July 24, 2008
Economic turmoil puts pressure on Jewish community
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"We all have to proceed forward knowing that there is this ambiguity, there are a lot of pieces of a complex puzzle which are not filling in the gestalt of the communal reality," John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said in an interview last week. "I start from a premise of 'let's be practical; let's assume the best, but be aware that the best may not be able to be achieved.'"
That perspective is a reflection of just how jarring the decline in the American economy has been during the past 12 months.
Inflation nationwide was up 5.5 percent in June from the previous year. California's jobless rate climbed to 6.9 percent. Stocks have fallen sharply, with the S&P 500 off about 22 percent last week from its October peak.
Home prices are dropping fast, too, the result of a combination of prices artificially inflated by speculators, fraudulent or high-risk mortgage lending and some resultant mass hysteria. New construction, a huge source of labor in California and nationally, has stalled; lenders are struggling to stay afloat, with IndyMac leaving the loan business and laying off 3,800; the government is considering how to secure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and, according to PropertyShark.com, Los Angeles County foreclosures spiked to 14,505 in the second quarter, almost quadruple the number during the same period in 2007.
Bad news has been coming even from places that report the news -- the Los Angeles Times last week began its latest round of cuts, about 250 employees, including 17 percent of the newsroom. Questions about whether the United States is in a recession or on the cusp of one have been pretty much settled.
The query now -- tantamount to both individuals wrestling with life changes and the organizations seeking to help them -- is: for how long?
"The effects of the housing contraction and of the financial headwinds on spending and economic activity have been compounded by rapid increases in the prices of energy and other commodities, which have sapped household purchasing power even as they have boosted inflation," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told the House Committee on Financial Services last week.
"As events in recent weeks have demonstrated," he added, "many financial markets and institutions remain under considerable stress, in part because the outlook for the economy, and thus far credit quality, remains uncertain."
For Avi Edery, a 35-year-old Israeli native living in Woodland Hills, "sapped purchasing power" began a breakneck decline in the fortune of his home-improvement business.
"This winter was really bad," Edery, said. "Beforehand, we could just go into a house, and people would pull off money from their equity, whatever they wanted, and just roll with it. Now, nobody."
Edery and his wife fell behind on their rent. His credit was poor and their savings small. Traditional borrowing wasn't much of an option.
But Jewish Free Loan Association, with an interest-free emergency rental loan for up to $3,000, offered enough to stem the tide. Edery applied last month and was quickly approved.
"It's not a lot of money," he said. "But every penny helps when you are in need."
And who isn't in need when Jewish life can be so expensive? Synagogue dues, Hebrew school, summer camp, kosher food, the occasional trip to Israel -- the individual costs of Jewish involvement -- can significantly tap into "the discretionary income of practically every middle-class Jewish family in America," said Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
When times are tight, some families look to congregational membership and Jewish education as significant expenses they can cut.
"A year ago, people still had savings, and they did not think it would take a year for them to find another place of employment," said David Brook, executive director of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, a congregation heavy with real estate professionals. "Now we are seeing those same people come in, and they have not found employment, so they are either starting their own business or going into a new industry. We as a synagogue have to be there to help them. These are families that have children in our religious school and our preschool, and we will not deny a Jewish education to any of them."
Life was precarious enough last year for many congregants at Temple Aliyah, which budgeted about $50,000 for members needing dues reductions. These members, some paying as little as $180 for an annual membership that a family of four would ordinarily pay as much as $2,500 for, accounted for about 5 percent of the temple's 900 families.
"Seventy-five percent of the congregants who were asking for dues reductions were Realtors. And we also had two open administrative assistant positions, and we had Realtors applying for those," Brook said. "Then midway through the year, we had another open position, and we had Hollywood people applying because of the strike."
The temple budgeted 10 percent more for dues relief this year but won't know just what is needed until membership renewals roll in as the school year and High Holy Days approach. Unfortunately, Rabbi Stewart Vogel said, there are bound to be some who can no longer afford membership, but rather than ask for assistance, they will disappear from the synagogue community.
"I've had families who I tell, 'This is the job of the synagogue,'" Vogel said, "and they still don't take the help, because it makes them uncomfortable."
At Shalhevet School, where a Modern Orthodox high school education runs about $23,000 a year, one-third of students receive financial aid, Rabbi Elchanan J. Weinbach said. There has been an increase in scholarship applications from middle-class families.
"The wealthier families, thank God, can afford the cost, and the families at the bottom are the easiest to get assistance for," said Weinbach, who took over as head of school last month. "It's really the families who are somewhere in the middle that become the most painful cases."
In an effort to expand Shalhevet's scholarship fund, the school has been reaching out to affluent members of the community who have the means to increase their giving. Shalhevet, however, is not the only Jewish institution or organization turning to this community of higher-earning, committed Jews.
"In these kinds of troubles, there are some people who reach back and become more generous," Tobin said. "In every war Israel has fought, for example, people reach back. The capacity to do so is there. It's a matter of leadership and will."