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Focus on Issues: Jewish Social Service Agencies Confront New Era of Retrenchment

Boston’s Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly seems to represent Jewish respect for elders at its finest.

Five building, including one of the campus of the Jewish Community Center in suburban Newton, house 1,300 people, half of them Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

No resident pays more than third of his or her income in rent — meaning that most pay $150 a month or so for what would otherwise be $800 apartments.

During the day, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service and other agencies send aides to help with daily tasks for those who need it, keeping the residents independent for as long as possible.

Virtually none of his, however, comes from Jewish charity.

Instead, the $5.5 million in rent subsidies received by the non-profit housing agency come from the federal government.

And with the Department of Housing and Urban Development targeted for major budget cuts, Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly has been facing the prospects of displacing some of its elderly residents to make room for people able to afford higher rents.

This situation is mirrored in hundreds of programs nationwide, highlighting the profound dependency of Jewish social service organizations of government money.

Jewish federations are only beginning to take stock of how dependent their affiliated agencies are on government funding. And they are only beginning to plot how to proceed.

Should the federal, state and local governments cut deeply into social service programs, as they have vowed to do, philanthropies insists that there is no way they can make up for the shortfall.

From elderly housing and refugee resettlement to meals-on-wheels programs and even grants for Jewish theater programs, “The end result is that over the past 30 years, you now have a reality that more dollars came out form the government to sponsor Jewish-sponsored services than come from Jewish fundings,” said Gerald Bubis, founding dean of the School of Jewish Communal Service at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

In general, government money makes up 30 percent of the funding of non-profit social service programs, with only 20 percent coming from private donations. Most of the remainder comes from service fees.

These figures, compiled by the Independent Sector, a trade group for non-profit organizations, exclude the impact of Medicare reimbursement.

The numbers are similar when it comes to the Jewish community, according to Diana Aviv, director, Washington Action Office, Council of Jewish Federations.

“You would need a 230 percent increase in private donations,” said Aviv. “How do you do that when the average [annual] increase has been 2.1 percent? It’s not going to happen. The federal government has a responsibility.”

To replace the total federal rent subsidies for those 1,300 elderly Jews, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies would have to boost its annual campaign, which last year raised $21 million, by 25 percent.

“It is not simply that the Jewish community would have trouble picking it up,” said Ellen Fingold, president of the Jewish housing agency. “In civilized history, communities have taken responsibility for those people who could not do it themselves.

Nonetheless, even as Jewish philanthropies and social service agencies try to fight the cuts, they are also starting to face the questions of how to adjust to new world.

“We’ve all pretty much accepted the fact that we’re living in a society where government subvention of services is going to be reduced,” said Michael Hirschfeld, director of the Commission on Government Relations of the Los Angeles federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee.

Whether or not any set of proposed cuts is passed this year, “government is going through a process of redetermining its role in society, and we anticipate this is going to continue for sometime,” said Jeffrey Solomon, chief operating officer for program services at the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

Federations are only now starting to plot their next steps. “In the beginning, there was a sense of shock and surprise at the change of the elections. Then a sense of denial, that we have to wait and see — may be some goods ideas will come out of this,” said Aviv.

“But what we found is that part of the plan by the very smart and imaginative HOuse leadership was to move fast,” she said, referring to the newly elected Republican majority led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Aviv has been rallying the Jewish community in combatting the cuts, focusing particularly on trying to protect low-income housing, refugee programs, job- training programs and programs for the elderly.

In one survival strategy, federations are turning their gaze to their state capitals, in the anticipation that billions of dollars in social service money will be turned from federal grants to state block grants.

In Los Angeles, Hirschfeld worries that “the actual down-and-dirty fighting will take place at the local or city level, by different agencies competing for vastly reduced dollars. Ugh!”

“Every federation is going to have to pay a lot more attention to state governments,” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “When the block grants come down, that’s where it’s going to be.”

In New York, said Solomon, the federation is working to help its agencies adjust to the new era by helping them share services and reduce costs.

And the federation is also trying to educate its contributors about the impact of the proposed cuts.

“We’re using our resources in our campaign to talk about the impact and to try to generate additional funds for the agencies,” said Solomon.

“Private philanthropy can’t make up the magnitude of the cuts. But we want to go to donors and say, `You cam make a difference’ and `The outcome or th care of some individuals is in your hands,'” he said.

Bubis believes that the crisis in social service cuts is exacerbated by the turn of Jewish continuity and Jewish education as funding priorities.

The money for these programs, said Bubis, did not come from ignoring poverty- stricken, Jews, but by “learning to negotiate the system so they don’t have to pay for the [the social service] from Jewish dollars.”

“Now, he said, “you’ll have a competition between the need to help Jews in their physical needs, and the need to help the Jewish people that has spiritual and cultural and identity needs. Those who worlds are going to go to the mat in the budget and allocations process in every city.”

In New York, for example, Solomon said his federation is not discussing reallocating from their Israel or Jewish education to help pay for social services.

“Frankly, we haven’t seen a diminishing need for services in the Jewish continuity building areas of Jewish education and community centers and camps,” Solomon said.

“It’s not as if there are tens of millions of dollars being freed up from elsewhere that can be put into social services,” he said.

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