Ann Schwarz, a 42-year-old Nassau County unemployed mother of three, now buys only store brands at the supermarket.
With food costs rising, Schwartz (not her real name) said she has been forced to “change the way we buy food with the food certificates we get. We buy store brands and we look for what’s on sale. We don’t use coupons because we can’t afford the Sunday paper.”
“For Rosh HaShanah, a girlfriend who converted to Judaism and is also in a bad financial situation made extra for us so we could celebrate,” she added. “Everything has changed tremendously because of what is happening in the economy and the fact that I’m not working.
“And when I go to the local food pantry, it’s almost empty because everybody is going through a rough time.”
Schwartz is one of thousands of Jewish Long Islanders and an estimated 226,000 Jewish city residents (based on the 2000 census) living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level (an annual income of $17,000 for a single person and about $29,000 for a family of four).
And while the full impact of the economic downturn is yet to be determined, the working poor like Schwartz are already feeling the strain from higher food and fuel costs.
Schwartz, whose husband earns $50,000 a year working in a food distribution business, receives help from M’yad L’yad (Helping Hands), a 10-year-old Long Island-based organization that pairs sponsors with those in need. The group, a division of the Suffolk Council of Jewish Organizations, keeps both sponsors and recipients anonymous.
Although the organization is currently serving 300 people in need on Long Island and in the city, Gloria Safran, the group’s president, said no one knows for sure how many poor people live on Long Island.
A 2002 study by UJA-Federation of New York estimated that there were 7,000 poor Jewish households on Long Island and in Westchester. Safran said she saw other figures that put the number of Jewish poor on Long Island alone at more than 10,000.
William Rapfogel, executive director and CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said all surveys taken until now have involved such a small sample that they are unreliable.
“We know that there is a problem in urban areas like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia where Jews congregate,” he said. “The cost of living there is high and if Jews there are living any kind of a lifestyle — sending their kids to day school, joining a synagogue, keeping kosher — it’s expensive.”
Mark Zimmerman, M’yad L’yad’s executive director, pointed out that most of the group’s recipients are the working poor. And those who don’t work, he said, “are seniors or people unable to work because of health issues.”
He noted that of the 300 recipients currently served, 45 are older than 65 and 100 are younger than 18.
“The number of recipients has increased by 20 percent since March,” Zimmerman noted.
That may be due in part to the worsening financial crisis. There have been fears of a recession even as world leaders attempted this week to coordinate efforts at reviving the global financial system.
In the last six weeks alone, Rapfogel said, his office has handled 40 cases in which Jews renting space in two or three family homes have had their rents raised because the owners’ adjustable rate mortgages have increased.
“We have been working with the owners to lower the rent and helping to pay an additional month’s rent so the tenants could afford to live there,” he said. “We have not had one case in which the owner said no.”
What is particularly worrying, Rapfogel said, is that he has not had one homeowner with an adjustable rate mortgage contact his office to say they can’t handle the new, higher mortgage payments.
“These may be people who don’t believe they belong in a poverty agency,” he said. “There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of these people and if we can get them all together, we’ll go with some clout to their banks and help them renegotiate their mortgage. Instead of a 15-year mortgage, it could be made a 25-year mortgage and the monthly payments could then be lowered.”
“We want to see people pull themselves up and be independent, but now is not the time when there is a danger of losing their homes and everything they have worked for,” Rapfogel added.
Schwartz said she is now trying to negotiate alone with her bank in an attempt to keep the bank from foreclosing on her home. She said she reminded bank officials last week that she recently had an operation and they promised to try to recalculate her monthly payments based on that fact.
Another working person helped by M’yad L’yad, Harry Epstein, 50, a housepainter who lives in eastern Suffolk County, said he is “dying for work” because he is getting too few jobs.
“People are either postponing work or doing only part of a project,” he said.
Making it even more difficult, said Epstein (not his real name), is the fact that he is competing with younger Central and South American immigrants.
“They have flooded the place with cheap labor,” he said. “I started feeling it this past spring when I was bidding on jobs. I kept bidding lower and lower and when I asked what was going on, they said Carlos does similar work for less. So they hire him. … They are hungry, motivated people who are willing to do anything for the minimum wage. I’m competing with 25-year-olds. It’s rough.”
As a M’yad L’yad recipient, Epstein receives gift packages from sponsors at least four times a year filled with items his family has said they need, such as clothing or supermarket food cards. The organization also sends recipients food cards for Chanukah/Christmas and Passover/Easter.
Most but not all of its recipients are Jewish. Zimmerman said 37 percent live in Nassau County, about 50 percent in Suffolk and 10 percent in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
“We don’t actively recruit from the city, but we don’t turn away anyone who is identified to us,” he said.
He noted that those families without a sponsor are helped by the organization as a whole with gift cards and other items until a sponsor can be found. And Zimmerman said the group’s social worker refers recipients to other agencies when they have specific needs, like help with housing issues.
Among those to whom recipients are referred is the Alexandra Rubinger Food Pantry based at Congregation Beth-El in Massapequa, the only kosher food pantry on the Island. It contains non-perishable food, such as canned fruits and vegetables and pasta.
Although UJA-Federation made an emergency $400,000 grant recently to the Met Council to allow them to restock their food pantries, the organization does not service Long Island.
Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-El, said his food pantry is stocked with food donated by individuals through food drives and by cash donations. The Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism provides a $2,000 annual gift and State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Garden City) has sponsored a bill to give the food pantry several thousand dollars each year.
The cash is used to buy food at a 20 percent discount at a local Waldbaum’s supermarket, according to Avrum Bloomstone, a founder of the food pantry.
The food pantry is open Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. until noon and is manned by volunteers from the Sisterhood of Brandeis University Alumni, Bloomstone said. He said that although those who come to the food pantry are primarily blacks and Hispanics from surrounding communities — as many as 100 a month — Bloomstone said a representative from FEGS comes once a week to fill bags for seven or eight Jewish families.
“He does the home delivery himself,” Bloomstone said.
Jeffrey Myers, the synagogue’s cantor, said that in the last year there has been a “noticeable slowdown in the amount of money donated to the food pantry and an increase in the number of clients.”
“Over the past year we have seen an increase in clients as social service funding has been cut on the federal level,” he observed. “That trickles down. And if our donors are having financial problems, it is more difficult for them to make contributions to us.”
Myers noted that at certain times of the year a large shipment of food will be donated that will fill up the pantry — a large closet — and that the rest is put on the stage of the auditorium.
“Regrettably, that is not a regular occurrence,” he said.
In its quest for additional sponsors, M’yad L’yad since April has been reaching out to synagogues across Long Island to encourage them to become involved. To date, 17 have signed on.
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, spiritual leader of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville, said his congregation became involved with the group about two years ago and has conducted two annual clothing drives for the group’s recipients.
“M’yad L’yad provides us with a description of the clothing needed — the ages, sex, the kind of clothes and the sizes,” he said. “Our people buy new clothes or donate gently-used clothes. Our congregation has been very supportive and extraordinarily generous in going through their closets and in buying things that people need.”
The rabbi’s wife, Rabbi Susie Heneson Moskowitz, is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Torah and a board member of M’yad L’yad who said her congregants have been supportive of the organization for about 10 years. She said they have raised money through garage sales, and that different groups of students have conducted clothing drives.
“A group of 12 girls made a giant basket of school supplies and other items,” she said. “And I know at least two families in the synagogue who sponsor recipients. … By protecting the anonymity of the person it protects their pride. That is among the highest forms of giving.”