasaFest event and raffled off a free coaching session.
She stresses the importance of meeting other personal needs while engaging in job searches.
“People are naturally focused on fulfilling their financial needs,” says Riegel. “They have to find a way to meet some other needs that were filled by their career — creative needs, social needs, recognition. This is an opportunity to join a group, take a class, learn a hobby or volunteer at your kids’ school.” 


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