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Focus on Issues Pittsburgh’s Jews Hit by Hard Economic Times

March 15, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The seeming paradox of typically middle-class Jews enmeshed in continuing and crippling economic difficulties against the background of a vigorously rebounding American economy has been reported from yet another major American community — Pittsburgh’s 50,000 Jews.

The Pittsburgh United Jewish Federation stressed, in a special preliminary report, that Pittsburgh Jews, like American Jews generally, had been hit “along with everyone else in these hard economic times.” The special report was dated December 29, 1983, a time when evidence of an expanding American economy was growing.

The paradox became less of a mystery with the realization that Pittsburgh is the center of one of America’s structurally battered industries — one of the smokestack enterprises in which an eroding economic base and technological lag was hit much harder by the recession than were, for example, the service industries.

The Federation report declared that an in-depth study of the local economy and the impact of its economic troubles on Jews was planned, but that the Federation did not yet have hard data “to prove how far the problem reaches,” and that what it did have “are indications.”


The limited date pointed to economic pressure forcing lapses in Jewish community center and synagogue membership, more appeals for job-finding help, and growing joblessness among Jews for whom the experience was a numbing shock.

The data also indicated that the Jewish communal structure still had not adjusted to the need for a change from long-range planning to quick, shortrange help and that Pittsburgh Jews really did not expect such help.

Asked specifically, just how bad economic conditions were for Pittsburgh Jews, Robert Lesser, Hebrew Free Loan executive secretary, replied: “This is worse than anything I’ve ever seen here since I came in 1946.”

Joyce Galpern, director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish Committee, replied that it was a “myth” that the Jewish community was being “insulated” from a sagging economy and that this was a myth that was being “exploded.” She added that “a lot of damage is in the fields Jews have always gone into — teaching, social work, small business.”


One of the indications the Federation reported was a large increase in requests to the Hebrew Loan Society “for deferred or reduced loan payments.” Another was a report by the Jewish Community Center for “more applications for fee reductions” by those on fixed incomes and a sharp cutback by such members in use of such extras as a music society, health club and entertainment, as well as “a greater need for scholarships” for summer camp programs.

Synagogues are losing members, more members are seeking lower dues or are falling behind in their payments, and several rabbis reported that congregants were seeking job-search help. At least one rabbi “has been approached by members in need of basic necessities such as food, rent and utility payments,” the Federation reported.

The local Hillel Foundation reported “a high level of frustration among recent college graduates whose job hunting has been fruitless.”

Local Jewish schools reported above-normal totals of uncollectable tuition fees; increased requests for scholarships; and slipping enrollment because of economic pressures on parents. The Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) reported that inflationary rents were slashing food and medical budgets of clients.

Two social service officials — Nancy Frank, supervisor of JFCS Services to the Aged; and Jackie Unger, director of senior adult services for the Jewish center — met in 1982 with a group of 30 elderly Jewish adults. The two reported that the elderly Jews were worried about the impact of the recession on their middle-aged children.

The fact was, the two officials commented, many of those elderly Jews had major problems of their own, by far the worst being inadequate housing.

They reported that unless the elderly Jews were “among the fortunate minority to have federally subsidized housing, they are paying a disproportionate percentage of their income for rent, or else they are living in substandard conditions,” meaning they “have to walk up to three flights of stairs with a heart condition, or share a bathroom, or live in a poorly converted house with dangerous wiring or inadequate wiring.”


After presenting these “indications,” the Federation asked what the Jewish communal response has been to the rising tide of economic trouble. The Federation responded: “So far in Pittsburgh, it has been limited. To date, there has been no integrated community-wide effort.”

The Federation added this did not mean total lack of help. Several synagogues were reported collecting for various food banks. Jewish agencies are helping with job counseling and “on a limited basis with cash assistance, emotional and financial counseling or utility payments.”

Rabbi Jason Edelstein of Temple David in Monroe-ville, who said he had been approached by some 20 families for help, reported that “my impression is that people do not view the Jewish bureaucracy as able to respond to immediate needs. It is not set up that way. It deals with long-range planning, funding for big projects. It works within society to support existing systems.”

But, he declared, the recession had made the situation totally different. “We have to shift gears, find a mechanism for ‘tzedeka’ on the spot, so that the person who needs food tomorrow doesn’t need a week for the agency machinery to grind. We must find a central way to help people find work, to allocate money fa necessities.”

Ron Kotler, JFSC director, said Jews “are certainly having all kinds of problems related to the economy — not just unemployment, but they are being beaten by depression, marital conflict. But they are not seeking us out.”

He added “we give no direct financial assistance and we have no funding for career counseling, but even if we did, there is the problem of raising false hopes when there are no jobs. So they move away from us and go to their families. We try to get to them before they are overwhelmed by everything, but our problem is identifying them.”

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