Tsunami of need: With savings gone, out-of-work Jews turn to JFCS food pantries

Robert worked for a Bay Area news organization until September 2008. That month the company laid off 15 percent of its nationwide workforce, including 58-year-old Robert.

He estimated he had eight months of savings. It ran out in six months.

In December 2009, 14 months after losing his job, Robert turned to S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services for help with rent, utilities and, hardest of all, food.

“It was gut-wrenching,” says Robert, who like other clients interviewed asked that his full name not be used. “I’d contributed a lot to charities over the years, including JFCS. My wife and I gave to the food bank regularly. Now we were on the other side.”


Volunteer Jeff Holland restocks shelves at the JFCS food pantry in San Francisco. photo/jason winshell

It sounds apocryphal: former donors to a Jewish charity having to seek help from that very same organization. But as more and more Jews are caught up in the now


2-year-old recession, food banks coast to coast report the same phenomenon. Middle-class Jews, professional Jews, young people with families — they’re out of work, their savings are gone and they are showing up for help at Jewish social service agencies.

With unemployment extensions about to run out, the problem is expected to get worse.

Anita Friedman is executive director of JFCS, which serves about 65,000 mostly Jewish individuals every year. She says more than two-thirds of the agency’s food clients have signed up in the past year.

JFCS used to have one food pantry. Now there are five, one in each county the agency serves. Pantries are located in San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Rafael and Santa Rosa.

“There has always been a small group of chronically poor in our community,” Friedman says. “But the tsunami is the thousands who have recently lost their jobs. Insurance, banking, finance, the tourist industry, nonprofits — all these industries have been really hurt. Anything related to the real estate industry, from construction to interior design, it’s all collapsed.”

Even so, the misconception persists that most Jews are affluent. Particularly in the Bay Area, where Jews live scattered across a very large region, it’s easy to miss what’s behind closed doors.

“You can live out your life in San Francisco, and there’s no Jewish neighborhood where you see poor people,” Friedman says.

Two years ago, Samuel was a successful architect in charge of a multimillion-dollar school project. His company collapsed in the recession, and he turned to JFCS for employment advice, food assistance and help with rent when he had surgery.

The emotional effect of his new station is most devastating, Samuel says. “I have a child in college. She had to deal psychologically with seeing her father go from managing an enormous project to a complete change of life.

“There are a lot of us who have been out of work for a long time. I want to work, but there are no jobs.”

Nationwide, it’s hard to know just how many Jewish poor exist. According to a 2004 report by the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA), 730,000 individuals, or about 15 percent of the country’s Jewish population, live in economic distress, either below or slightly above the federal poverty standard. And that was before the current recession.

The federal poverty guidelines themselves are woefully outdated, say experts in the field, set at $10,830 annually for one person or $22,050 for a family of four. (As a point of comparison, in 2000 the guidelines were $8,350 for an individual and $17,050 for a family.)

“Today $10,000 does not seem livable,” said Joshua Protas, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, an umbrella body of Jewish federations and community relations councils that supports Israeli and social justice issues.

The JCPA is working in Washington, D.C., to prevent proposed cuts to SNAP, formerly the federal Food Stamps Program, as well as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill, which provides 19.4 million children with free or subsidized school lunches, among other things.

Clients who benefit include “a substantial Jewish population,” said Protas. But many Jews in dire economic straits fall outside the purview of these federal programs. For them, the private Jewish charities are their only lifeline.

Carmelit, in her mid-40s, ran her own pet-care service for 10 years, but had to close the business after her clients began disappearing in early 2009. She and her child moved in with family in the Bay Area, and Carmelit spent a year looking for work.

“I had to really assert myself. It was hustling every day,” she says. “After 10 years running my own business, I had to figure out what skills you need to know to do something different. That’s what a lot of people like me are facing. We have to acquire new skills and compete with much younger people.”

JFCS stepped in to help. They sent her child to Jewish summer camp, helped her buy tires so she could commute to the part-time job she eventually found, and gave her access to the food pantry to tide her over during the worst periods.

It was the first time she’s had to turn to an agency for help. “I was really grateful to them,” she says. “They don’t want anyone to feel ashamed, because there are so many people who need this now, Jewish and non-Jewish.”

JFCS has doubled the size of its food program over the past two years to accommodate more than 3,000 new families seeking food assistance, says Friedman. These are people who have been hard-hit by the recession.

Like many Jewish agencies offering health and human services, JFCS does the bulk of its fundraising during the High Holy Days. One-third of food donations come through collections by synagogues and schools, and donations placed in barrels at the five local offices.

The food assistance program is multipronged, including meal deliveries to the homebound, vouchers to local supermarkets and access to the food pantries. Anyone in need can show up to one of the five pantries, which are open during office hours. They are given a bag and can take what they choose from the shelves, stocked with items donated by the local community.

It’s a dignified process, Friedman says, which is very important to people who have lost so much, so quickly. “We want to normalize the process,” she says. “They already feel it’s a shanda [shame]. But if you don’t have family to help, you have to feel you can go to the community and get the help you need.”

Clients make appointments to meet with a counselor first.

“We give food as part of a plan to help a family restructure their budget, get food on the table and become self-sufficient,” says Friedman. “It’s not a handout, but a hand up.”

Thankfully, although Jews might not recognize how deeply the recession has hurt their own middle class, the local Jewish community has stepped up to the plate to help out, both in donations and volunteer efforts.

“The Jewish community is very sensitive to these issues and is very generous,” Friedman says. “It’s a blessing.”

The JFCS High Holy Day Food Drive takes place through September. Food barrels will be located at synagogues, schools, JCCs and other institutions.

Most-needed items include high-protein, high-nutrient boxed and canned items: tuna fish, peanut butter, whole grains, pasta, soup, vegetables and fruit.

For information, visit http://www.jfcs.org/services/2010-high-holiday-food-drive.