OU realigns to tackle recession

More than 700 people attended an Orthodox Union-run expo in New York City on April 26, 2009 that showcased social service organizations and other projects to help deal with the recession. (Orthodox Union)

More than 700 people attended an Orthodox Union-run expo in New York City on April 26, 2009 that showcased social service organizations and other projects to help deal with the recession. (Orthodox Union)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Fred Goldberg says he saw the writing on the wall late last year when the small computer company he worked for in New York instituted a 20 percent pay cut.

It wasn’t long afterward that the 52-year-old information technology consultant from the Midwood section of Brooklyn was laid off.

“It’s not good. People are not hiring,” Goldberg said Sunday while standing in line to speak with representatives for a job-placement program at Lander College in Manhattan.

Goldberg was one of more than 700 people to show up for the expo run by the Orthodox Union, where the out-of-work and underemployed could learn about services available to them through the Jewish community.

Goldberg had been laid off before, in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11 and the burst of the high-tech bubble. This time, he said, it feels worse — harder.

“It’s not just high-tech being hit this time, it’s across the board,” he said, noting that many of his friends and neighbors are in the same situation.

Making matters worse, Goldberg’s wife, Edie, who stood next to him in line, has been unable to find work as a secretary since losing her job in 2008.

“I’ve been looking for a job for over a year,” she said. “We’re not in the comfort zone anymore. We’re still paying rent and still paying bills."

The OU is trying to help people like the Goldbergs.

Dozens of organizations, most of which cater to the Orthodox, sent representatives to the Manhattan expo to offer counseling on services such as debt consolidation and interest-free loans, as well as health and welfare issues.

The community services expo was one of a string of similar events the OU has run in recent months, part of what organizational officials are calling a realignment to help the Orthodox community pull through the recession.

“We are not trying to solve it because we can’t,” Steven Savitsky, the OU’s president, told JTA in a phone interview Monday. “But we know that people are hurting. We understand it has a tremendous effect on individuals and families, and as it trickles down to the schools, the synagogues and the rest of the community, we are trying to find ways — any way we can — to deal with this. The best way to help is to find people jobs.”

While other social service organizations may have budget crunches, the OU is in position to help because of the vast resources pouring in from the proceeds from its kashrut certification division.

The OU waded into the employment matchmaking business about 2 1/2 years ago with a blog-like Web site where employers could post jobs and job seekers could post resumes, said Michael Rosner, director of the OU’s job board.

The recession has forced the OU to reallocate manpower and funds to beef up its social services department, adding and reassigning five or six employees, according to Savitsky.

Before the economic downturn, the job board hosted 50 to 70 resumes at a given time. Now there are more than 600 online, Rosner said. About 8 percent of the posted jobs get filled through the organization’s Web site, OU officials said.

The organization also has shifted its programming to address the economic downturn. Until recently, the OU’s seminars focused on dating and family life. Now, nearly all are related to the economy, from employment workshops to a task force designed to address what has become a tuition crisis in the day school system.

The OU also is working with local Orthodox communities — unemployment is as high as 10 percent there, the OU says — to help local organizations collaborate to create social service networks that assist in dealing with the crisis.

“Our real goal is basically to become an online or a virtual social service organization," Rosner said. “We want to become the people you know you can turn to in times of crisis, and all of the social services we do outside of my department are designed to do that. We want to be the address people turn to — and not only for the Orthodox community.”

Rosner estimated that of the hundreds in attendance Sunday, about 200 were not Jewish.

Neither Savitsky nor Rosner would reveal how much is being spent on the new services, calling it “proprietary information.” The OU, though it is a nonprofit, is not required to make its tax forms public because it is a religious institution.

But, Savitsky said, “every penny we get goes to the Jewish community and into services and programs, and at the end of the year we have nothing left.”

At the expo, the employment line stretched the longest. The second longest was at the Hebrew Free Loan Society in New York, which gives out roughly $1 million in no-interest loans each month to struggling Jews.

“A year-and-a-half ago, I’d say 70 percent of our borrowers were Russian immigrants looking for $5,000 to fix up their apartment," said Moish Soloway, the assistant executive director of the loan society. "Now we are seeing a lot of situations where people are dealing with debt based on unemployment."

Those he met Sunday reported huge credit card debt — up to $90,000 in some cases — incurred while unemployed.

Community officials say expenses are much higher in Orthodox households than non-Orthodox ones: Kosher food can cost 30 to 40 percent more than non-kosher food, day school tuition costs five figures per child each year and synagogue membership is expensive.

But it might be that very infrastructure that could help the Orthodox pull through this meltdown: While expensive, these practices foster close-knit communities that support distressed members.

“There is a sense of community,” Savitsky said. “Here it’s different when a neighbor loses a job and you see them every day. We live together in close proximity, and we share where they are.”

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