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Rabbi, Can You Spare a Dime? Coping With Hard Times in a Town That Was Just Getting By

LYNBROOK, N.Y. — Rabbi Howard Diamond is smoking a cigarette, standing outside his synagogue, Congregation Beth David. It’s just a few blocks from the Lynbrook stop on the Long Island Rail Road, within rattling distance of the overhead tracks. It’s late and he’s tired, but there is always, always work to be done in this suburban congregation on the south shore of Long Island, 22 miles from Times Square. Lately, people need the rabbi more than ever.

Diamond takes a visitor into his office, a 1970s-era, wood-paneled room filled with books, candy and photographs, and rearranges the crumpled yarmulke on his head. “This area is not like Great Neck or the Hamptons,” he said, referring to Long Island’s fabled pockets of wealth as though they were another country. “These are people who are less insulated from bad economic things happening.”

Bad economic things are happening in Lynbrook. Diamond says that as the recession drags on, he finds himself increasingly dipping into his discretionary fund, drawing cash to send congregants to Jewish summer camps and retreats. Now the fund is running dry. He recently bought sets of tefillin for two kids preparing for bar mitzvah. “The parents didn’t mind the kids doing it — they just didn’t want to pay for it,” he said.

Unfortunately, he said, “the bill has been sitting here for two weeks.”

He used to cover the shortfall from his own pocket, but now he can’t. “I have incredible financial pressures,” said the 48-year-old father of seven. “I am behind on every bill that I have. I can’t turn to my synagogue to help me — although they have on a number of occasions — because the fact is, the synagogue struggles. People have normal jobs. We’re not wealthy.”

Lynbrook is the Long Island that doesn’t get written up in gossip columns. It’s the kind of place where the word “America” sells everything from beepers to burgers, where mom-and-pop bridal shops compete on the streets, where Old Glory masks the shamrock decorations at the Irish pubs. It’s the kind of place where teenage girls still favor pay phones, minivans outnumber SUVs on the roads and 25 cents will still buy you an hour on a parking meter. If there’s a Jewish Middle America, this is it.

Betty Edelstein lives one town over, in Valley Stream. She’s the sort of person Diamond has in mind, the kind with a “normal” job who’s just making it. Or used to be. Edelstein recently lost her job as an executive secretary at a small Jewish non-profit. “I expected it to be a permanent position,” she said. “My job ended because they weren’t getting enough contributions.”

“When it happens, it happens abruptly,” said Edelstein, 48. “They don’t tell you three weeks before that things are slowing down.”

Edelstein speaks to the Forward at the offices of the Jewish-sponsored employment services agency FEGS. Dressed smartly in a blue blazer, she seems ready for a potential job interview at any moment. Right now she has time for a newspaper interview. She’s friendly, smiling but palpably tense. Yes, she says, she’s behind on her synagogue dues. She’s uninsured and unemployed; she ran through her unemployment benefits when she lost her previous job. Now she leans on her brother to help pay bills. “It’s somewhat embarrassing when you’re in this position,” she said.

Earlier this month, UJA-Federation of New York allocated emergency funding to assist people who, like Edelstein, found themselves down on their luck. “We’re trying to respond to a need in our community,” said Louise Greilsheimer, the federation’s agency and external relations vice president.

“There were two issues that seemed to present themselves,” she said. “One was help getting a job. The second was that, starting after Passover, many people were finding it impossible to continue in a synagogue or community center.”

Last month the federation allocated $500,000 to the Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater New York to provide loans of up to $7,500, to help Jews continue to live Jewish lives in economically tough times. “People who were middle class, upper middle class and comfortable don’t have us on their screen when they’re in trouble,” said Shana Novick, executive director of the free loan society, which until recently aided mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union. “The purpose of the program is to be responsive to Jewish families who are suffering in the recession.”

The federation is also channeling aid through FEGS, formerly the Federation Employment and Guidance Services. “We’ve been inundated — we’re busier than busy,” said Meryl Cordover, assistant vice president of FEGS. “We’re seeing more middle- and upper-middle-class people, absolutely. It’s difficult. Salaries have come down. We’ve seen people take $40,000 pay cuts just to get back in the workforce.”

Still, even with an arm out from the Jewish community, the challenge of reentering the work force can be enormous. Edelstein is college educated, speaks Hebrew and German and has 13 years of administrative experience, but she’s had no luck. “There’s just so many applicants out there,” she said. “It’s been very difficult with the recession. You see an ad in The New York Times and you respond, but they get about 500 resumes for one ad. They don’t see a person, just a piece of paper.”

Edelstein doesn’t have much to fall back on. A single mother, she raised her daughter on an income in the high $30,000’s. After paying $1,250 in monthly rent for her two-bedroom apartment, she said, “I wasn’t able to save. On that kind of salary, you can’t. If I had the financial means, perhaps I could have been able to take courses, advance myself more and make more money. But I wasn’t able to.”

Her daughter recently graduated college, and Edelstein said she was looking forward to the prospect of two incomes. Instead, she received a letter from the university, advising parents not to expect their graduates to find a job quickly in the current economy.

Her rabbi recently announced at a Saturday morning service that she was looking for work. “It helps you network,” she said. Still, her synagogue dues, a “few hundred” a year, are an added expense. “They’re understanding. I can come to synagogue. But I can’t expect to attend events for free. If they’re having a Shabbat dinner, I have to expect to pay for it. I can’t afford the extras.”

Diamond, the rabbi at Congregation Beth David, says he’s finding more and more people turning to his synagogue for help, whether or not they are members. “When people have financial strife in their lives, sometimes that can drive them a little closer to yidishkayt,” Diamond said. “It doesn’t mean they’re digging deeper into their pockets — and that’s okay — but they may want to be a little closer to God.”

As the synagogue’s funds evaporate, said Diamond, “I’m in a perpetual state of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I have debt you wouldn’t believe. My father-in-law says, ‘Are you saving for the future?’ I say, the future is now!”

“I’m not crying the blues,” he said. “When I’m 80 years old, I want to look back on my life and say I’ve made a difference. So I may not move to Boca Raton when I retire.”

Edelstein, too, maintains a sunny outlook. “I’m qualified. I have many years of experience. I have good skills,” she said. “You have to stay optimistic.”

A potential job arrives on her career counselor’s desk; perhaps an interview can be arranged for later in the day. Edelstein thanks the Forward — are they hiring? she wonders — profusely for the conversation. “Have a nice day,” she said, as she shut the door behind her.


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