Feb 16, 2011

Pressing Reset On The Recession

There is good-natured banter as our roundtable discussion participants file into the conference room at Mishpacha’s Brooklyn offices. Platters of baked goods and steaming cups of coffee are arrayed on the polished table. Someone jokes about expecting a full lunch, rather than just refreshments.
“Look, there’s a recession; everyone’s cutting back,” quips another.
No one laughs.
Not even a weak smile.
For the men gathered here today, the recession and the devastation it’s wrought are serious business. Each of them falls asleep at night dreaming of new jobs, new industries, hopes for recovery, and ways that their fellow Jews can feed their families with dignity.
The Number One Focus Since the current recession took hold in December 2007, the employment landscape has changed dramatically across much of America. According to a June 2010 Pew Research survey, roughly a third of adults in the labor force have been unemployed for a period of time during the recession. Furthermore, 55 percent of adults in the labor force who were surveyed reported that they had suffered financially during the recession, be it a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay, a reduction in hours, or an involuntary spell in a part-time job.
“Young adults have taken the biggest losses on the job front,” the Pew staff concluded. “Middle-aged adults have gotten the worst of the downturn in house values, household finances, and retirement accounts. Men have lost many more jobs than women. And across most indicators, those with a high school diploma or less education have been hit harder than those with a college degree or more.”
Among the frum community, these trends have spelled disaster for all too many families. The basics costs of running a Torah-observant home are challenging even for gainfully employed householders. Pay cuts or spells of unemployment can transform that challenge into an unattainable feat. Family after family has been crushed and demoralized by the ongoing recession, which the Pew team described as having presented the most “punishing combination of length, breadth, and depth” of the thirteen recessions experienced by America since the Great Depression of 1929. Despite talk of recovery, this recession stubbornly refuses to cede ground to optimism and rebounds.
It’s that intractable recession that has united the men sitting around the table today. All are driven by the same goal: finding viable parnassah sources for their fellow Jews. Each is a driving force behind an initiative to restore financial viability and dignity to families ravaged by the recession. They also offer counseling to young entrepreneurs who want to make the leap to the business world, but lack experience and skills. The work is tough and demanding. It is also incredibly consuming. At least one of the panelists attests that he’s lost weight, sleep, and serenity due to his constant exposure to men stripped of their livelihood and dignity. But in the course of their work, they’ve also identified promising approaches and suggestions that have helped make a dent in the numbers.
An opening snippet of conversation is especially interesting. Yussie Feldman is recalling the early days of Professional Career Services (PCS), founded in the desperation of the recession in 1991. At the time, he needed the support of Rav Shach to launch the innovative idea: helping kollel yungeleit who wished to enter the workplace by arming them with training and opportunities. The elderly rosh yeshivah wished him well, telling him that America is America while Eretz Yisrael is Eretz Yisrael, and that the two countries had entirely different value systems.
Dovid Honig, who wasn’t yet bar mitzvah at that time, today plays a key role in finding solutions for job-seekers. He recently visited Eretz Yisrael, seeking the support of Rav Aharon Leib Steinman for his Learn and Network program — which shares the aims of PCS. The rosh yeshivah was effusive in his good wishes. His gabbai, Reb Yisroel Friedman, expressed the sentiment that American bnei Torah had distinguished themselves in the workforce. “Today, someone can go to work and still grow as an ehrliche Yid. Working bnei Torah have shown their accomplishment, both spiritually and materially.”
The dream of 1991 has become reality.
But today the challenge is more daunting. It’s not about awareness or mindset. People want to work, are ready to work, need work — but they can’t find any. It’s not just deciding on a career anymore. The challenge entails identifying the available jobs, writing a proper résumé, and knowing how to interview. Networking and forging connections have become as important as formal education once was.
Just a few hours after our roundtable discussion, the president of the United States delivered his State of the Union address to the nation. “For every success story,” he said, “there are other stories, of men and women who wake up with the anguish of not knowing where their next paycheck will come from, who send out résumés week after week and hear nothing in response. That is why jobs must be our number-one focus in 2011.”

Pressing Reset 

The call of the hour, according to all the panelists, is networking — a word once associated solely with computers, but whose definition now includes “the act of meeting new people in a business or social context.” These meetings, and the connections they generate, are critically important in our job-starved communities.
“All day, people are talking,” says Honig, “discussing shidduchim and politics and all kinds of insignificant things. Let this be what they schmooze about. Jobs, positions that are available, industries that are taking off. When you’re walking out of shul with your buddy, talk jobs.”
“There is a reset button being pressed on the global economy; everything is starting again,” observes Michael Rosner, international director of the OU Job Board.
And when so many people are adjusting their perceptions and standards, it’s a good time to implement small-scale changes that can better people’s chances of finding jobs. “In our communities, there are adjustments we can make that can benefit everyone,” Rosner suggests. “One is a readiness to accept jobs that weren’t conventionally ‘Jewish’ jobs, to open up options for others at the same time.”
Michael Rosner and Zisha Novoseller, executive director of Emergency Parnossa Initiative (EPI), exchange glances and smile as Michael shares a familiar anecdote.
“Last year, we heard about two hundred available jobs as security guards at JFK airport. The training was minimal and they were paying twenty-four dollars an hour plus benefits, which is nice. The work was in the back of the airport, where no one had to worry about being visible, yet there were few takers. One woman called me to ask how I could have encouraged her husband to accept such demeaning work.
“Interestingly,” he observes, “the only ones who did take the job were chassidim. They didn’t have issues with it.”
Aside from shifting one’s perception of what constitutes a “respectable job,” the panelists also suggest that the community adopt a readiness to relocate from the more established frum neighborhoods and areas.
“Out of town, there is often more work and opportunity, and in a smaller community, there is more of a sense of responsibility,” says Feldman.
He shares another practical suggestion that has resulted in jobs: “Anyone with experience in a specific field can serve as a ‘guidance counselor’ to people contemplating entering the field.”
That, in fact, is the premise behind Honig’s Learn and Network program. “After kollel hours come to a close, our program invites experienced professionals to share the benefit of their insight and information with the yungeleit. Our presenters have experience in technology or sales or media … the point is that people in the field and on-site are counseling us on the opportunities.”

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