Where can unemployed find help Try a synagogue

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In today's job market, coping with unemployment requires more than job-hunting strategies. Emotional support is critical. So is faith.

Rabbi Gordon Freeman of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Shalom feels it's a Jewish obligation to nurture and support those in the Jewish community who are unemployed. In the spirit of gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), he called on congregants Jerry and Pat Katz to conduct a Career Change Workshop at the synagogue.

From 8 to 9:30 p.m. every Monday, the Katzes, who are job skills professionals, meet with people who are out of work. Unlike leaders of most job transition groups, they don't charge any fee.

"We help the unemployed cope…not just with finding a job, but most importantly with relieving the stress associated with the whole painful experience," says Pat Katz. "There's a tendency for people in the Jewish community to support each other in a special way."

The husband-and-wife team were out of work for many months themselves. Having been in other groups, they felt more was needed.

"The thing we missed most in job-hunting groups, like Experience Unlimited and Forty-Plus, are the coping skills that our group provides," says Jerry Katz.

Bill Rettberg, one of the participants, agrees. A civil engineer, he was laid off from his company in a downsizing after 24 years. Like the Katzes, he tried a number of groups, which helped with resumes and cover letters. But he felt they didn't address his deeper needs.

"Jerry and Pat provide a family setting that helps me relax and realize I'm not the only one out of work," he says. "I've learned not to get down on myself or be depressed."

The synagogue group also takes a more holistic approach than most job groups, says Rettberg.

"Pat mentioned having meetings where we'd share feelings with our spouses. Sometimes job tensions can cause problems at home and this seems like a great way to ease the burden."

Support systems are needed, says Freeman, who hopes more congregations will organize to aid the unemployed in their communities.

"We want people to know we'll provide the means to help them help themselves," he says. "It's part of tikkun olam, fixing the world."

David Kahn, an out-of-work pension-plan consultant, likes the fact that the group is small and "totally guided by professionals who can talk from their own experiences. There's also a special closeness because we're all Jewish and that helps with networking."

During more than 15 years as a paid career workshop instructor for large corporations, including Pacific Bell, the Pleasanton-based Zacson Corp. and the FHP Health Plan, Pat Katz has helped people work through the experience of downsizing. At the synagogue, she is happy to share her experience without charge.

"I know the devastation the unemployed feel," she says. "My husband and I help motivate people to get them to accept the change and grow with it. We help with the usual tried and true job-seeking methods," from interview techniques to business-lunch etiquette, she says.

But such techniques don't create the deeper changes that are often needed, she adds.

"We also feel we're providing `equipment' — the tools that stay with a person for life. For example, we know the unemployed are vulnerable, so we suggest they surround themselves with people who will validate them, and provide positive feedback. These are coping skills, and they're as important as presenting a clear resume."

Jerry Katz, 51, who is past president of B'nai Shalom and a strong supporter of the Jewish community, recently put his own advice to work. He landed a position as a vice president at Butterfield & Butterfield Auctioneers and Appraisers , marking a complete career change from the previous 17 years as an insurance company administrator.

"Basically, finding a job is a full-time job," says Jerry Katz. "Our group tries to stop the `what if' kind of thinking and focuses on `what to do next.'"