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Milwaukee Jews overcome shame to get help in tough times

By David Thome

December 28th, 2009

The prolonged economic downturn has hit everyone hard. How hard it’s hit the Jewish community in Wisconsin can be illustrated in numbers — organizations that provide assistance are stretched further than ever — and in the stories told by people who find themselves struggling for the first time ever.

“Hard-working people can’t find work,” said Beth Shapiro, who oversees financial assistance for Jewish Family Services in Milwaukee. “Some of them have gone through their life’s savings, they’ve gone into their 401(k)s. Their lives are thoroughly changed.”

Three such people — Fred Argiewicz, Mitchell Lippel and a man who asked not to be named — were willing to share their experiences. The three, in their 40s and 50s, have long histories of success in the workforce. None of them ever thought he would have to ask anyone else for help, but when the economy bottomed out, all three found themselves in difficult — and discouraging — straits.

“For me to ask for help was the hardest thing in the world,” said Argiewicz. The 55-year-old said he has owned a number of businesses in three states and worked in telemarketing for a while, but has been unable to find any kind of work for almost two years.

“I’ve been everywhere, including McDonald’s and Burger King, but no one’s hiring,” he said. He’s trying to parlay his experience in home improvement and heating and air conditioning into a new handyman business but, he said, getting various licenses takes time.

“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” Argiewicz said.

Lippel, 44, who worked in security for several years before taking a job in promotions for a loan company, said the last time he got a paycheck was in November 2008.

“I haven’t been able to find anything,” he said. “I’ve applied to landscaping companies to mow lawns, to park cars at hospitals that have valet parking, to do security and desk work at hotels, but it’s always the same: ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’”

His situation is complicated by the fact that he has custody of his 9-year-old son. Even though Lippel said he cut way back on expenses and received unemployment checks, he used up all his savings and had to turn to his son’s maternal grandparents for support.

“They want their grandson to have a place to live,” Lippel said.

The third man, who held positions in accounting since he came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe a decade ago, said he lost one job, then another, since the economy went sour.

“I started doing whatever work I could find, but I still had to go bankrupt,” the 54-year-old said. “I thought that would let me consolidate my bills, but it didn’t work out. Now I deliver pizzas, but it’s very low-paying. It doesn’t even matter how much you work — and some days I work 14, 15 hours.”

 
Asking for help

Shapiro said that because stories like these are becoming more and more common as the recession drags on, JFS and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation started the Community Emergency Economic Assistance Fund to help people cover costs for food, shelter, medications, utilities, clothing and transportation.

From July through September, the fund provided $34,870 in aid to 31 recipients. Mortgage, rent and utility payments were the largest items. Food needs were met by distributing Pick ’n Save gift cards.

The recipients, according to a quarterly report about the fund, ranged from single young people to families. More telling, though, about how widespread the financial hardship has become, Shapiro noted, is that a significant number of the recipients live in communities with upscale reputations, like Whitefish Bay, River Hills and Fox Point.

“Some of these are people who would have been able to make donations in past years, and now they’re on the other end of it,” she said.

Argiewicz, Lippel and the third man all eventually called JFS for help — though reluctantly.

“It was hard for me to ask strangers for help.” Lippel said. “At first, it just felt wrong.”

Rabbi Benzion Twerski, of Congregation Beth Jehudah, said it’s not uncommon for Jews to resist asking for help.

“Terrible, terrible, terrible shame is what these people feel,” he said. “When they approach you, they usually say they’re not looking for a handout, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to provide for their families — and I’m talking about people who worked in the banking industry and who were computer programmers.”

He said the congregation provided members with about $20,000 in aid over the past few months — about four times as much as usual.

He encouraged Jewish people to move past shame when forces beyond their control push them into difficult circumstances.

“Why the Almighty chooses to try a person this way is something we find hard to understand,” he said. “It’s one of the trials of life, though, so you have to do what you have to do. The main thing is to keep your home a safe place for your children.”

Shapiro said that most people who seek help from JFS are relieved to find the organization makes direct payments to lenders and creditors and that counseling is available to help them make it through hard times.

“We try to give them a feeling that together, we can make this be OK,” she said, “but the only way we can help is if they call.”

David Thome is a freelance journalist who lives in Shorewood.