A Time to Act: Concrete Steps to Support Unemployment in the Jewish Community

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Rabbi Yael Buechler

We may have wished the Class of 2020 mazel tov on their recent graduations but do we have an obligation to support this class further? With Hillels, JCCs, and many other Jewish nonprofits furloughing their staffs, is it possible that those who were recently laid off may have been closest to advocating for this cause?

As the pandemic continues to plow through jobs across America, I wonder about our obligation to help one another at this time, particularly the generation of Jews who just graduated from college as well as those whose positions have been eliminated in the Jewish communal world.

I recently found myself transported back to the 1930s in New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise by Beth S. Wenger. As there have been many articles envisioning the Jewish community post-pandemic, I turned to see what lessons, if any, we can learn from our past.

It sounded eerily familiar to read that during the Depression “more than 90 percent of New Yorkers under the age of twenty-five lived in their parents’ homes.” Wenger explains how young Jews with “high school, college, and professional degrees searched for part-time work or joined the ranks of the unemployed.”

During the Depression, the Jewish community developed Jewish employment agencies to support unemployed Jewish youth and young adults. At the time, in addition to their being fewer available jobs in general, Wenger stated that Jews faced additional layers of challenges of employment discrimination as well as quotas at universities. While Wenger doesn’t speak in detail to the overall efficacy of these agencies, it is clear the Jewish community took to helping their own.

Perhaps we should be contemplating and actualizing employment programs that could be implemented on a local or national level. I recognize that a number of programs are already in the works, including leadership training and programs for deeper Jewish text study.

Below are three suggestions for programs to help those who are seeking work in the Jewish community. For each of the suggestions, a cohort could be provided with training, ongoing mentorship opportunities, and ideally a form of compensation.

1) Teaching Assistants: Can organizations connected with Jewish education, graduate schools for education, or day schools, train college graduates or others in classroom management, teaching on Zoom, and other facilitation skills? This way, the cohort could become teaching assistants for virtual or in-person settings. This training could happen over the next few weeks to benefit Jewish day schools and religious schools for both in-person and virtual support.

2) Virtual Program Co-Facilitators: Can umbrella synagogue organizations train individuals to help co-facilitate Zoom sessions and services with clergy and Jewish educators? These collaborations could help synagogue services and programs become even more meaningful and engaging. Co-facilitators could utilize Zoom tools including Spotlight and Breakout Rooms to personalize the Zoom experience. This would enable clergy and educators to focus on the content of the Zoom itself and interact with participants in real-time, rather than also taking on an additional IT role.

3) Jewish Au Pair Network: As a working-mother, this is my favorite and likely most far-fetched suggestion. Could we train college graduates to become parents’ helpers and go to homes across the country to support working families? Recent college graduates could be matched with Shabbat observant homes, if this is something they are accustomed to or something they would be interested in exploring further. This program could also naturally create networking opportunities for college graduates and the parents they support, who are employed in a variety of professions. 

I recognize that the Jewish professional and communal world is incredibly stretched as it is and that we are all “on” more than ever. But I do hope we can get the conversation started on one or more of these types of programs.

Let’s take the opportunity to utilize our resources to support the next generation of the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester and founder of MidrashManicures.com. Rabbi Buechler (@midrashmanicures) is a Jewish social entrepreneur who focuses on education, fashion, and millennial engagement.