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J-Help is there for recession-hit families: MJF launches first local emergency campaign in more than a century

By Susan Ellman

October 1st, 2011

Die Treue Schwestern, Chevra Bikur Cholim, Hebrew Widows and Orphans Association, Hebrew Relief Society, Immigrant Relief Society, Hebrew Relief Association, United Hebrew Charities, the Federated Jewish Charities, the Jewish Community Emergency Economic Assistance Fund…

From its earliest history, the Milwaukee Jewish community has organized charities like these to assist those among us dealing with serious economic hardship.

In fact, “Milwaukee has a wonderful history of Jewish families quietly stepping up for one another,” according to Milwaukee businessman Richard Ruvin.

And Ruvin is helping to continue that story as chair of J-Help, the recently expanded and renamed effort to provide emergency assistance to individuals and families in the Milwaukee Jewish community. (See his opinion article on page 4.)

With the recent rise in unemployment, the increase in foreclosures, gas prices, prescription drug prices, health insurance premiums, and so much more, many people are only one incident away from financial ruin; and hundreds of local Jewish families have fallen over the edge.

According to Ruvin, “This time the problem is broader and deeper than any since the Depression [of the 1930s]. The current need is $15,000 per month and growing.”

The national and state economies are not recovering quickly enough to address the poverty problem, and generous philanthropic families and foundations that have always given in the past are still doing what they can, but cannot go it alone, Ruvin said.

“This time we all need to chip in,” said Ruvin. “We all need to do our part.”

Last resort

According to MJF and Jewish Family Services estimates, the need has risen from approximately $30,000 a year to in excess of $250,000 a year; and by about 70 new families per year, with the fastest growth in need among residents of the North Shore.

Respected and well-educated members of our community who never thought they would face financial hardship are exhausting their savings and struggling to make mortgage payments, pay medical bills, and even to feed their children.

To meet this need, J-Help was launched in time for the High Holidays. Many rabbis agreed to touch on the community-wide effort in their holiday sermons.

“Our hope is that after reflecting on the past year and pondering the coming year, our community will commit itself to taking care of its own, right here in Milwaukee,” said Ruvin.

 “Our goal is to insure that the basic needs of every person in our community are met,” said Rabbi Eric Stark, MJF campaign director and J-Help’s new director, in a recent interview. “It’s all designed to ensure the dignity of the recipients and the stability of the fund.”

According to Stark, Milwaukee has responded to crises in Israel, Ethiopia, Argentina, and the Soviet Union; but this is the first local emergency campaign here in more than a century.

“Although previous recipients of community assistance have been people on the margins of society, those who were in trouble already, the bulk of new recipients didn’t think they’d ever be in this situation,” Stark said.

“They had no idea how the system works and what’s available. Many are at that in-between stage, and they need something to tide them over until the food stamps or the BadgerCare kicks in.”

J-Help will be a fund of last resort. Jewish Family Services will handle intake and confidential screening to determine whose needs are most compelling and how to administer funds most fairly and efficiently, on a sliding scale.

According to Sally Lyne, vice president of development and communications at JFS, that agency will continue to serve as stewards of all donations. All funds will be used locally.

“Nobody should be embarrassed to ask for help,” Lyne said in a recent interview. “We’re able to provide the spectrum of support for the entire family.”

Beneficiary households might receive food, housing, and medical assistance in the form of cards, vouchers, payments to landlords, and referrals to other needed services, but not cash.

The assistance will not exceed $3,500 per person or $7,000 per family per year to help recipients get “back on their feet again.” Said Lyne, “It’s about self-sufficiency and self-esteem.”

According to Ruvin, the effort will now be community-wide. “We are looking to raise $1.5 million though a second line campaign, which equates to every community member who gives to the annual MJF campaign providing an additional gift to J-Help equal to 20 percent of their MJF annual gift,” he said. “To make this emergency donation easier, gifts to J-Help in excess of $1,000 are payable over three years.”

“J-Help illustrates what makes the MJF so important,” Ruvin continued. “No other organization could ramp up a campaign like this so quickly with 100 percent of the proceeds going to those in need.”

And he added, “The J-Help Campaign has been incredibly well received. I have been so taken by the significant gifts already coming in.

“However, to successfully meet our goal, it is going to take each and every one of us to both give generously and to spread the J-Help word.”

For more information, see the MJF website, www.milwaukeejewish.org.

Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.