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A Bite of the Big Apple

The gift of a parnassah b’kavod to over 700 frum Jews in New York City


IT’Salways a pleasant surprise to discover new and important initiatives that sometimes hide under the radar even within our own relatively small frum world. That’s why I was so happy to learn of a program that, in its short three years of existence, has already given the gift of a parnassah b’kavod to over 700 frum Jews in New York City. When you think about it, that works out to another Yid landing gainful employment every 36 hours.

It’s called the Workforce Development Program (WDP), and it has enabled men and women of all ages, many of them with families to support but with no prior academic or employment credentials, to secure positions that generally pay salaries ranging anywhere from double the minimum wage to six figures.

WDP is run by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island (JCCGCI), a community services powerhouse led by Rabbi Moshe Wiener. For many years, JCCGCI has been operating an array of public and privately funded career services programs with an excellent record of job placements. But WDP is something new and very different: It’s the New York City municipal government that’s actually funding this program of culturally sensitive employment initiatives addressing the specific needs of Orthodox Jews, although it’s open, of course, to everyone, regardless of race and religion.

In a conversation with Rabbi Wiener to find out more about what seemed like an undiscovered gem of a program, I learned that WDP’s beginnings go back to a 2015 report commissioned by his agency. Authored by David Rubel, a public policy consultant with many years of experience in workforce development, it made a stark finding: Brooklyn’s frum and chassidic Jewish communities contain seven percent of the city’s young people living in low-income households, but very few employment-related municipal dollars were reaching those communities.

With this report in hand, Rabbi Wiener enlisted the support of numerous elected officials and community leaders, such as Sam Sutton of the Sephardic Community Foundation, Satmar’s Rabbi Duvid Niederman, and Leon Goldenberg of COJO Flatbush, and together they approached then-mayor Bill de Blasio about creating a workforce development program tailored to this demographic.

New York State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein was then working at City Hall on de Blasio’s intergovernmental team, and he recalls the mayor’s initial reaction to the proposal.

“Bill de Blasio has known this community well for over 20 years,” says Mr. Eichenstein, “and there have been ups and downs in the relationship over that time. But the bottom line is that knowing this community and its needs, he was sold immediately. His reaction was, ‘This is great, and if we have an opportunity to do this, how do we make this happen?’ ”

WDP got off the ground in 2018 as a three-year pilot project, followed by an 18-month extension. And promisingly, the new Adams administration is ready to embrace the program and is seeking ways to build on its initial success.

Through a collaborative effort between Rabbi Wiener’s agency and local Orthodox social service organizations in five target communities — Williamsburg, Boro Park, Crown Heights, Far Rockaway, and Gravesend — WDP has provided an array of career services, such as job counseling and training, to almost 4,000 low-income individuals.

But the real proof of WDP’s success is in the “putting.” WDP has put over 700 individuals into positions that no one would ever have thought they’d qualify for, based on their prior experience and educational levels.

BUT HOW, INDEED, DO YOUNG MEN coming out of yeshivah and kollel without a degree or a track record, land respectable positions, some of those with six-figure starting salaries? First, WDP’s director Rabbi Yehoshua Werde and his team of job developers astutely size up the talents and potential for success of job-seekers, which often are enhanced by the basic skills training WDP offers.

Then, most importantly, because WDP has gained the trust of an employer base of over 900 businesses covering a wide range of industry sectors, these job developers are able to get employers to give clients a chance to prove themselves with on-the-job training. And it’s obviously working, because many of these employers have turned to WDP a second and third time looking for more hires.

WDP, though, is still a government initiative, and in the real world, it can take many years and overcoming many obstacles to make even a much-needed program a reality.

As Eichenstein puts it, “Government means bureaucracy, and oftentimes even if the mayor wants it to happen, that doesn’t mean it will happen overnight. There are so many hoops to jump through. It has to pass muster with the city’s lawyers; with the Office of Management and Budget, whose job is to look at it in terms of dollars and cents; with the political people, who are concerned about the optics of catering to one particular demographic; with the intergovernmental folks, who wonder about the potential domino effect of other constituencies demanding their own targeted programs; and the press shop, who have to think about how to present it to the public. Each of these players has the ability to hold things up and each has to ultimately sign off on a program before it rolls out.”

The assemblyman says the program was fortunate to have Steve Banks, who is no stranger to the frum community, then heading the Human Resources Administration, which administers the program, along with current Commissioner Gary Jenkins. But ultimately, he observes, “the willingness starts at the top, so you need the mayor to want to make this happen. There were many bureaucrats in the room who were pushing back, saying things like, ‘What is the press going to say?’ and ‘Why are we doing this for this particular constituency?’ The reality, of course, is that this program is no different from any other increasingly popular government-supported initiative which seeks to provide culturally competent and linguistically appropriate assistance.

“And to his credit, the mayor didn’t care, because he knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, I remember him saying exactly those words: ‘I don’t care what the media is going to say — if it’s the right thing to do, let’s do it.’ It was complicated to navigate the maze of agencies that had to be involved in this rollout, but I remember the mayor constantly asking for updates, saying, ‘Where are we on this? Are we closer?’ It was one of the projects that he really wanted to succeed.”

Bill de Blasio was known for his tendency to take positions and refuse to budge from them, seemingly oblivious to the political cost. In a new memoir, Karen Hinton, a former de Blasio press secretary, writes regarding this political liability, that his “signature move at City Hall was to dig in on an untenable position, against the advice of his staff, slowly raising the cost of an inevitable defeat.”

When it’s for a good cause, however, that kind of obstinacy is actually called courage. Only rarely would I put “politician” and “principles” in the same sentence, but a program like WDP, where an elected official does the right thing against his political best interests, seems to call for it.

And the only thing that tops a politician displaying the courage to do the right thing is when he does so in a situation where he won’t be taking public credit for it. But by its nature, that’s precisely what the WDP is — which is why many readers are probably first learning of the program here. And thus, we have an even rarer combination: a sentence in which “politician” and “principles” appear together, without the word “publicity.”

But of course, there are many others who don’t need this column to tell them about the program — the relatives and friends of those whose lives have been transformed by it.

Recently, an Orthodox Jewish elected official speaking to the New York Times about Bill de Blasio’s time in office said, “Certain Orthodox leaders may have benefited tremendously. But the average Moishe is very upset.”

Too bad he never met Shimmy L., a young father with low earnings who turned to WDP seeking both higher salary and career direction, and secured a procurement job for $80K. Or “Meir C.,” a breadwinner who found a position at $125K, slated to grow to $175K by year’s end. And “Miriam S.,” who’s making $110K in the e-commerce department of a company in WDP’s employer network.

True, none of these average Yidden are named Moishe. But I don’t think they’re too upset at Bill de Blasio.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 921. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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