A shuttered nail salon on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
A shuttered nail salon on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Bay Area Jews see incomes vanish as pandemic demolishes jobs

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Jason Herwill and his wife had finally found some stability. Toward the end of last year, the couple and their 3-year-old moved out of the motel where they had been living temporarily when Herwill found a job as a tree climber for a PG&E subcontractor, earning $1,500 to $1,700 per week. The family settled into a rental home in Grass Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento.

Then, about a month ago, Herwill was told that his job was on hold. On top of that blow, his wife, Maria, who had just been hired at a day care center, was unable to continue working.

“It’s very scary, the uncertainty,” said Herwill, who said he has about $1,000 left in his bank account right now. “We basically have money to buy food a couple more times.”

One of the most devastating social effects of the pandemic — a gargantuan loss of jobs, with 3.3 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits as of last week — has brought economic instability and anxiety to many Bay Area Jews who have been laid off or have otherwise lost sources of income.

For now, all Herwill can do is wait. He’s filed for unemployment but still hasn’t heard back. He’s also waiting to hear about his request for $2,500 from Hebrew Free Loan, which recently created a program offering interest-free loans to those in the Jewish community who have taken a financial hit from the coronavirus shutdowns.

The federal stimulus package, which will deliver $1,200 to anyone making under $75,000, will definitely help, Herwill says. But he’s worried that the money will arrive much later than the promised time-frame of mid-April, a concern shared by some experts.

Nearly every individual and business has been affected in some way. While synagogue services, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and shivas have shifted online, not everyone is able to operate virtually — certainly doctors, who are risking their own health to save lives.

While there has been a greater demand for health care workers in California as the number of coronavirus cases grows, birth doulas have been left out of the hiring surge because since mid-March city officials in San Francisco are only allowing one visitor during births at hospitals.

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Dina, a San Francisco resident who asked that only her first name be used, has run her own doula business since October 2018 and usually earns about $3,600 a month. She works with expectant mothers, offering support throughout the pregnancy and birth. She says she’s chosen not to offer her services virtually because she doesn’t believe it will be as valuable to her clients.

“I think it’s nice, people that have office work,” Dina said. “They don’t have to see them in person. [Being] a doula is completely different.”

Dina’s husband, Jose, an event planner for a bar and lounge, is also out of work and has filed for unemployment. At home with their two young children, Dina says she has decided to focus on a master’s program in midwifery she’s been pursuing online through Frontier Nursing University. To complicate matters further, there’s a chance that she won’t be able to complete the program’s required clinical hours, since students aren’t allowed into hospitals right now.

“It’s very much up in the air,” Dina said.

One Jewish institution that has opened up hiring is the Reutlinger Community. The senior living facility in Danville currently needs to fill out its staff, according to CEO Jay Zimmer, and has decided to hire newly out-of-work housekeepers, preschool teachers and Starbucks employees.

In Oakland, artist and author Day Schildkret has had to completely change the nature of his work to make money. Schildkret, who builds “morning altars” from natural objects, had been planning a tour this spring and summer to hold workshops and promote “Ritualizing Change,” a book about rituals and making meaning out of life’s changes. But the tour had to be canceled.

Day Schildkret
Day Schildkret

“That has left me without an income,” Schildkret said. “That was my schedule for the next five months.”

A career Jewish educator, Schildkret was executive director of Midrasha of the Tri-Valley/Tri-Cities for 12 years. In 2013, he won a Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for a program at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom.

To supplement his lost income, Schildkret has started to conduct his workshops online. On March 29, he hosted a Sunday Zoom session for children and families on how to make nature altars. To accommodate people’s shaky financial situations, Schildkret charged a sliding scale between $18 and $54, a fraction of what it would cost in person, he said.

“Being someone who is dependent on events,” Schildkret said, “it’s a very vulnerable situation.”

Schildkret has requested $20,000 from Hebrew Free Loan, the maximum amount allowed by the program, to help pay for his bills and groceries. He remains concerned about whether his line of work is even viable right now.

“At a time where people are getting very scared and financially taxed,” he said, “are they willing to spend money on art and beauty?”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.