JEWISH PORT IN A STORM: Economic numbers may look good, but there are still a lot of Chicago Jews in need of food, employment, housing, medical care and more. The ARK, in its city and suburban offices, is there to lend a helping hand.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

At the ARK, Chicago’s longtime Jewish social services agency, the story behind the story is its seven-year-old second office in Northbrook that does not get the publicity of the original longtime West Rogers Park-based facility.

And the need for services at the ARK Northwest, including an upcoming High Holiday Food Drive, is burgeoning due to another, more macro story behind the story – the supposedly booming U.S. job market with 3.9 percent unemployment nine years into the statistical recovery from the Great Recession.

Telegenic, quotable economist Diane Swonk of Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP stated the economy is running out of employees to hire.  Other assorted media accounts report more job openings than job seekers exist nationwide. “Want a job? You probably can find one, and maybe convince your prospective boss to relax the company ban on tattoos and piercings,” editorialized the Chicago Tribune. The same editorial referred to reports out of the Quad Cities that businesses cannot find “enough carpenters, plumbers, project managers and others.”

Sandra Mell, one of the volunteers who welcomes clients to the ARK’s social service department.

In some ways, Swonk and the Tribune are reporting the facts, from raw numbers. They are not “fake news.” Not everyone, though, who wants a job can obtain one even in an employment market they are painting as almost “Goldilocks.”

Down in the trenches of real life, managers of the ARK have noticed that in a region of apparent plenty on the tony North Shore, experienced, talented Jewish workers are underemployed or unemployed, adding to the ranks of immigrants and even younger workers who rely on the agency’s food pantry, emergency housing and medical  care and job counseling services.

Hiring managers struggling to fill open positions apparently are not looking at the ARK Northwest’s clients.

“There is age discrimination,” said Robin Karr, a 15-year ARK veteran who is now assistant director of the Northbrook facility at 3100 Dundee Road.

“They are older and looking for work, but very discriminated against. I see people that are in their 50s and 60s who held jobs, but were let go or the company closed. They are unable to find a job. Younger people are getting hired instead. And for many of the younger people, it’s contract (free-lance) work. A lot of people have given up.”

The unemployment rate, lowest since the end of the Clinton Administration job boom, statistically measures employed individuals or those actively looking for work. The numbers do not qualify the types of jobs available, the mismatch of skills to positions or the attitudes of executives and human resources gatekeepers.

Those who desire revenge on attorneys for running up billable hours are now getting their pound of flesh.  Many attorneys settled into the large concentrations of Chicago-area Jewish residents in Highland Park, Glencoe, Northbrook, Deerfield, Buffalo Grove and Long Grove. Karr and colleagues are seeing them come to the ARK for help.

“Lot of lawyers have lost their jobs,” Karr said, while younger barristers right out of law school face a glut of candidates on the job market.  “They’re not being able to find a job comparable to what they’ve had before. Lawyers who have been partners can’t go back to being a first-year associate.  They have big mortgages and expenses. They deplete their savings in four, five years.”

ARK executive director Marc Swatez

Marc Swatez, the ARK’s executive director, even mentioned physicians as clients. The medical community has not been unaffected by wrenching changes in the economy. Despite an overall boom in services, hospitals and clinics have had layoffs and closings. Occupational-medicine practitioners are owned millions of dollars in unpaid state funding due to years of budget mismanagement and legislative stalemate.

The barriers to older workers being hired, illegal but likely more widely practiced that other forms of banned employment  discrimination for racial and personal orientation, affect a host of other fields. Experience and education often are no longer the first qualities sought by employers. Hiring managers, protecting themselves and thus fearful of making mistakes, often do not want to pay a higher scale or be on the hook for additional medical expenses for older employees, who often are more astute in their work than their younger potential supervisors.

“Education in this country is supposed to be a ticket to a better job and better income,” said Swatez. “But education is not a guarantee. The people we’re seeing are very highly educated. Over half our clients have a college degree.  They have degrees from Big Ten schools, including Northwestern, and other (prestigious) universities. Twelve percent have graduate degrees.”

The booming employment market also has bypassed many Jewish immigrants. Those who lost their jobs as the Great Recession reached its bottom near the end of 2008 are struggling the most, said Swatez.

Also needing the ARK’s help are younger workers who have degrees and talent, but also possess some psychological issues that are a bar to ready employment. Overall, Millennials coming of age in the 2010s have had a hard time compared to earlier age cohorts of recent graduates.  Saddled with college debt, they have not all latched onto upward-mobility positions to get a great start in life.

Many page-turnings behind the pro-jobs Tribune editorial, in the tabloid Life Style section, was a review of Allissa Quart’s new book, “Squeezed” about the frustrations of twentysomethings who found prospects dicey in law, teaching and journalism over the past decade.  The retrenchment in law was accompanied by the transformation into many teaching jobs as low-paid part-time work and a halving of media jobs since the mid-2000s.

