Jewish Journal


November 19, 2008

Economic crisis affecting all strata in community


Sabrina Bahir was never particularly well off, at least financially. Her loving, supportive parents still reside in a trailer park and live off disability.

"I missed the Jewish American Princess boat," she joked.

Bahir believed that gaining a graduate degree -- a master's in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion -- might be the ticket to a better lifestyle. And for a short time it was.

Bahir worked for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Orange County for two years. But when a new CEO stepped in and discovered that the bureau was in financial turmoil, she became a statistic in the nation's growing unemployment numbers, with no more than a day's notice. Bahir, 31, has been living off unemployment benefits and a six-week severance package since September.

"I know they're in a difficult situation," Bahir said, referring to her former employer. But "sometimes I wonder, God, what did I get a master's in Jewish education for?"

Employers cut 240,000 jobs nationwide in October, and today's 6.5 percent unemployment rate is at a 14-year high, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The automotive, financial services and retail sectors have all been affected, and many analysts are predicting the nation's economic problems will last well through 2010.

The Jewish community is feeling the pinch, as well, with rabbis reporting that congregants are either seeking aid from synagogues or expressing fears about prospects in the immediate future. Given the decline in charitable giving, the Jewish community's ability to keep up with demand is diminishing.

Bahir and her husband don't know where they will live after December. By then, the couple will no longer be able to afford rent on their apartment.

Although Bahir said she has been looking for a job for months, only now has she begun to receive phone calls, mostly from prospective employers in the Bay Area.

"There is a season of hiring in the Jewish professional world," Bahir said, referring to the time before the High Holy Days. "This is a very awkward time of the year to be looking for a job."

"We're applying for jobs we're way overqualified for ... just because we're desperate," she added.

Bahir also said that in this dire climate, Jewish education is often one of the first things to go.

"People can't afford to be a member of a congregation, and they can't afford to pay extra for their children," Bahir said.

Congregations all over Los Angeles are witnessing their congregants twitch in their seats, as members of the Jewish community watch their retirement savings dwindle or come face to face with an uncertain job market.

Rabbi Richard Flom of Burbank's Temple Emanu El said phone calls for help are up 50 percent in the last few months at his congregation.

"They're generally calling for rent money or grocery money," Flom said.

Although Rabbi Dov Gartenberg of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach said he hasn't seen any real tragedies, he does suspect the impact will be felt more in the next two to three months.

"I do sense the nervousness," Gartenberg said. "That's palpable."

But Flom said that many are unwilling to open up about the trouble they find themselves in.

"There's a lot of shame and embarrassment," Flom said. "Maybe even more so in the Jewish community, because people see this community as more well off."

Josh Kaplan, a married father of two who recently lost his job at Experian due to the economic crisis, said he suspects openness about financial trouble may also be a generational issue.

"The Facebook crowd don't keep any secrets," he said.

But Rabbi Richard Spiegel of Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks said that all people are suffering right now, regardless of age.

"Older people are saying younger people don't know what this is like. It reminds them of the Depression," Spiegel said. "Younger people are saying they never thought they would see this in their lifetime."

Harvey Shield, past president of Temple Knesseth Israel of Hollywood and Los Feliz, thinks that it's important to put the current situation -- as critical as it may be -- in perspective.

"In the big scheme of things, we Jews have been through some real crises," he said.

But Jewish social service agencies are reporting problems throughout the community strata, even in the upper middle class. Susie Forer-Dehrey, associate executive director of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, said that the economic heartache has left some families house rich but cash poor.

"You're not going to continue the lifestyle you were living," she said. "We're hearing about kids being put in public schools."

With donations down and demand up, some rabbis say it's also taken a toll on their discretionary funds. While helping those in need with smaller donations is feasible, Etz Chaim's Spiegel said he can no longer help families on the edge of losing their home.

"If people can't afford their mortgage ... I don't have that kind of money in my fund," he said.

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