Job connection: One synagogues answer to unemployment in its ranks

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More and more people in this economy are looking for work — probably even someone at your synagogue.

After all, the state unemployment rate in July soared to 7.3 percent, a significant increase over the 5.4 figure for July 2007. Employment Development Department officials said about 1.4 million Californians were unemployed in July.

But at the same time, your synagogue probably has a decent amount of people who are employers — maybe even a handful who are looking to fill job openings.

And where better for job seekers to begin their initial search than at their own synagogue?

“People are losing their jobs and their homes,” said Moji Javid, director of community connections at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. “We’re a synagogue, not an employment agency, but we know that times are hard and we want to acknowledge that.”

In response to the job crunch, Rodef Sholom has begun trying to connect unemployed congregants with those who have jobs to offer — which seems to be not only an act of Jewish kindness, but a natural fit.

The Reform congregation, made up of about 1,150 households, recently sent out e-mail blasts that triggered responses from 18 out-of-work congregants — including an accountant, medical assistant, Jewish educator and writer.

Javid said the number of unemployed at Rodef Sholom likely is even greater, given that some people might be too embarrassed to reveal to others that they’re out of work and looking for employment.

Javid has been collaborating on the project with congregant Marty Orgel, a freelance writer from San Anselmo whose articles focus on the economy, employment and personal finance. Aware of the slowing job market, Orgel approached Rodef Sholom Rabbi Stacy Friedman with an idea to use the synagogue as a secure place to ask for help.

Orgel was pleased to hear congregants inquire about potential job openings, with the possibility that more may come forward.

“I think [Rodef Sholom] is off to a great start,” he said. Noting that many mass e-mails are ignored or glossed over by the recipients, he said, “I thought it was a great response.”

The real challenge, Orgel added, is finding congregants who own businesses and have job openings, or are responsible for hiring.

So far, Javid said, she has received a few e-mails from people who advertised open positions, while the best thing others say is, “I’ll think about it.”

While the program is sparking interest among the jobless, Javid said her hope is to “get to the other side” and make inroads with employers, “the ones who [would] say, ‘Oh yeah, it would be cool to let the congregation know I have a job for somebody.'”

Rodef Sholom member David Shenson is one such person. He owns Dobake, a commercial bakery based in Oakland, and when two jobs at his business — a sales director and a purchasing and supply chain manager — recently opened up, he immediately e-mailed Javid.

“If we as a congregation can help out our own members and our own community, I think it’s fabulous,” said Shenson, who lives in Marin. “Whether it’s in an economic downturn like today, or even during strong economic times, there’s always an ebb and flow when someone’s working or not.”

As of last week, Shenson said no one had contacted him with an interest in either position, but he plans to stay involved with the network and hopes the idea catches on at other synagogues and Jewish organizations.

In recent months, S.F.-based Jewish Vocational Service, which offers job-placement assistance to anyone seeking it, has experienced a 40 percent increase in new clients, according to JVS Executive Director Abby Snay.

People with different backgrounds and qualifications walk into the JVS office in San Francisco every day, yet Snay said it’s the older, Jewish population coming in the most. Many are self-employed and losing business, or recently have been laid off.

“People are feeling more desperate,” Snay said. “Job searches are taking longer, hiring for positions is taking longer. We probably haven’t seen the worst yet.”

Walnut Creek resident Trudi York-Gardiner is one of the people going through difficult times, even though she has a résumé that reads like a book. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science, a teaching credential and a degree in law. She’s also a member of the Washington and Colorado bar associations.

Her computer skills are there, just rusty, and after being a stay-at-home mom for more than 15 years, York-Gardiner wants to return to the workforce, an ambitious plan that’s been thwarted with every passing glance at her qualifications.

“Taking care of kids and helping my husband find different jobs required me to turn my attention away from my own career,” she said. “By the time you turn your attention back, it’s almost too late, especially when you’re thrown into a terrible economy.”

York-Gardiner’s husband, Alan Gardiner, shifted jobs frequently before forming Ecofriendly Energy Company in Walnut Creek, a startup that helps commercial properties “go green” by using solar power, wind, fuel cells and waves as energy alternatives.

There’s a spot available at the company for York-Gardiner if she wants it. Right now, however, the position (director of public and government relations) lacks activity, she said, and she’s grappling with the decision of waiting for work or exploring other professions, specifically in public affairs.

In the past, working for companies specializing in energy, medical malpractice and insurance left York-Gardiner feeling unsatisfied, while substitute teaching provided little or no job security. Newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle published her humor pieces, but any income from such writing was sporadic.

“My best skills are writing, oral communications and researching,” York-Gardiner said. “By being at home, I’ve taught myself how to use the Internet and use creative ways of digging out stuff. To go find a job that really wants that is hard for me.”

Employers nationwide eliminated 51,000 jobs in July, which caused a hike in the unemployment rate from 5.5 percent to 5.7 percent, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Labor.

More than 8 million people are currently unemployed, according to the report. That’s roughly 1 million more than last year at this time. Part-time employees rose to 5.7 million in July, including those who stated they were working part time because their hours had been cut or they were unable to find full-time jobs.

“When you get into survival jobs and you have other obligations, taking a minimum wage job isn’t always the best thing to do,” Orgel said.

Networking is his answer to the unemployed. A regular at various organizations that share resources, experience and expertise, Orgel agreed that what those groups have to offer is great, but “they seem to stop short of actually connecting individuals with real jobs.”

Though the idea is in its infancy, the hope is that Rodef Sholom’s program will help get people talking face-to-face.

“There is help for people,” Orgel said. “People shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed. It’s happening all over the state, not just in Northern California.”

Many are turning to nonprofit organizations for work as positions in the corporate world become increasingly scarce.

“It’s very competitive in the nonprofit world at this point,” said Bruce Marcus, a San Francisco resident who’s been involved in nonprofit organizations for more than 20 years. “It’s a very demanding career and you have to have a sense of commitment, not an interest in financial rewards.

“There seems to be a reawakening of that. You know, doing something more satisfying.”

Marcus, who holds a master’s in public administration from San Francisco State University, is pondering expanding his consulting firm, Third Sector Solutions, thereby creating a full-time job for himself. But he’s at a crossroads, also trying to find a senior management position in which he can continue developing sustainability plans for nonprofit organizations.

“If I can make a transition that includes what I want to do in the first place, then I’ll do that,” Marcus said. “I’ve been very lucky — nonprofit work is not just a career, it’s my calling.”

“Lucky” isn’t a term many would use these days to describe their employment situation.

“Here’s how I sum it up: If you’re out of work, it’s a recession,” Orgel said. “If I’m out of work, it’s a depression.”

Job help from JVS

Jewish Vocational Service is hosting “Recession-Proofing Your Career,” an informational workshop, at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav on Sept. 10.

Panelists will offer tips on understanding the employment market, staying connected and motivated, and using online networking tools to succeed in an unstable economy.

The free, Jewish Employment Network seminar takes place 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Delores St., S.F. To pre-register, call Wendy Verba at (415) 782-6293 or e-mail [email protected].