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Jewish Journal

Economic ripples rock Jewish community

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 28, 2008 | 4:38 pm

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My complaints a week ago about being really, really busy and a bit negligent of this blog were courtesy of this story I was writing about how the tumbling economy was hurting the Jewish community. Despite what anti-Semites presume, Jews aren’t made of money, and when Americans on the whole are hurting, so too is American Jewry.

The major challenges are twofold: Jewish life is rich in communal organizations and therefore relies on significant community support; when the economy stumbles, demand for social services increases but funding, both public and private, typically goes in the opposite direction.

An excerpt from my article is after the jump:

The scariest reality for many organizations is how unclear the future remains. So far, many charities report that fundraising is on pace with last year, but at the same time, officials admit the situation could go south in a hurry if the economy doesn’t improve. The demand for resources continues to climb each month for many, but social service organizations’ financial health won’t be fully known until donors write their final checks for 2008.

Already there are signs of belt-tightening: Last month, when SOVA’s executive director left for another job, she was replaced by Joan Mithers, JFS’ director of community programs and staff training. Mithers new role was blended with her old, and that position was frozen. More trimming is expected as soaring food costs continue to push SOVA’s $1.5 million budget upward. And that is assuming end-of-year fundraising can live up to budgeted expectations.

That story could be told this summer over and over throughout the world of philanthropy in general and Jewish communal service specifically.

“It’s really a catch-22,” said Jay Soloway, director of career services for Jewish Vocational Service, which through June this year has seen a 50 percent spike in referrals from SOVA and an increasing number of clients holding master’s degrees.

At the same time, in May, United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for North American federations, adopted a $37 million budget that was $3.2 million lighter than the previous years and included the reduction of 32 jobs.

Last month, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) announced that it would cut 60 jobs, including 52 in Israel, to deal with a $60 million budget deficit, due, in large part, to the dollar’s dropping value and the rising cost of work abroad.

And locally, Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the Reform college is evaluating the practicality of shaving a day off the workweek. Windmueller said other institutions and organizations are doing the same.

“The question [nonprofits] have to come up with,” Windmueller said, “is whether this is viable for their operations, for meeting state law with hourly earners and whether the expectations of their donors and members and clients can be met in the context of a four-day workweek.”

Some organizations will choose to borrow heavily to sustain programming, while many will cut back services and reduce staff, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Others will choose to collaborate or merge with another organization, and a few will likely call it quits.

Nevertheless, a broad survey of Jewish schools, synagogues and social service agencies big and small—from the JDC to Project Chicken Soup—depicts a mosaic of caution and pragmatic optimism, an awareness that the sky is not yet falling, but it very well could.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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