May 14, 2009
Things were very slow for Larry Cohen of West Orange, who has his own consulting firm providing technical services to investment banks and hedge funds. It was December.
“I heard a lot of people in our community in West Orange were out of work. And I thought, ‘I just have to do something about it,’” he said in a telephone interview.
“Something” became developing a job networking website, first within his own congregation, Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, in mind; then with an eye toward serving the entire local Orthodox community; and now to serve the broader Jewish community in West Orange and Livingston. (He’s not turning anyone away, but, as he put it, these communities remain the priority.)
The networking site, www.Jewishjobnetwork.com, offers a spectrum of services, all on a pro bono basis, including career counselors to psychologists to financial planners/advisers, and even doctors and dentists. The website already has 42 job seekers, 62 advisers (people with professional skills to offer), and 111 networkers (people with connections).
As synagogues confront the challenges of a sour economy, they are finding creative ways to help their congregants. Support groups, healing services, and community advocacy are all among the strategies they are adopting. But job networking is the number one response among local congregations.
“Times are tough,” said Henry Aaron, who own Aaron’s Business Solutions, a distributor for printing and advertising. “People are not making investments but holding on to their dollars now.”
So when his synagogue, Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, held a job networking meeting through its men’s club, Aaron seized the opportunity. He connected with a manager at a mid-size law firm, who got him a meeting with the creative team. Within a week of the meeting, he received an order for 200 decks of cards.
“An account like this could take two years to get into, constantly meeting and developing a relationship. The success is not in the dollar amount — it was not a significant order — but getting in. The potential could be huge. It could lead to a six-figure account,” he said.
The Oheb Shalom group has met twice through the men’s club and will open to the large synagogue community for a third meeting being planned for later this year.
As the economy has soured, job networks are springing up at synagogues across the country. Larry Cohen of West Orange, center, created an on-line job networking site for the communities of West Orange and Livingston. With him are Jewish Job Network executive committee members, Larry Rein, left, and Marc Goldberg.
Richard Prince, president of the Oheb Shalom Men’s Club, said the idea had been kicking around for a while before it was officially launched in December. “Synagogue life should include the idea that economic health is a vital aspect of all of our lives,” he said. “It should not overwhelm the religious or spiritual mission of the synagogue, but it has a place.
“We’re always talking about community: What does it mean? Helping each other.”
Several other synagogues have formal job networking efforts, including Congregation Beth El in South Orange, which will have its first networking event May 14, and Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, which held its second on May 7.
In February, Beth Hatikvah held a “healing service” that included a panel of psychologists to help those coping with the stress of job insecurity and unemployment.
“I promised to take that to the next level and start a group,” said Rabbi Amy Small. Congregant Ed Rowland took the lead, and hopes the group will focus on practical skills like how to network and keep one’s profile on various Internet sites updated.
Networking the networkers
One question planners face is whether to keep these networks “in the family” or combine efforts with community-wide efforts like that run by the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest.
JVS executive director Leonard Schneider remembers another downturn, 10 years ago, when synagogues launched individual job networks. Eventually, 44 synagogues joined in a collaborative effort with JVS that has produced a community-wide job bank, (www.mwjobs.org), workshops at rotating sites through the community, and a twice-a-year jobathon.
This time around, many synagogues are bringing JVS representatives to their events. Cohen, who designed the JVS web effort, is collaborating closely with Schneider. And now, the JVS executive is inviting synagogue job network groups to attend a community-wide mini-conference — to be held in July — to learn from one another.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman at Bnai Keshet in Montclair is among those who think there is no need to duplicate such efforts. “Why reinvent the wheel?” he said. Instead, he and his congregation are focusing on developing alternative advocacy efforts on specific issues associated with economic stress. “We are thinking about organizing around better banking models, affordable housing in our area, and health-care issues.”
