Life had been a struggle for Mrs. M, her husband and four children. And when her husband found himself out of work in August, the Long Island family quickly found themselves behind in the rent and the oil company demanded cash on delivery.
"We needed help and we didn’t know where to go," Mrs. M recalled. "We had no money in our pockets and we were waiting for unemployment checks to arrive."
When she contacted FEGS and explained her family’s plight, UJA-Federation’s major social service agency on Long Island immediately paid the overdue rent on the private home in which they live on the North Shore. It also paid for an oil delivery and for a new bed for their 11-year-old, who had been sleeping on the floor for a year after outgrowing his bed.
Mrs. M said her family has been living on $365-a-week unemployment insurance because her 50-year-old husband has been unable to find another job.
"He is a qualified construction worker," said his wife. "He was in a management position before; he has the experience."
Mrs. M said she was forced to quit her job when her youngest son became ill and required constant attention. She said the family has also been receiving monthly packages of new and used clothing, perfume and bedding from an anonymous Jewish couple.
The couple are members of MíYad LíYad (Helping Hand), a program created by the Suffolk Jewish Communal Planning Council, a UJA-Federation recipient, to assist Suffolk County Jews in need. The identities of the donors and recipients are kept confidential.
Evelyn Roth, executive director of the Long Island division of FEGS, said the money her office provided Mrs. M and her family was part of the $25,000 in emergency cash assistance FEGS distributes annually to Jews in immediate need on Long Island. And $10,000 of that came this year from the Poverty Initiative, a UJA-Federation second-line campaign that has raised $5 million since 1997.
"The Poverty Initiative came out of a recognition that even at the height of extraordinary affluence there are significant parts of our community that are experiencing very hard times," said Anita Altman, deputy managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. "The New York Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty figures that there are about 185,000 Jews in the New York area who are at 150 percent and below the federal poverty line."
Roth said UJA-Federation believes there are 10,000 Jews living at or near poverty across Long Island. She said this includes "aging residents of the region living on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, families in crisis, as well as those working poor who live within the income guidelines established by UJA-Federation."
But she said the lack of adequate public transportation on Long Island makes it difficult for those in need to get help. A FEGS survey found that even in areas served by public bus routes, people could spend up to three hours per round trip waiting for a bus. Roth said the organizers of Long Island’s only kosher food pantry, which was created recently by Temple Beth El in Massapequa, said that about 125 individuals access the pantry each month. But the "number could be increased tremendously if there were transportation available to either bring the food to the people or the people to the food."
She said that after consulting with rabbis who serve middle- and lower-income communities, it was decided that the best way to serve the Jewish poor would be to acquire a van or station wagon. It could pick up donations of food and other items and bring them to individuals and distribution centers.
Mrs. M said she went to a FEGS office twice for donations of food but found the experience so humiliating that she has refused to go back. She said would welcome a van if it could drop off the food for her family and "keep it anonymous."
To buy a van and hire a driver, Roth said she plans to apply for a grant UJA-Federation is offering its agencies, working in conjunction with synagogues. A total of $750,000 is being made available over two years for the Agency-Synagogue Poverty Initiative; requests for proposals were due this week. The money will come from donations to the Poverty Initiative.
Altman noted that in the 1997 and "98 fiscal years, $3.2 million from the Poverty Initiative was spent by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to feed hungry Jews in the former Soviet Union." She said that during the next two years, Poverty Initiative money would be spent in the New York area. In addition to the Agency-Synagogue Poverty Initiative, Altman said the money is being spent in two-year grants to a host of different projects.
Among those projects are:
# A $150,000 grant to the Metropolitan New York Council on Jewish Poverty to support Project Machson, which picks up and distributes clothing and furniture to thousands of needy Jews in the area. The money will be used toward the cost of operating a van and warehouse.
# A $40,000 grant to Dorot to supplement its kosher meals program for the homebound frail elderly.
# A $150,000 grant to help Project ORE/ORA reach out to the Jewish homeless or near homeless who are older than 35. The project, founded by the Educational Alliance, serves 45 people daily and 225 individuals a year.
Marion Lazer, senior associate executive director of the Educational Alliance, said those served by the program have psychiatric or substance abuse problems and "would go back on the street unless we help them."
Lazer said she is applying to the Poverty Initiative for a grant to serve Shabbat lunch to 36 people at the Sol Goldman Y on East 14th Street.
"We would partner with the Town and Village Synagogue, which is next door to the Y," she said. "These people are isolated and lonely and for whom religion may be a way back into the community."