With Jews throughout the New York area reeling from the effects of the economic downturn, UJA-Federation of New York is poised to launch a nearly $7 million initiative to provide assistance where it is most needed.
Taking the rare step of dipping into its own endowment to meet skyrocketing needs for everything from rent subsidies to mental health and legal services, the charity will create seven one-stop centers throughout the city where people can get a variety of social services under one roof.
And it’s not just the poor and the so-called “near poor” who are flocking to the federation’s network of agencies in need of services, communal officials say. In a sign of how deep the recession has penetrated, former Wall Street executives, some laid off from Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs, are retraining to be emergency medical technicians in a program offered through the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, officials say.
“We have data that shows an increase in requests for certain kinds of services across the board,” said Roberta Leiner, director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. “There is a growing need among the lower class, the middle class and the upper-middle class and above.
“The needs are multiple,” Leiner continued. “People are not just coming in with a single set of needs, as in the past. It speaks to a need to have a multi-service approach and response.”
Overall, the demand for social services has increased by 30 percent between this January and last, with between 20,000 and 25,000 new cases.
“We see lots of people who have lost jobs and are struggling with health care or worrying about paying mortgages or heating bills,” Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, whose synagogue participates in UJA-Federation’s Partners in Caring program.
“There is even more stress as we approach Passover, which is a very expensive holiday,” Rabbi Skolnik continued. “We see people who are not used to thinking of themselves as needy finding themselves for the first time struggling to make ends meet. It’s not just the severity of the need but the immediacy of the need.”
While he says his congregation has “a long history of combining rabbinical and social work expertise for all kinds of people, the economic crisis has taken all the different reasons for entry into this portal and increased them by a factor of 100.”
The steep increase in demand comes as agencies intended to provide those services are themselves forced to downsize by cuts in state aid and shrinking donations.
To assess the level of need in the community, UJA-Federation surveyed its network agencies as well as 130 synagogues and Jewish day schools from December through March 1. The surveys found increases in demand for cash assistance, rent subsidies, day care, career and mental health services.
The biggest rise in demand — 40 percent — was for legal services.
To respond to the demand, the Connect To Care program will open seven centers, four in New York City and one each in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties, beginning May 1.
The centers will be funded by $6.8 million from UJA-Federation’s own endowment. It is the second allocation of emergency funds in response to the current economic crisis. The charity allocated $400,000 in emergency aid for food to the Metropolitan Council, a UJA-Federation beneficiary agency, in November.
The Connect To Care program, whose original funding is for 15 months, will make use of a network of synagogues already in place across New York, Westchester and Long Island through its Synergy program. That initiative works with rabbis, cantors, educators and volunteer leaders to strengthen Jewish community and identify areas of need.
“This is built on top of our Partners in Caring program, which has social workers already spread out into the communities to assess needs, so it doesn’t have to start from scratch,” said Jonathan Katz, director of Jewish community programs at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. “It’s a very efficient and effective use of resources.”
Sherry Birnbaum, director of Jewish Community programs for Westchester Jewish Community Services, said her agency had begun months ago to put together regional programs to support individual congregations whose members were struggling.
In responding to UJA-Federation’s survey, Birnbaum said her agency reported that 26 percent of the synagogues that reported back had a Partners in Caring social worker on site.
“Our workers have been on the ground running and have been involved with congregations even before the economic downturn,” she said. “We were well situated to continue to support these congregations from the get-go.”
The new initiative marks one of the rare instances that UJA-Federation has reached into its endowment funds rather than raise new capital for a program, said Jonathan Plutzick, chairman of the Connect To Care initiative.
“This is arguably a unique moment in the history for our community, and certainly on the short list of most challenging moments over many decades,” said Plutzick. “So while UJA-Federation is cutting staff and managing expenses very carefully, and trying to be productive in fundraising in a difficult environment, our sense was that we didn’t want to wait to find all the dollars from new sources to roll this out. We had to reach into existing endowment funds, which we do very rarely.”
Because of the scarcity of dollars, Leiner said the agency would put in place a data tracking system to monitor how efficiently the funds are being spent.
“We need to be extraordinarily responsive and mindful of our service delivery and its impact,” said Leiner. “We’re going to track the service delivery to see how many people have been served according to what we set out to achieve.”
Birnbaum of Westchester Jewish Community Services said her agency was still selecting a site for its Connect To Care center, but had already established three regional help centers at synagogues in Chappaqua, White Plains and New Rochelle.
“[These centers] have opened their doors to congregants from all over the county to Partners in Caring workers,” said Birnbaum. “In addition we are also supporting individual initiatives, network groups and support groups. We want to be able to make referrals to any [organization] that wants to participate.