Reisterstown corridor blossoming? Poverty line in Jewish Baltimore says otherwise

Barbara Gradet keeps the letters in her desk. When she takes them out, she says she still gets chills.

Many of them are personal, talking about personal struggles. All thank her for helping them get back on their feet in a time of struggle.

“When the economy forced me to close my store, I had no idea how I was going to continue to support my wife and family,” one letter read.

As the director of the Baltimore-based service group Jewish Community Services, Gradet helps thousands of residents in the Reisterstown corridor and surrounding area every year.

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In 2012, that number reached nearly 30,000. While many are of Jewish faith, the organization is considered secular.

“The need, while it’s stabilized, is higher than ever,” she said. “But that’s why we’re here- to help those who need support.”

Despite the perception that the northwest corridor is considered a desirable place for economic stability, the need to help those at the poverty line continues to be a struggle for community groups working to provide services.

Michael Hoffman, director of The Associated:Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore,  said after the 2008 recession, the organization started shifting funds to help residents who lost their jobs or experienced financial hardship.

“It was something that happened fast and we worked to address it,” he said.

Before the economic downturn, Hoffman said the organization allocated a few hundred thousand dollars for things like temporary cash assistance. Last year, that budget rose to more than $2 million.

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“While we’ve stabilized, the need still remains high,” he said.

The Associated acts like a “city hall” of sorts for many of the Jewish outreach services in Baltimore.

With a multi-million dollar budget, Hoffman and his associates allocate funds for over a dozen Jewish based organizations that help support the Jewish community.

According to the Baltimore Jewish study of 2010, a community census that measures Jewish life, one in three respondents reported that their households are “just managing,” including some who “cannot make ends meet.”

Twelve percent of Jewish households have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty standard of  $37,000 for a family of three.

Ten years ago, that number was one in five.

Gradet said the clients they serve are more varied, but the most vulnerable populations continue to be the elderly and the disabled.

To address the need, Jewish Community Services employs case managers, who come up with a plan to help achieve the needs of a client.

While a big component of funding goes to cash assistance, the organization also provides career counseling, mental health services and other outreach services.

“It’s a multi-prong approach,” she said. “Every service is individualized.”

The center also works with local businesses to help connect clients to potential employment. Connections have slowed since the recession.

The growing need has also prompted faith-based organizations to get creative on how to attract paying members.

At the Temple Oheb Shalom on Park Heights Avenue, leaders are considering different payment plans so members can afford the fees.

Participation in Jewish faith-based activities does continue to go down. According to the study, 46 percent of households report belonging to a synagogue, compared  to 52 percent in 1999. 

“Participating in Jewish life is expensive,” Hoffman said. “With the downturn, we have to be creative and work with residents so they can also participate.”

Even with the rise of need, Gradet says they are seeing growing success.

“We recently helped a 76-year-old man find employment,” she said. “We continue to help where needed.” 


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