In these difficult times

When the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services (JBFCS) opened a new branch in Coney Island three years ago—named the Stanley and Rita Kaplan Family Center—the prevailing mood at the presentation and in New York overall was very optimistic. The capital of the world seemed safe from harm; its bold and talented residents marched onward in their daring pursuits without looking back, while the weak and vulnerable felt safe under their wing. In fact it was for just these people, the vulnerable ones, that the Kaplan Family Center was opened. It was specifically for former Soviet Jews suffering from various physical and psychological problems. An entire team of Russian-speaking teachers, psychologists and social workers eagerly set to work under the guidance of Inna Litrovnik, the coordinator of programs for Russian-speaking immigrants.

A lot has changed in New York since then, and sadly, not for the better. With the monstrous blow of September 11th, New York is undergoing the worst crisis in its history and the September 11th syndrome continues to wreak havoc on the lives of New Yorkers, rich and poor alike. Carefree extravagance has given way to alarm and cost-consciousness. Organizations such as JBFCS have seen a rise in the workload, but not in funds. There has already been mention in “Russian Forward” that many Jewish agencies specializing in social services are experiencing serious difficulties and fear they will have to close some of their branches or lay off workers.

There are 185 programs working under the auspices of JBFCS, 40 of which are in Brooklyn. In the words of Jean Traubb, head of the organization’s Board of Trustees, these organizations “help people from birth to old age,” serving 65,000 people suffering from all kinds of physical, psychological, family or social problems. Women who are abused by their husbands or partners can find safe refuge here in any of the center’s three shelters, and troubled teens get an excellent school and understanding teachers. Of all the large social organizations, JBFCS was the first to reach out to AIDS patients. Can the agency continue to meet such high standards?

This problem was discussed recently at the Kaplan Family Center, when representatives of JBFCS and other Jewish organizations met with New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and councilmembers Michael Nelson, Simcha Felder and Domenic Recchia. Several people from our community were invited, including Vladimir Vishnevsky, Alik Brook-Krasny, Mikhail Nemirovsky and the author of this article. In effect, “our people” were also represented by JBFCS owners/coworkers, Inna Litrovnik and Tatyana Kharash.

Why meet with City Councilmembers rather than the mayor or his aides or with Senators or Congressmen? Probably because the City Councilmembers are closer to the ground or, rather, closer to the people. They are better versed than any other high-ranking officials on the problems New Yorkers have with housing, education, employment, and psychological health. Was it not the members who mitigated the radical budget cuts proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

“Gifford Miller doesn’t represent my district, but he represents my subway stop,” joked Dr. Alan Ziskind, executive director of JBFCS. Local government representatives are approachable and reachable; you can run into them on the street, in a store, in a subway station, you can “touch” them and make them aware of your complaints.

Actually, Miller himself did the complaining at the meeting, stating openly that New York is facing unprecedented difficulties. “We could cut the police force by 27,000 people, close all libraries, senior centers and extended day programs and that would allow us to save only $1 billion of the $8 billion deficit.” Miller uses this hypothetical example wherever he goes to starkly illustrate the current situation in the city; I had heard this example already at a meeting with the speaker organized by the Independent Press Association.

The city’s budget is $42 billion, $27 billion of which are Federal and State funds. The city controls only $15 billion and there is little room to maneuver with that money, as it is intended for the police, firefighters, sanitation services and public school teachers. The federal government did allocate an additional $21 billion to the city, but with the specific purpose of restoring devastated Lower Manhattan. But then New York had plenty of problems even before September 11th, such as affordable housing, education, health care and so on. Each of these problems requires a solution and can’t just be put on the back burner.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic formula for getting out of this crisis,” said Gifford Miller. “Real life isn’t like the movies, where all the characters roll up their sleeves and work together toward a happy ending.”

JBFCS workers are also living in reality, not in a film with a happy ending, and even in spite of the crisis they continue to roll up their sleeves and get to work. A brief tour of the Kaplan Family Center indicated that here they are trying to find the “magic formula” for each client, from troubled teens to middle-aged immigrants with psychological problems. The sight of these people who, for one reason or another, have fallen through the cracks of society is not a happy one. And yet, the picture with which we were presented was in some way encouraging. For in these difficult times of ours, these people have found here the help and moral support they need.

I think that, when all is said and done, even the City Hall guests left in a better mood, feeling more optimistic. Gifford Miller said that he has faith in the bright future of New York, which is “still the greatest city in the world, a city that’s home to all the bravest, most enterprising and most creative people from every country.”

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