Tough Bay Area transitions: Self-esteem soars for Jews freed from welfare

They're lazy. Unworthy. Outcasts.

If Scilla Michelson had a dollar for every stereotype of people on welfare she's heard, she'd be a rich woman.

But she's not. She's just a young single mother doing her best to eke out a life for herself and her precocious 7-year-old daughter, Asriela Chava.

On and off welfare for several years, Michelson, 27, is now off the public dole — this time, she says, for good.

As a result, she is, in her own words, "confident, motivated and about a thousand times higher in self-esteem and hope for myself and my daughter."

Her story mirrors that of others in the Bay Area who have made the often-difficult transition from welfare to work.

Out of homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities and into a studio apartment in San Francisco's Richmond District, Michelson now works as a computer-aided designer with a structural engineering firm in San Francisco. Asriela attends the city's Hebrew Academy on partial scholarship.

Like many who need public assistance, Michelson, who is dyslexic, once found herself in a whirl of difficult circumstances. Her daughter's father, Michelson's high school sweetheart, virtually abandoned the pair. Her relationship with her parents, with whom she and her daughter briefly lived in Los Angeles to save money, deteriorated to the point that she could not stay with them anymore. She found herself on the streets.

Yet despite such hardships, Michelson's shift from governmental aid to self-sufficiency has been so successful that earlier this year she received an employee of the year award from Jewish Vocational Services and Career Counseling Service — a testament to her own achievements and a symbol of many who have relinquished welfare with help from the Jewish community.

They are single American-born mothers like Michelson, as well as emigres from the former Soviet Union and Bosnia. They are men and women whose savings and unemployment compensation have run out. They are Jews and non-Jews, overpowered by misfortune of various kinds.

Their stories of hard work and success are powerful contradictions to the common perception of a stagnant welfare population addicted to public assistance and unwilling to work.

Regardless of what brought them to welfare, one thing seems clear. Kicking public assistance might be a nearly insurmountable goal without the aid of some sort of support network.

Thirteenth-century sage Maimonides said the highest degree of charity is helping the needy to help themselves.

In that spirit, the JVS applauds clients such as Michelson. Similarly, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services runs a utility workshop, a manufacturing center that employs a large number of immigrants.

"A lot of times it's not a matter of being lazy, of not wanting to do something," Michelson says. "It's a matter of just not understanding how to do it. There's a certain format to it."

There is, for example, a way to write a resume, to dress and present oneself in a job interview. There's a way to write thank-you notes and make follow-up calls. And, as Michelson learned, there's a way to reach out for help when life's details converge into one overwhelming quagmire.

Living at Dream House, a San Francisco transitional housing facility for homeless women and children run by JFCS, "I was lucky because I had somebody I could talk to to say `Look. I have a problem. What can I do?'" Michelson says. "That's support."

Igor Margulis, an immigrant from Ukraine who now lives in San Francisco, also relied on support from the Jewish community while trying to get off welfare, which he stayed on "long enough to hate it."

While Margulis, a former construction worker, took business classes, a JVS counselor helped him whip his resume into shape and set up job interviews. The counselor offered words of encouragement when employers rejected Margulis because his English skills lagged or because they considered him overqualified.

Says Jennifer Casten, a program coordinator at JVS who currently has a caseload of 85 immigrants: "We spend a lot of time just trying to be morally supportive of their job search because it is a really difficult thing. Nobody likes to look for a job."

It took Margulis, 35 and a father of three sons, several months to land his current job as accounts payable coordinator at InterMedia Partners in San Francisco. During his first six months at the company, he continued to receive public assistance to supplement an income that could not sufficiently support his family.

When his wife Valentina completed her studies and got a job as a paralegal, the family finally ventured out on its own.

Welfare took its toll on Margulis' psyche.

"You feel like if everybody is blue, you feel like green, like something is wrong with you," he says. "I don't like to be dependent. I like to work and pay my bills and pay my taxes."

Despite his own discomfort, Margulis views others on welfare through a compassionate lens. "Maybe some people need to stay a little bit more on welfare," he says. "I don't want to tell them it's wrong. It depends on thousands of circumstances."

In the last year, according to JVS statistics, 72 percent of the job-seeking emigres the agency served relied on public assistance. Of those 500 helped, 153, or 31 percent, were able to reduce or entirely eliminate their need for aid. Twenty percent of JVS' non-emigre clients did the same.

Since the controversial Welfare Reform Act passed last fall, discussion has abounded about the past and future of the welfare system.

With states left to devise their own welfare models on a dwindling federal welfare budget — California is still struggling to determine what its policies will be — lawmakers and social workers nationwide are trying to determine how to lead people into the light of self-sufficiency.

For Michelson, that light has been long in coming. During spates in homeless shelters, she recalls being surrounded by frustration and hopelessness. At times, people stole from one another. Some parents abused their children.

Now religiously observant and studying regularly with Rabbi Ahron Hecht of Richmond Torah Center of Chabad, Michelson says faith is much of what kept her afloat during the darkest stops along the way.

"When you have nothing at all and you find yourself in a homeless shelter and this is something alien to you, you seek something that's within you," she says. "That for me is Yiddishkeit."

Judaism "is a source of great strength for me right now," she adds. "I keep a kosher home. I am shomer Shabbat [Sabbath-observant]. I have a very good, dependable rabbi. He and his family are role models."

Of course, in winning a JVS employee of the year award, Michelson was given the message that she is a role model in her own right.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.