About one in five Jewish families in the Columbus area were considered poor, or below 150% of federal poverty guidelines, according to the 2013 A Portrait of Jewish Columbus study.
What that looks like for a family of four is making less $35,325 or less annually. The 21% of Jewish families at or below this level in Central Ohio compares to 7% in Chicago in 2010 and 12% in Cleveland in 2011.
Jewish Family Services in Columbus is on the forefront of addressing the issue of poverty, as it relates both to the Jewish and secular community. For that reason and a new strategy JFS is refining to combat it, the organization was one of three groups around the country chosen to participate in the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies’ Jewish Poverty Challenge.
The goal of the incubator program is to support agencies in addressing Jewish poverty in their communities, JFS announced in a news release July 31.
“They are putting us through an incubation process to take our idea, to really hone it and shape it to get it to the point where we have something we can take to funders,” said JFS CEO Karen Mozenter. “It’s similar to what an entrepreneur who is trying to start a business would go through.”
JFS applied after a nationwide call for submissions. NJHSA, the international network of human service agencies, partnered with Start Co., a company working to assist innovators preparing for tomorrow’s world according to its website, to provide six months of expert consultation to JFS and the other organizations participating. The project’s aim is to apply sustainable, innovative strategies to the issue of poverty in the Jewish community.
JFS has a “big idea,” in regard to addressing the biggest obstacles for those working to get out of poverty, Mozenter said. She said the majority of clients experiencing poverty are facing “constant crisis” where compounding factors are contributing. For example, a family may be struggling with a combination of finding stable housing or child care, dealing with an illness, supporting an elderly family member, securing regular transportation and being out of work all at once. Many clients are also working full-time, but in a low-wage job.
This all means accessing JFS’ help in a traditional way and meeting at the facility during regular business hours is not reasonable. Additionally, the toll and time such crises take on individuals and families can be prohibitive to learning about and investing their time in helpful resources, like JFS and other local organizations.
For those reasons, JFS is experimenting with “meeting people where they are.”
“Sometimes, literally, we go to their neighborhood and meet in a library or a coffee shop,” Mozenter said. “And sometimes that is even (via) technology – we do a lot of e-coaching, where we will communicate with a client with texting.”
Another aspect is community-building among groups of clients so they can support each other.
Mozenter said although JFS has been working on these strategies for some time, participating in the incubator – which will involve staff video conferencing weekly or biweekly with Start Co. during a six month period – will help streamline and standardize the process.
“We’ve been testing these things in different programs, but we want to be very intentional about it,” she said. “We want it to be integrated across the agency and we want to figure out how we can do it most effectively and that’s how we came up with the idea of creating this hub that will enable us to offer services through a lot of different modalities.”
Mozenter said one reason JFS was likely chosen was due to the impact such training could have, broadly, in the Columbus area. Additionally, because poverty is an issue various Columbus groups have been eager to address, if JFS hones its proposal, it could attract local funding.
“There is a lot going on in the community right now – in the Columbus community – about discussions related to poverty,” Mozenter said. “So there is an opportunity for us to leverage what we are doing in the Jewish Poverty Challenge to have impact in broader community, and to kind of attract resources for both.”
Moreover, she said the idea is scalable – if it works in Central Ohio, it could work for other Jewish human service agencies elsewhere.
Reuben D. Rotman, president and CEO of NJHSA, said the group’s independent review committee evaluated several factors in determining the successful applicants for the incubator.
“Our independent review committee was ultimately very impressed with the quality, energy and professionalism of the JFS Columbus team and felt they had the capacity to excel with the intensive incubation,” he said in an email. “The committee also felt that their proposed innovation would dramatically increase impact, as compared with current best practices: specifically, their proposed use of technology to meet clients where they are at and to enhance their in-person efforts supporting clients, not necessarily replace those efforts. And lastly, the agency has a demonstrated history of breaking down silos and working across disciplines and organizations and demonstrated a clear understanding of unique challenges impacting the Jewish community.”
The other groups participating in the incubator are Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia and a collaboration between Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit, JVS Human Services and Yad Ezra, all in Michigan.
The Broader Issue
While in some communities, beneficiaries of such a program may be only Jewish clients, Mozenter said since JFS serves the secular Columbus population as well, any progress made via the incubator is likely to benefit all. JFS also works to “dig deep” with clients, Mozenter said, meaning asking clients to share all that is going on in their lives, even if something seems like it doesn’t directly relate to finding a job or whatever issue they are specifically working with JFS to address. That way, JFS can refer the client to other community partners if there’s an issue JFS can’t help.
While the 2013 A Portrait of Jewish Columbus study contains the most recent formal analysis on local poverty, it is now somewhat outdated. However, Mozenter said there’s still “significant” poverty in the Jewish community, because her organization sees it daily.
“People don’t want to think that poverty exists in the Jewish community and because people feel that way about it, it makes it even harder for Jewish people who are actually experiencing poverty to seek help,” Mozenter said. “Because you know, they are not comfortable letting people know that they are in need. That’s another reason why we wanted to do this and create this hub, because it enables people to seek help and access resources more anonymously if they are not comfortable.”