Fall Could Spell Financial Breaking Point for Many

people holding food baskets
From left: Joe Royal and Robert Barthelemy make weekly deliveries of groceries to JFCS clients. The agency delivers groceries to about 140 clients every other week. | Courtesy of Jewish Family and Children’s Service

It’s September, and there are bills to pay. Caseworkers at Jewish organizations and rabbis across the Greater Philadelphia area, however, are increasingly worried about the ability of their clients and congregants to pay those bills.

“I will tell you, there were tears on the phone,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel on the Main Line, who also serves as co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s eviction moratorium ended on Aug. 31, and though some state lawmakers are planning to introduce legislation that would broaden Gov. Tom Wolf’s authority to extend the ban on evictions and foreclosures during disaster emergencies, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the fruits of that effort are to be determined.

In the meantime, Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant court will begin hearing eviction cases again on Sept. 3.

The last $600 unemployment checks ended in July; though the Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin to send out $300 checks in many states (including Pennsylvania), according to The New York Times, states will be charged with administering the program, a responsibility that overwhelmed unemployment systems in the spring and led to delays of weeks or even months.

Credit card bills, which have run up in the absence of income, are looming. With many schools set to open, new school supplies and clothing will need to be bought.

With all of that in mind, Linda, 64 (who preferred not to use her real name), is aware of just how fortunate she was.

It was only a few months ago, she said, that her work as a freelance technical writer dried up, her aunt died and Linda, who is Jewish, realized that she might need to enter a homeless shelter, a deeply upsetting prospect. She said that she considered taking her own life.

With the help of organizations like Jewish Family and Children’s Service, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and JEVS Human Services, she was able to find subsidized housing with the first and last month’s rent paid, receive groceries delivered to her door and even assistance with finding a new job. As relieved as she is by her new circumstances, she worries about others.

“If it happens that I really got the last HUD-subsidized apartment in Philadelphia or Montgomery counties, what’s happening to everyone else?” she said. “You know, this is just luck. It was sheer luck.”

She has reason to worry.

Dara Leinweber, a care manager at Jewish Family and Children’s Service | Courtesy of Jewish Family and Children’s Service

Dara Leinweber, the care manager at JFCS who worked with Linda, is concerned what the fall will bring for her fixed-income clients. Many of her clients, and especially those on disability, are already stretching their dollars to cover the cost of grocery delivery services, as they do not yet feel safe entering stores; if they have children in Philadelphia schools, they’ll still be able to have some meals covered, but there’s uncertainty as to how long schools will actually remain open. And her clients who did work before the pandemic are having trouble finding new jobs.

Leinweber hopes that the city or the state will expand existing programs, or even create new ones, but the offerings in place can already be confusing to navigate. Though there is relief available to some — the Philadelphia Housing Authority, for example, extended its eviction moratorium until March 15 — the next few months are shaping up to be difficult, even for those who are employed.

Within the Jewish community, assistance is available.

In June, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia announced the creation of the Congregational Rabbis Emergency Fund, a one-time grant to furnish congregational rabbis’ discretionary funds, scaled to the size of their congregations.

Yanoff has disbursed money to his congregants for months now, helping them cover rent, mortgages, utility bills and other essentials. The increasingly serious problem, he said, is that many congregants believed that they would only need assistance for a few months. As the pandemic stretches into the fall, that belief has been painfully replaced by a bleaker reality.

Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County Rabbi Jon Cutler said that his own discretionary fund, which he’s tapped more frequently in the spring and summer than ever before, may only have a few months left. Cutler is grateful for the assistance his synagogue has received and is determined that it will continue helping whoever it can. But there is a point where simple math can’t be denied.

“There’s no end in sight,” he said.

Suzanne Sztul, president of FHBS, is in a more stable situation. FHBS, a 201-year-old social services organization for Jewish women, receives most of its referrals from JFCS; the volume of referrals and requests for assistance is higher than usual, and so is the amount of money that’s been disbursed ($17,488 since March, as of press time). Luckily for its clients, that money is being replenished at a sustainable rate, she said.

Still, they can’t help everyone. And as the pandemic continues, those who live in financial precarity could find themselves on the knife’s edge for a long time.

“These are very, very fraught situations,” Yanoff said, “and they are becoming more immediate because people’s rainy-day funds and safety nets are wearing, if not gone.”

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