Reports from the field will be grim when delegates to this year’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum gather in Washington on Sunday — the first major Jewish meeting since the economic furies hit full force and the first since the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
In Detroit, soaring unemployment, home foreclosures and bankruptcies are battering a proud, prosperous Jewish community, and local agencies — already facing budget cuts — are scrambling to keep up.
“The Jewish community here is stressed to a profound degree,” said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit. “Jewish social agencies are seeing their caseloads shoot up. People who were formerly major donors are showing up, needing services.”
In Oregon, Jewish leaders are coping with layoffs that are starting to ripple through a community heavily involved in an ailing high-tech sector.
In San Francisco, Jewish social service providers have seen a 25 percent increase in demand for services in recent months. And the state’s staggering $42 billion budget shortfall and a budget agreement that will produce huge cuts in services pose an unprecedented challenge to Jewish agencies.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the Bay area JCRC, said that, in turn, means less money for other critical areas of activism — including the fight against “a dramatic surge in anti-Israel activity in the Bay area.”
And in New York, poverty advocates are bracing for a bleak Passover, expecting thousands more people than usual lining up for seder meals.
The economic emergency that is changing Jewish communal realities across the country has also transformed the JCPA plenum, an annual event that sometimes seems more like a Jewish debating society but which this year will be shadowed by an economic crisis and a collective craving for on-the-ground responses.
“Early on in the economic crisis, some of us began to argue that the plenum agenda needed to take really strong account of what was happening in our communities as the economic problems worsened,” said Robert Cohen in hard-hit Detroit.
JCPA officials responded to the SOS signals with additional programming. Just as important, some participants said, will be private meetings between CRC directors and lay leaders.
“Coming from a community like ours — a medium-sized community, off the beaten track — the plenum will be important because it’s a chance to learn from colleagues how they are addressing the economic situation in their own communities,” said Robert Horenstein, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Portland, Ore.
He described conditions in his own community as “very tenuous” in the face of rising layoffs, declining contributions to Jewish groups and rising demand for services.
“We’ve had to cut 25 percent of our budget; we’ve laid off two senior staff people,” he said. “Jewish family and child services are reporting a soaring increase in the number of families seeking emergency assistance to help make a mortgage payment or pay a medical bill. We have to redirect many of those requests — more than half — because of budget problems.”
Those kinds of stories will be the background noise at a plenum that has itself shrunk because many local agencies have imposed strict travel restrictions to save money.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, the JCPA president and CEO, acknowledged the desire for practical, immediate help, but also suggested the unique circumstances surrounding this year’s meeting could lead to a broader discussion.
“There is a real fear that we are seeing a fundamental change in our world,” Rabbi Gutow said, “that this is a problem that isn’t going to turn around next year.”
Speaking like the rabbi he is, Gutow described a crisis that is as much spiritual and communal as it is economic.
“There needs to be a set of values — in our nation and in our community — that go beyond ‘more is never enough,’ ” he said. “We need to talk about ways to live in this world in a more sustainable way.”
That goes for individuals who have become accustomed to an economic fantasy built on easy credit and the illusion that markets can only go up, he said. And it goes for a Jewish communal world that became addicted to big money.
“People need to hear that there’s a value beyond money,” Rabbi Gutow said, “that there’s value in living a decent life, in a decent world. That’s gotten lost sometimes in modern America; one of our goals is to bring it back. It’s a spiritual message. The greed of our society has gotten out of hand.”
Most years, the JCPA plenum is a predictable hybrid — part forum to debate differences on issues from church-state separation to Mideast peace negotiations, part Washington lobbying mission and part networking extravaganza.
This year, the meeting will include those familiar elements — including debate over a handful of policy resolutions meant to guide the community relations “field.”
Although JCPA has largely tamped down the raging debates that once livened up the plenum, controversy is still likely over resolutions calling for expanded Jewish-Muslim outreach, offshore oil drilling and stronger action to stop the genocide in Darfur — including possible unilateral U.S. military action.
There will be the customary sessions on Iran, anti-Semitism and political developments in Israel.
But with economic decline starting to reach even into well-insulated, prosperous Jewish communities, the priorities of many plenum attendees have changed.
“A few years ago, if we said we were going to Capitol Hill to talk about the federal budget, we’d get complaints that we weren’t talking about Israel,” said Hadar Susskind, JCPA’s Washington director. “I don’t anticipate that this year; the country and the community are in a different place.”
William Rapfogel, executive director of the New York Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and a plenum speaker, said next week’s meeting could be a “watershed in terms of Jewish leadership. Until now, the Jewish community has been largely apathetic, particularly on economic issues, because our leadership has taken a pass.”
JCPA’s two-year-old crusade against poverty made some progress in changing that, he said. Even more of a spur has been the growing impact of the downturn on a Jewish community that enjoyed the illusion it was immune from economic calamity.
In New York “we’re seeing the same needs among the Jewish poor we’ve always seen,” Rapfogel said. “What we’re seeing now are people who were not poor; the loss of a job has put them in the tank.”
He said many more formerly middle-class Jews are turning to the Met Council for services.
“It started with a trickle back in November, but the spigot has opened up and people are pouring in,” he said. “I shudder to think of what we are going to need for Passover.”
His group is gearing up to provide an extra 10,000 to 15,000 meals — “but we have no idea how bad it’s really going to be.”
The Met Council has responded with “SWAT teams” of crisis social workers and career counselors,” he said. “It’s like an emergency room — how do you stabilize them, help them maintain a decent life while they retrain for the jobs that are out there, not the ones they dream of. It’s not like Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers are going to be hiring again.”
Rapfogel said, “People at all levels of the Jewish community were in denial. The new economic situation means nobody can do that any more.”
Rapfogel said the JCPA meeting, with a mix of grass roots and national Jewish organizations, will be a “test of how seriously the national Jewish leadership takes this situation, of whether they’re dealing with reality now.”
Avi Poster, the lay chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Nashville, had more immediate goals for the conference.
“What I hope for is a better understanding of the economic crisis that I can share with my constituents back home,” he said. “We’re feeling the crunch back in Nashville — donor dollars are down, our ability to do the things we’ve done in the past is curtailed.
“This crisis reminds us,” Poster continued, “that it’s in a time of need that we have to step up even more than usual.”