When Gail Landis lost her job as a business analyst for a financial-services company in New York City, she turned to her local synagogue. Rather than simply provide moral support and counseling, the 4,000-member temple, B’nai Jeshurun, offered résumé-writing workshops, seminars on how to market oneself, and an intensive boot camp for would-be entrepreneurs. "There's a Hebrew saying, 'If there's no bread, there's no Torah," says Guy E. Felixbrodt, the synagogue's community initiatives coordinator. Translation: if people are struggling to find work, there's no way they can focus on the other parts of their lives. (Article continued below…)
Landis knows this feeling well since losing her job in February. Since then, she has become an active member of the synagogue's social-networking group on LinkedIn, where its 500 members post job leads. She has attended three job-seeking seminars along with a networking event at the synagogue. Though she is still looking for a full-time job, she says she has found comfort in her temple's efforts. "The meetings weren't in a religious context. It wasn't like we did a Torah study," she says. "It was really about how to deal with the loss of a job and the things we could do to make ourselves feel better."
From Connecticut to California, churches, temples, and mosques are wading into the jobs crisis by helping their worshipers find work. With a national unemployment rate of 10%, job seekers need any lead they can get, even if it comes from a priest or a rabbi. While it may not have been in the institution's original mission to find its members paying gigs in addition to feeding the hungry or homeless, it's certainly where the need now lies. "Generally, pastors knew what people did for a living," says Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches. "The new piece is that congregations are offering programs for their members who are struggling with their work lives."
Historically, religious denominations and institutions have played some role in people's careers. For years, some Christian churches have advocated for raising the minimum wage, and at this year's annual conference for the National Council of Churches, the keynote speaker advocated for a second stimulus package to create jobs, as well as the establishment a National Employment Accounting Office to track job creation. What has shifted has been the level to which churches, synagogues, and temples are becoming involved in the nitty-gritty of people's job searches. For some institutions, it's no longer enough to advocate for economic policies to lift people out of poverty, particularly if your members at home are struggling to find their next paycheck. "On a practical level, we want our members to be affluent," Felixbrodt says.
In a suburb of Los Angeles, roughly a dozen people gather once a week for "Tuesday With Transitioners," a program run by the Congregational Church of Northridge. The attendees range from blue-collar workers to business executives and secretaries. Many of them are in their 40s and not all are regular church members. The weekly sessions begin informally over lunch, with people milling about in jeans and sweaters. More formal presentations involve speakers such as a certified public accountant speaking about budgeting in tough economic times or an insurance broker discussing health-insurance options for the unemployed. After the speakers leave, the attendees update one another on the progress of their job searches. Though the meeting is held inside a church facility, members say God rarely comes into play. "Most people are from a similar faith," says Aimee Blacher, 37, who's been looking for a full-time administrative assistant job for two years. "But there's no pressure. It's not like we're here to go with the God thing."
But there is comfort to be found for those who are suffering from both an economic crisis and a crisis of faith. Landis remembers attending her first jobs seminar at B'nai Jeshurun and being struck by the number of people in attendance. "I didn't know how I felt afterward," she says. "It was depressing that there were so many people, but it also gave me the feeling that it's not just me. There were people from all walks of life."
These days, a job search can be an exercise in faith, and it helps that houses of worship know something about believing in something bigger than oneself. For this, Landis says she's grateful that her rabbis took up the job crisis as a mission. "I was in a position where I needed that," she says. "Some of us, including myself, are looking for some empathy and support for what we were going through. That's something they're good at."
Apart from the empathy, Landis says it's comforting to know that her place of worship can respond to its members' immediate needs—even if it comes in the not-so-holy, pragmatic form of a résumé workshop, a networking hour, or a job opening yelled from the pulpit.