Need Outpacing Resources For JFS, JFCS

While many parts of life have started improving since the pandemic began, some of the basic needs that families in the Twin Cities have are not being met. While Jewish Family Services of St. Paul and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis are doing their best to assist, the need is far outpacing the resources.

“In the fall of 2021, we were granting in our biggest [emergency assistance] program, about $9,000 per month,” said Lee Friedman, the COO of JFCS. “By early 2022 we’re at about $15,000 per month, and by this fall, we had months where were granting $30,000 per month.”

JFCS had budgeted $110,000 for emergency assistance for 2022, and had to raise that amount before the year’s first quarter was over. 

“We will end up granting somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $270,000,” Friedman said. “We can’t sustain that.”

Friedman said that what the staff at JFCS has seen isn’t unexpected: those who have been affected the most by the pandemic have the least ability to respond to challenges as things have opened back up. A big reason for that, he said, is the expiration of the variety of temporary financial support that many took advantage of: extended unemployment benefits, temporary increases in Family and Child Tax Credits, and eviction moratoriums.

Both JFS and JFCS are part of a network of social service providers, which means referring people to other agencies that may better suit their needs. But as those agencies were running out of emergency assistance funding, they were directing people to JFCS.

“We were having maybe three [emergency financial] requests that our staff was handling,” Friedman said. “We went to a point where we were getting 50 requests a week. So not only do we not have the funds to grant as much as the need as people are presenting to us, we don’t have the staff capacity to even process the requests.”

Things aren’t any better across the river. JFS depleted its emergency financial assistance funding in May. Staff held an internal fundraiser to be able to one more family with a grant to avoid eviction. 

As much as the financial assistance needs have exploded, it’s not the only area where the Jewish family service agencies are stretched. 

Dr. Mitchell Wittenberg, the director of counseling at JFS, said that since July 2020, the phones haven’t stopped ringing, which led the agency to look for another therapist – particularly one who can see patients on Medicare. That search took two years.

Stephanie Larson started at JFS on Nov. 1 and started seeing people off the waiting list, which had stretched to six months long.

Friedman said JFCS has also been seeing the same rise in requests.

“We and others in the field believe that it’s partly a result of increased mental health needs, but it’s just as much a function of much more awareness and decreasing stigmatization,” Friedman said. “People have felt more empowered, emboldened, and willing to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I could use some help.’”

At the tail end of 2021, JFCS added two full-time therapists giving them five total – in addition to some part-time therapists. Friedman said that the 2023 budget will hopefully allows for adding at least one therapist sometime during the year.

“We’ve been able to, for the most part, keep up with the needs,” Friedman said.

The increase in need for counseling services has changed, in a way, how fundraisers approach their jobs.

“As we are seeing different impacts happen, I can go to donors and ask specifically to directly fund programs,” said JFCS Development Director Dana Rubin. “We do that anyway, but I think that we’ve seen an increase where that has become more prevalent for people and we’ve had some success and some more direct funding than we’ve done before.”

JFS is on a waiting list for both mental health services and traditional counseling. Friedman said that JFCS is in discussions with JFS and the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations to go through a needs assessment of the Twin Cities Jewish community.

“We are really trying to collaborate with others in the Jewish community to assess what the mental health needs are specifically in the Jewish community,” Friedman said. “Specifically for youth and adolescent mental health, what are the synagogues, camps and some organizations seeing?”