Thus the opening of the Ark Northwest on Aug. 1, 2011 was well-timed to serve the growing need in the heart of the concentrated suburban Jewish community.

Clients of The ARK Northwest can be roughly classified in two general groups: about 70 percent are middle-aged, formerly employed suburban wage-earners and most of the rest are older, Russian-speaking individuals (about 30%). 

Overall, some 61 percent of ARK  clients are under age 62. Of this group, one third are between age 50 and 61 — too young for Social Security, but quite often too old to find a job.

The numbers swelled not only due to layoffs, but the state budget crisis of the mid-2010s and other government cuts strapping other traditional social service agencies. With its $6 million annual budget more than 90 percent dependent on private donations, the ARK became the “safety net of the safety net,” said Karl.

Carol Harris, The ARK’s Pantry Manager.

“Government social service agencies can’t keep helping people when their staffing gets cut,” she said.  “Employment services are cutting. The Illinois budget crisis was a huge story for Jewish agencies. As government does less, people come to us more.”

“When people think of the Jewish poor, they think it’s someone else,” Swatez said. “They think of new Americans, or Orthodox Jews in West Rogers Park. They don’t think it might be their neighbor, or a friends’ parents. Poverty looks just like you. Everyone thinks poverty looks like someone else. People are shocked when poverty looks like their neighbors.”

One of the biggest challenges of ARK employees is dealing with the embarrassment talented, experienced professionals feel when they must resort to a food pantry in either Northbrook or West Rogers Park.

The latter office once served many clients in the northern suburbs after the ARK first opened in 1971, Karl recalled. Poverty did not just crop up beyond the city limits in 2008.

“Back in the Eighties and Nineties, the ARK was very involved in the resettlement of Jewish immigrants,” Swatez said. “We got people housing, income, jobs and medical care. We got them launched. But when the Great Recession hit, they were the first people to fall, and they fell hard. They worked in service businesses like salons, were drivers. They have really struggled and had a harder time. Many of these folks are at retirement age.

“We started seeing clients who we had not seen in 10, 20 years come back to us. They had moved to the suburbs. So we started conversations toward opening a second office. At first we were open 2 ½ days a week. Very quickly, word got out. So people who looked like you and me started coming in

“Now we are open five days a week (in Northbrook) with a full staff. We’re seeing 800 clients.  We get clients of every age group. Different people have different needs. Sometimes they just need a little help.”

ARK Northwest is now staffed by two case managers and two job counselors along with an office manager. Also helping are two volunteer social workers and a volunteer psychologist.

Housing, medical care and food have been the biggest needs.

Rents for even a one-bedroom apartment have skyrocketed well into the four-figure range.  If a client is homeless, they are placed in the ARK’s 22-bed “transitional shelter” in West Rogers Park. House-sharing is one remedy.

“We will work with you on a daily basis to find a permanent solution,” Swatez said. “When someone comes to us in crisis, we do not refer you to another agency.”

Dr. Oded Gargir and Larissa Voloshin providing dental services to a client.

While most of the ARK’s prescription and medical program is centered at the West Rogers Park headquarters, the opening of a second food pantry in Northbrook was well-timed for the increasing suburban needs.

In addition to holiday-themed and year-round food donations, the ARK pantry serves a weekly dinner, attracting some younger diners among the turnout of 50, on Wednesdays, and several lunches per week, of which seniors partake. Some 30,000 have gotten assistance from the pantry.

“The need is growing,” said pantry manager Carol Harris, who is assisted by an intern and 30 volunteers. “We’re definitely seeing an increase recently in the number of people taking advantage of our (food) programs.”

Qualifying for donations from the pantry not only provides a basis of sustenance, but also frees up limited family budgets to pay other crucial bills.

“If you have a family and if one is facing a medical issue or lost job, now they’re facing loss of income,” Harris said.   “We embrace people with a lot of dignity, make sure no one ever feels embarrassed walking into the pantry. You’d be shocked at the number of people who do.”

The pantry tried to fill in the slower months in summer with stocking up from other donation programs.  “We’ve talked to every day camp in the area,” Harris said. “They do drives for us (in mid-summer).”

The ARK tries to adopt its food stocks to client tastes. “We always have cheese,” said Swatez.  “But string cheese is what kids want. String cheese costs more than block cheese. If I have string cheese, it’s more likely the client will keep coming back.  Pantry options have changed to meet the needs.”

Such taste-buds monitoring is the story of Jews taking care of Jews in classical fashion. They’re helping hands putting a face on the otherwise glittering numbers that glamorous economists, Labor Dept. statisticians and media pundits tout.   Economic statistics don’t tell the entire story.

The ARK can be contacted at 773/973-1000. Prospective volunteers should contact Sophia Zisook. For donations, contact Michelle Movitz. For overall assistance, contact  Melinda Straus.

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