After nearly 60 years of helping Jewish refugees find better lives in New York, an agency that at its peak aided some 50,000 clients in one year is expected to shut its doors this summer as a result of a dwindling case load and difficulty in competing for social service contracts.
The New York Association for New Americans was founded in 1949 as part of the Jewish community’s efforts to absorb tens of thousands who fled persecution and chaos, mostly from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The refugees were brought to America by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“We are trying to wind it down,” said Joseph Lazar, the agency’s interim CEO. “If you don’t have the refugees coming in, you don’t have the money coming in and you don’t have a way to really function.”
NYANA, which served about 300 to 400 people last year, has seen its operating budget shrink from a onetime high of $90 million to a current $7.5 million in government grants and allocations from United Jewish Communities, the national federation umbrella.
Facing its own budget woes, UJC has slashed its contribution to NYANA from $1.2 million to what was expected to be about $500,000 in the coming year. The organization hosted a lavish dinner recently at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel in a bid to reinvigorate support, but it netted only about $50,000, Lazar said.
Now, the agency that helped resettle an estimated 500,000 Jews faces one last task: finding a new home for its remaining 60 employees at other Jewish organizations, where they are expected to continue programs that aid émigrés.
“The Jewish refugee coming to New York should not experience any interruption in the level of service,” said Ken Mazur, chairman of NYANA’s board of directors. Combining programs with other organizations, he said, will allow “our funders to enjoy better economy of scale in the administration of our programs, which translates into lower costs.”
Officials of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and FEGS Health and Human Services System told The Jewish Week they were analyzing how to absorb the programs and staff.
“We have been a partner with NYANA for many years and, wherever we can, we will assist in the transition of some of these programs,” said Gail Magaliff, CEO of FEGS, who said her agency was looking at NYANA’s employment and career-planning work, citizenship and language assistance and other resettlement services, as well as taking on current employees. “They have some excellent staff and we will try to retain as many as possible.”
William Rapfogel, executive director of Met Council, said his group was looking into absorbing the NYANA mental health clinic, substance abuse program, micro-enterprise loan project and incorporating a nutrition program into Met Council’s existing food voucher program.
“It’s a sad day when NYANA has to close its doors,” said Rapfogel. “Fortunately organizations like FEGS and Met Council will step up to the plate.”
Lazar said that some NYANA staff had taken voluntary severance packages, but said he hoped to avoid layoffs. “We are working with various programs to have [staff] move with the programs, although some may fall through the cracks. One of the major functions of FEGS is finding people jobs.”
Though founded with the stated mission of helping Jewish refugees — it turns no one away, but has historically seen only a small stream of non-Jewish aid-seekers — NYANA in recent years has tried to branch out to provide services such as a mental health clinic, domestic abuse counseling and micro-loans for small businesses that appeal to a wider clientele in hopes of increasing revenues from government grants. A trend in government contracting today is toward large-capacity agencies that can take over the work of several smaller groups, generating efficiency and financial savings.
“For a number of years NYANA tried to manage the declining number of refugees by expanding its services to a broader array of programs that could sustain us over time,” said Mazur. “But it was not enough to maintain the agency.”
Critics of NYANA say privately that the agency should have acted more proactively as the number of incoming refugees dwindled to create programs that would help those refugees years down the road.
“They would have been in a much better position to look for new immigration funding from foundations,” said one knowledgeable insider, who declined to be identified because of his ties to Jewish organizations.
Lazar, a management consultant who was hired to try to save the organization and who is a former New York City regional director of the state’s Office of Mental Health, said he concluded that “NYANA was too far gone. I realized that I couldn’t in good conscience let it limp along.”
Lazar, who was born to Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1948, before the creation of NYANA, said the agency’s original mission was to handle a refugee boom of about three or four years.
“It was always considered a temporary mission,” said Lazar. “After the war [the Jewish community] saw that they can’t handle tens of thousands from DP camps. It was started in July1949 and supposed to fold up in about three or four years. But nothing happens as planned.”
Waves of Jewish refugees came from Hungary in the late 1950s, and from Romania and Poland in the ‘60s, followed by the surge of emigration from Russia and the Soviet bloc in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
“Fortunately, there aren’t many Jews being kicked out of their countries,” said Lazar. “We’ve gone from resettling tens of thousands in one year to only a few hundred.”
The number of refugee claims processed by the State Department dropped dramatically after 9/11 terrorist attacks, to about 26,000 in 2002 from more than 70,000 the previous year.
The highest level in the past 15 years was in 1992 when the number exceeded 110,000, fueled largely by European emigration. In 2005, the number was about 55,000, about 10,000 from Europe, from which the majority of Jewish refugees emigrate.
When Michael Datikash and his family left the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 1991, NYANA became a second family to him. Representatives of the organization gave him a $400 stipend for several months and hired him for photography work, which led to his current position as staff photographer at The Jewish Week, where he has worked since 1992.
“They met us in the airport and invited us the next day to come to their office in Battery Park,” recalled Datikash, who was then 43 and had left a career as a news photographer for the Soviet Tass agency.
“There was a big line of people and many social workers working very hard to accept so many people.” Through the agency Datikash and his wife, Lali, took English classes, and Lali is now assistant director for patient safety and manager of a program at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. Their two teenage children also benefited from NYANA aid and programs, Datikash said.
Lazar said a priority of NYANA as it winds down is to ensure that a mechanism is in place to handle any future waves of Jewish refugees.
“You never know when Jews are going to get kicked out of other countries. In France, England and Germany there is a lot of anti-Semitism. You never know when ugly racial issues are going to start again. There should be a resettlement arm in New York for Jews.”
And though NYANA is expected to be dissolved as an incorporated nonprofit, the name will live on, attached to projects at other agencies.
“It’s very important that the brand name of NYANA stick around,” he said.