Tepperman has also facilitated community conversations, in place of a lengthy d’var Torah on Shabbat morning, about how the economy is affecting people in the community. His goal, in part, is to help diminish the feelings of shame that sometimes accompany unemployment.
“Honest revelation doesn’t always happen over lox and bagels at kiddush,” said Tepperman. “Everyone articulates different things — a retired person on a fixed income suddenly doesn’t have as much as he or she thought; people planning to sell their houses are not able to do so; people’s children are employed or are themselves unemployed….
“There is so much shame related to economic issues in our society. We want to make sure Bnai Keshet is a place where people don’t feel ashamed that they don’t have as much money as last year.”
Schneider said congregations provide support to individuals both for emotional issues and in practical ways — like opening doors for fellow congregants in ways he cannot. And the more options people have to get the services they need, the better off the entire community is. “I have a favorite Yiddish saying: ‘A bissel und a bissel macht a full schissel’ (‘A little bit and a little bit make a full pot’).”
More to do
At Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin started working the phones in the fall, recruiting congregants in different businesses and professions “to do what we could to help one another.”
The result is a group of professionals ready to help whenever he gets a call from a congregant in need.
“I would like to say that our effort has been incredibly successful in finding jobs for everyone,” said Kulwin, “but of course that has not been the case. We have helped secure a number of interviews and a couple of placements have indeed occurred because of these efforts, and we feel good about that…but there is so much more to do.”
Support groups are also on the rise, particularly at synagogues with professional social workers on staff
On Tuesday, June 2, B’nai Abraham’s social worker, Ann Hicks, will hold a workshop for people struggling with employment challenges. If she gets a good response, she said, she will create an ongoing support group.
Julie Harris Scherzer, a public relations professional, has been attending a job networking group. “Networking is the real source for most jobs,” she said.
That kind of group has taken root at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. Social worker Beth Berns, who runs the group, said people meet once each month to talk about their struggles and experiences, as well as hear from guest speakers, including JVS representatives. But not everyone who calls her feels comfortable coming to the group. “There’s so much shame and embarrassment associated with unemployment, and they’re not ready to take that step,” said Berns.
Still, attendance has been steadily increasing since she started in December — and as the numbers grow, the group becomes “another networking opportunity.”
But even with all the best intentions, the economy remains a formidable foe.
Julie Harris Scherzer, a public relations professional, worked most recently with Jewish Family Service of MetroWest. In January, her eight-month relationship with that social services agency ended.
Since then, she has been attending a job networking group through the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and was among 40 attendees at a recent Shabbat networking dinner at her synagogue, Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, where representatives of JVS spoke.
“I’m looking for a job and I need to broaden my horizons and use any resources available,” she said. “Networking is the real source for most jobs.”
But so far, no luck. As for the Beth Ahm Yisrael event, she said, “Nothing hard and concrete came out of it. The search continues.”
The following is a list of synagogues that responded to a request for information on job networking groups and support groups:
- Jewish Job Network — sign-up forms and information can be found at the website, www.jewishjobnetwork.com (priority given to West Orange and Livingston area residents)
- Congregation Beth El, South Orange, 973-763-0111
- Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Summit (in formation), 908-277-0200
- Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange (members only), 973-762-7067
- Temple B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills, 973-379-1555
- Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston (in formation), 973-994-2290
- Temple B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills, 973-379-1555
- Temple Ner Tamid, Bloomfield, 973-338-1500
- Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield, 973-376-0539
Tuesday, May 19: “Job Search Frustration,” a panel discussion focusing on the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physiological impact of the stress of job searching and how to cope.
- Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston, 973-994-2290
Tuesday, June 2: “Struggling with Employment Challenges,” a workshop led by social worker Ann Hicks
- Bnai Keshet, Montclair, 973-746-4889
Congregation-based community group organizing on issues triggered by the economic crisis.
Does your synagogue a have a program to connect job-seekers and employers? Let us know; send information to Editorial@njjewishnews.com.