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As Tech Bust Lingers, Shuls Find a New Role: Job Bank

OAKLAND, Calif. — Finding work never used to be a problem for Owen Rubin.

A computer engineer, he worked for Atari and Pacific Bell before being handpicked by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to join a high-tech research firm. He went from there to a string of hot start-ups. Then suddenly, in April 2002, after 25 years of steady work, Rubin was downsized from Quicksilver Technology, a San Jose-based mobile systems communications company.

“I’m out a year and a month now, and I don’t expect to find work for at least another 12 months,” said Rubin, 49. He has sent out an estimated 500 resumes, winning one face-to-face interview and a few phone calls, none of which have gone anywhere.

“I keep plugging away,” Rubin told the Forward. “I’m well-educated; I’m talented; I have a lot of skills, but I can’t get a job because there are just no jobs.”

Earlier this month, Rubin tried something different. He went back to Temple Sinai, the Reform synagogue where he once became a bar mitzvah, to attend a job-networking group. It was, he said, like entering a hall of mirrors: a room full of people his age, all with resumes as distinguished as his, all telling the same tale of fruitless search.

The group is one of at least a half-dozen to spring up at Bay Area synagogues during the last year. With the region’s economy still reeling from the dot-com bust and middle-class unemployment soaring, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are being called on to fill needs not seen in years.

“In my 20 years as executive director, I’ve never seen an economic situation hit the Bay Area and the Jewish community this hard,” said Abby Snay, head of the Jewish Vocational Service of the East Bay. The organization, which offers career counseling, job training and placement programs, served 2,800 Jewish and non-Jewish clients in 2001. This year it expects a record 4,500 clients.

Temple Sinai’s job-networking group began last year. Congregant Jeff Gordon, a business development consultant who works with technology clients — while looking for full-time employment (he lost his high-tech job just before September 11, 2001) — heard about a similar group meeting at Congregation Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Los Altos Hills, 40 miles south. Gordon and a friend, a member of Conservative Temple

Beth Abraham in Oakland, drove down to check it out. The organizer of the Beth Am group, Jill Kulick, was glad to help the visitors organize new groups back in Oakland — “the highest form of tzedakah is helping people help themselves,” she told the Forward — but she was not eager to take on new members. Given the level of demand, she said, she worries that her group could be overrun. “We can’t save the world,” Kulick said. “We can try to save a few.”

The numbers are stark. San Francisco’s unemployment rate increased from 1.8% at the end of 2000 to 5.6% in March. During that same period, the rate in Oakland jumped from 2.2% to 6.2% and in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, from 1.3% to 8.5%.

Paradoxically, the area remains among the nation’s costliest places to live. Median home prices in March hit $400,000 in Oakland’s Alameda County, $530,500 in San Francisco and $545,000 in San Jose’s Santa Clara County. The region experienced a 2.3% spike in consumer prices from December to February, due mostly to higher clothing, housing and gas prices.

“Families are really grappling with what to give up first,” said Gail Zucker, planning and agency services director at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin & Sonoma Counties. “Is it the synagogue membership? Is it the day school?”

Owen Rubin and his wife, Dianne Jacob, a self-employed writing coach, writer and editor, have been cutting costs wherever possible, especially since Jacob lost her biggest corporate public relations client in December. “You start cutting in all sorts of weird places,” Rubin said.

The couple had an extra phone line removed from their home, reduced cable service and stopped eating out. They have not been members of Temple Sinai for many years, and although he and Jacob considered rejoining as recently as last year, they decided that for the moment the $1,900 membership fee is too expensive for them. “It’s not the right time,” he told the Forward. “It’s not cheap.”

Countless other families are making the same decision, causing a crisis for synagogues around the Bay Area. At Temple Sinai, more than one-third of the shul’s 900 member households can no longer afford to pay full dues, synagogue officials say. Some are elderly and on fixed incomes, but, according to a letter sent out by the synagogue recently, “more and more of our members are underemployed or unemployed due to the general economic situation in our country and especially in the Bay Area.”

Reluctant to turn members away, Temple Sinai decided to let members pay as much or as little as they could afford and created a special fund to close the growing deficit. So far the campaign has netted more than $60,000, said synagogue executive director Joel Magid.

The job-networking group is another response to the crisis. The group’s first meeting, in May 2002, drew about 15 people. Now, 20 to 40 people typically attend. The program alternates between group members and representatives of local social service agencies speaking on resumes, interview skills and self-esteem. In April, Jewish Family Services of the East Bay sent a therapist to conduct a session on the psychological and emotional aspects of unemployment.

The group is open to nonmembers, but participants must be Jewish. “It’s about building and reinforcing community,” Gordon said. “In these groups, you’re finding you’re not alone.”

Not everyone finds it helpful. Steven Horowitz, a first-time attendee at the May meeting, left dispirited.

“It’s sort of a message in a bottle to have that many people with disparate skills taking each other’s resumes,” Horowitz said. “It also felt like what I would imagine people would do at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting — ‘Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m about to be unemployed.’”

Just months ago, Horowitz was mulling the generous pension plan offered by his employer, software maker of Fremont, Calif. Five years short of vesting, he was looking forward to retirement.

Then, in late March, three weeks after turning 50, he learned that the pension wouldn’t be there: Parent company A&E Television Networks sold’s assets to a competitor. Most staffers were let go or offered jobs in Utah. As chief scientist, Horowitz is among a handful of executives staying on a bit longer to finish the shutdown.

After hearing the bad news, he sat down to create a spreadsheet of friends, job Web sites, headhunters, corporations and venture capitalists. So far, no dice. His wife, screenwriter Rachel Koretsky, who co-wrote the 1995 animated feature “The Pebble and the Penguin,” has been a homemaker since 1999. Last fall she began studying for an interior design certificate. “She’s just at the beginning of that, and I’d like to see her be able to finish it,” Horowitz said.

They have an 8-year-old daughter, Hannah, and a 16-year-old son, Michael, who they hope to keep in private school for two more years. Then they’ll have college expenses to pay.

“We belong to Temple Sinai because my daughter attends religious school, and I’d hate to cut that,” Horowitz said. Nor does he want to stop visiting his 84-year-old mother in Florida. “It’s hard to see where to cut,” he said. “We’re not that flagrant — our biggest expenses have been family vacations and private school. It’s not like we shop a lot.”

His 401K fund was “decimated by the stock market,” he said. “It’s probably worth half of what it was in 2000.”

These days, Horowitz said, he sleeps poorly, anxious about the future. “My daughter knows I’m going to be out of work, she knows we have to save, she knows she’s not going to get as many toys and clothes and she’s O.K. with that,” Horowitz said. “She knows other kids in her class who are in the same boat. My son does, too.”

Horowitz’s grandfather fled Poland’s pogroms in 1910 and sold Singer sewing machines on the Lower East Side before getting into the Russian fur trade. His father has childhood memories of the Great Depression, and his lifelong preaching of frugality’s virtue always seemed anachronistic to Horowitz — until now.

“This is the first time I’m facing the feeling his father must’ve felt — wondering how to provide for a family,” Horowitz said. “The feelings he must’ve felt as a kid are what my son must be feeling now.”

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