Social Workers Help L.A. Synagogues

Middle Class Hit Hard as Recession Ignores Zip Code Boundaries

Help Needed: Synagogues in affluent communities in Los Angeles need help from social workers as the economic downturn bites.
courtesy of University synagogue
Help Needed: Synagogues in affluent communities in Los Angeles need help from social workers as the economic downturn bites.

By Rex Weiner

Published October 21, 2011, issue of October 28, 2011.
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“A couple comes to meet with me,” Rabbi Morley Feinstein recounted, haltingly describing a difficult moment. “They’re senior citizens… extraordinarily caring, dynamic and wonderfully connected as volunteers in the community… sat in my office… said they could no longer afford the cost of synagogue membership, and they actually said to me, ‘We’ve had to think about whether or not to sell our cemetery plots to make ends meet.’ It was painful to hear.”

It was also surprising to hear, given that Feinstein presides over University Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Brentwood, one of Los Angeles’s toniest neighborhoods. But it seems hard times no longer respect ZIP codes.

It’s not exactly “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” but now two of L.A.’s wealthiest congregations have welcomed an unfamiliar sort of professional to their regular synagogue staffs: a social worker.

Funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, A program known as Caring Community has launched with one social worker employed part time at University Synagogue and the rest of the week at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue that is in neighboring Pacific Palisades.

The location is notable. Pacific Palisades is a community of 27,000 with a median household income of $168,008 and median home sale price of $1.68 million. Steven Spielberg lives here, with neighbors like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, Larry David and Billy Crystal. In Brentwood, to the east, with about 40,000 people, the median home sale price is $1.35 million, and median household income is $102,308. Marilyn Monroe used to live there, and OJ Simpson, too.

The social-worker-in-the-synagogue program, launched at the conclusion of this year’s High Holy Days, is modeled on a similar one begun in 2009 by UJA-Federation of New York, which places social workers at synagogues and Jewish community centers and has served 45,000 people so far. The West Coast version will begin with one social worker. But the new hire will be the first in a pilot effort that is expected to expand citywide.

“It’s not just the poor getting poorer,” Diana Fiedotin, the L.A. federation’s senior vice president of Caring for Jews in Need told the Forward, “but middle- and upper-middle class families themselves in need, who either don’t know about services that are available or are too embarrassed to ask.”

Fiedotin is a key organizer for the program, which she said is going cost “north of $800,000” over two-and a half to three years. The sum includes cash allocated by the federation and the Jewish Community Foundation, plus in-kind contributions such as office space and facility usage donated by the synagogues, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and Jewish Family Service. JFS is administering the program.

According to Feinstein, Brentwood’s apparent affluence masks the desperation of the formerly well-off whose jobs have been lost and homes foreclosed, and who find themselves overburdened by health emergencies, the escalating cost of child care and college tuition, and the expense of caring for aging parents. Along with Kehillat Israel’s senior rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, Feinstein is seeing people who are caught in dire circumstances and who, they say, are reluctant, because of their class and social status, to ask for help — often until it is too late.

“We’re not professional therapists, and there’s not enough time in a rabbi’s schedule to respond effectively,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, one of the key movers behind Caring Community. The idea of placing social workers in area synagogues, he explained, came about because “we’re seeing more and more people in need who are seeking out rabbis as first responders.”

An early sign that the Westside community was in trouble was the number of applications for emergency grants submitted to JFS. The federation instituted the emergency grants program — anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for individuals and families — after the recession hit in 2008. Of the many synagogues directing applicants to JFS for these grants, Kehillat Israel, “has been a significant participant.” Fiedotin said.

“After 2008 we realized that the economic downturn was impacting Jews in profound ways,” The federation’s president, Jay Sanderson, told the Forward. “The existing social network wasn’t equipped to help people with their immediate needs. When you have a social service issue, you usually have to fall pretty far down to be caught in the safety net. But what happens if you are right before the safety net? What happens if you’re a middle-class family with a couple of kids, and you both lose your jobs and it’s three months later?”b

In Feinstein’s view, the crisis is affecting the basic fabric of the Jewish community. “People are dropping out, not sending their children to preschool, leaving the synagogue because they can’t afford it,” he said. “But they say they’re going on ‘hiatus,’” he said wryly, citing the term used by television industry people when a show goes off the air — ostensibly temporarily, but often for good. Feinstein estimates that as many as half of his congregation is in some way connected to the film and TV business — a local industry pummeled by the productions leaving Los Angeles for other, more tax-friendly locations. The Writers Guild alone has reported that nearly 50% of its membership is on permanent hiatus.

“It’s not just about putting food on the table and making sure people have jobs,” Sanderson said. “The first thing that families cut is Jewish education and synagogue membership. If we care about the health of the Jewish community, we have to think about spiritual health and communal health.”

The barriers presented by L.A.’s driving distances and BY the relative isolation of its otherwise privileged communities are what created a need for locating assistance where it is “geographically and psychologically convenient,” Fiedotin said. Unlike less the less well-heeled Fairfax District, the leafy environs of Brentwood or Pacific Palisades do not have a senior center. This is one of the factors that spurred the Caring Community initiative, a project in line with the federation’s new “mission-oriented” direction under Sanderson, now in his second year on the job.

Sanderson described the case of one formerly well-to-do woman on the Westside who, suddenly unemployed and falling behind on the rent, nearly lost her chance for a heart transplant because she was on the verge of eviction from her apartment. The hospital required a home address for her to be eligible for surgery. Only when her dilemma had reached a crisis did she call the synagogue and reach out to the rabbi, who helped arrange emergency grants and connected her with agencies that assisted her in getting back on the hospital’s transplant list.

“This is for people in the gray area,” Sanderson said. “You’re not going to see them in a homeless shelter yet, but they’re in trouble.”

Contact Rex Weiner at feedback@forward.com


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