‘A Perfect Storm Of Economic Issues’


Faith Abramowitz lives with her husband and two teenagers in Port Jefferson Station, on Long Island. While they used to feel like they were middle class and managing, because of illness coupled with rising expenses, they are now struggling — and really not making it at all, Abramowitz says.

Abramowitz’s vision has so been affected by multiple sclerosis and diabetes that she can’t drive and can’t read without magnification. Abramowitz’s husband of nearly 22 years, Ira, is a postal worker who has always worked a second job to make ends meet. Right now he’s packing boxes and cleaning floors at a nearby BJ’s Wholesale Club. They were members of a local synagogue for more than a dozen years, but awhile back couldn’t afford to maintain their membership.

Abramowitz, who is 48 and worked as a legal collector until she became too ill about three years ago, used to spend $100 a week on groceries.

“At the beginning of 2007 it got very difficult. By the middle of the year it got worse and now in 2008 it is an impossibility,” she said. It used to be that once in a while her kids would invite a friend over and she would order a pizza. Two years ago “we’d be able to splurge the $10 or $12 for pizza and a bottle of soda. We can’t do that anymore,” she said. “One inconsequential problem could erupt and devastate our family.”

Many area Jews are struggling like the Abramowitzes.

Jewish assistance agencies across the New York area are reporting a marked increase in the number of people coming to them for help — and the increasing amount of aid that current clients need to feed their families and pay household and medical expenses.

“We are not seeing new recipients but rather more calls from current recipients asking if there is more we could do for them, such as supermarket gift cards,” says Mark Zimmerman, executive director of M’Yad L’Yad, a volunteer agency on Long Island that pairs volunteer sponsors with those in need. “They are finding that their costs are going up. They have always been struggling, but now they find that the little bit of money they have is not going as far.”

While Bear Stearns crashed last week and the mortgage markets have been shaken up for several months, creeping economic difficulty has been creating struggles for growing numbers of middle-class, lower-middle-class and poor Jews for some time.

“The economy is becoming a conversation now, but it has been an issue for three or four years. It’s coming to the fore now because of the housing market and foreclosures and now the stock market. It’s gotten worse because the cost of living has increased each year,” said Joel Block, executive director of the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack.

“If you went to every JCC in New York they would all say the same thing — for a number of years we have all been inundated with scholarship requests, but for the last three or four years the number of scholarship requests have grown exponentially.”

The organization known as F.E.G.S. Health and Human Services System,
(Federation Employment and Guidance Service), which provides career planning, job rehabilitation and training, has seen demand for its services increase 20 percent in its Brooklyn Resource Center, according to Gail Magaliff, the chief executive officer.

There, Russian immigrants who have worked as support staff in finance and other industries are worried about their jobs and have begun looking for — and asking for help preparing for — new positions.

F.E.G.S. has also had increased demand at its lower Manhattan office for financial employment training programs from people who are out of work.

“We expect significantly more, based on what may happen across the New York metropolitan region as the ripple effects of potential large-scale unemployment impact many industries,” Magaliff said.

Shana Novick, executive director of New York’s Hebrew Free Loan Society, has seen an upswing in the number of people applying for emergency loans.

“There is an increase in requests for basic expenses. We have loans for tuition or retraining and expanding a business and we have a basic needs emergency category to cover people who have unexpected expenses and no savings,” said Novick. “We are seeing in the last six months requests from single moms who say they can’t make ends meet cause things are expensive. They get up to a $5,000 loan repayable over 20 months and interest free.”

Block of the Commack YJCC says that he is getting more requests now for financial aid for camp than he has at this point in years past. “The requests are coming in earlier,” he says.
“It is just now reaching a boiling point because it’s become a perfect storm of economic issues.”