Looking For Work, Finding Community

Looking For Work, Finding Community

At UJA-Federation support group, unemployed share coping strategies and get spiritual perspective.

Think of a bottle of soap bubbles, and a toy comes to mind. Yet a group of adults struggling with the very grown-up problem of unemployment learned earlier this fall that a simple relic from childhood can be their friend, too.

It turns out that bubbles can keep you from lashing out at a loved one, or help stave off a panic attack, said a woman participating in a program on spirituality and joblessness at a Long Island Jewish community center. A doctor, she’d been out of work for almost a year, and at one point in particular, she was feeling frustrated with her husband.

“I went into the kitchen where I knew I had some bubbles,” said the woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, as the others listened quietly from their perches on folding chairs around a long table. “I knew I had to take deep breaths, and I just told myself it was OK. That was the first time I managed to give myself the care I wanted someone else to give me.”

In addition to her stash of bubbles, the program “Keeping Your Spirit Up,” that she attended that day at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in East Hills, is helping her keep going, she said.

“I’ve gone to seminars that address how to do your résumé so you don’t look like you’re 50-plus, and how to interview so you don’t look like you’re 50-plus, but I haven’t gone to anything that talked about the feelings,” she said.

The UJA-Federation of New York’s “Connect to Care” initiative sponsored the program led by Rabbi Arnold Samlan, who knows whereof he speaks. He has been unemployed himself since June after losing a job he’d held for 13 years at The Jewish Education Project, directing the group’s now-closed Westchester office.

Rabbi Samlan said he wants to find meaning in the changes in his life, and to help other people do the same. He is developing a coaching and consulting practice, while also working as a salesman at Macy’s to help pay the bills.

“This program is about looking at the immediate crisis and asking what your whole life journey looks like,” said Rabbi Samlan, who was ordained at the Orthodox Hebrew Theological College of Skokie, Ill. and considers himself post-denominational. “It’s about respecting that image of God in yourself even as you go through these tough times.”

Five women and three men attended the combination of pep talk and support group in the JCC auditorium on a Thursday afternoon in late October. They listened closely to the rabbi, and then took turns speaking, apologizing profusely for any inadvertent interruption as they unburdened themselves. Off to the side sat boxes of apples, kale and radishes for the taking. Almost everybody took something.

“I don’t want to lose my house,” said Gail Slotkin, who’d worked in the marketing department of Newsday until six months ago. “I want to be able to put food on the table.”

“When you’re employed, you think you’re indispensable, and you think ‘how can they get along without me?’” Arlene Sheflin said. “And then you find out that they get along very well.” Sheflin lost her job as an office manager in July.

Connect to Care was created in response to the recession of 2007-2009, and has served 65,000 individuals so far, said Alex Roth-Kahn, managing director of the federation’s Caring Commission. It started with a $6.8 million budget and now needs less — $3.4 million — but the ongoing weakness of the economy years after the recession means demand for the program is still strong.

At the end of the recession in June 2009, the unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At 7.9 percent, it’s lower now, but still higher than the pre-recession rate of 5 percent.

The unemployment rate for workers aged 55 and older was 6 percent in April, according to a May report from the General Accounting Office which stated that the unemployment rate for workers in that age group is actually lower during recessions than that of the general population. But, the report said, it takes older job seekers longer to find work. By 2011, the median length of unemployment had more than tripled for older workers since the recession started — it took them about 35 weeks to find new work — and has increased at a greater rate than that of younger workers.

“We set up Connect to Care as a 15-month initiative and it really has become a lifeline for people long after,” Roth-Kahn said. “It was never our intent for this to run multiple years.”

Connect to Care combines all the federation’s unemployment services, such as financial counseling and emotional support, and offers them at seven locations whose primary mission is not focused on such services, in order to lessen the stigma associated with them. Connect to Care is open to anyone.

People who have been jobless for a prolonged period have different needs from those who recently lost their jobs, and Rabbi Samlan’s program was designed to address their situation, said federation spokeswoman Tammy Kornfeld.

“When you’re out of work for a long time, you have to wrestle with that pride and accept that help,” said a man who sat not around the table with the rest of the group, but on the risers toward the back of the room. “The problem comes when you make that decision and the rest of the world is not in step with you. Someone walks in, and sees you, and judges you [for losing your job] and you have to wrestle with those feelings.” He also preferred to remain anonymous.

Rabbi Samlan’s event was the brainchild of Connect to Care’s manager, Peggy Jaeger, who said she was inspired by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comment at a May fundraiser that 47 percent of the nation would vote for President Barack Obama “no matter what,” because they see themselves as “victims” who expect government services.

Jaeger, who had herself lost a Wall Street job and created a second career in the nonprofit world, knew how such words could hurt and decided to create a program that would address the difficult feelings experienced by people who have lost their jobs.

“Forget your politics, I knew how that would feel,” Jaeger said at the meeting.

“And I’m still paying a higher tax rate than Romney,” one woman said. Everybody laughed, and then quickly fell silent.

When Jaeger contacted him, Rabbi Samlan, who also has a degree in social work, decided to incorporate Jewish texts, such as the notion that all humans are created in the image of God, and the bracing Talmudic injunction to give charity even if you yourself need charity.

“When I talk about people finding meaning, and making meaning, and living life with purpose: for me, that’s what spirituality is,” he said.

All of the Connect to Care offices offer spiritual programming of some kind, Roth-Kahn said.

“People ask, ‘Why me? Why did this happen?’” she said. “People want spiritual care. But sometimes they don’t want it under the auspices of a synagogue.”

Rabbi Samlan told the group that he has achieved a shift in perspective around the loss of his job, and now sees the opportunities it affords as well as the emotional challenges.

By the end of his session at the JCC, some of the somber folk gathered there were trying to express similar feelings.

The doctor said she was going to give diabetes seminars, and planned to hone her public speaking skills by joining Toastmasters International. Another woman said she was glad she had more time to spend with her dying mother.

“The godsend of this whole thing is that I’ve been able to spend time with my parents, who are ill, and my sister, who went through a divorce,” said the man who sat in the back. “She’s a ball on the floor, and I get her up.”

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