As the new Executive Director of Project Ezrah, I planned on reaching out to our constituency in order to convey our mission, share our new directions and initiatives, and to be available for all feedback and comments. Two members of our excellent Board of Directors suggested that the optimum forum for this interaction would be our local synagogues on Shabbat mornings. Beginning in November, therefore, I set out on my weekly journey.
First and foremost: The respect and graciousness shown and accorded me by the rabbis and by the congregants were unparalleled. Each rabbi introduced me, always emphasizing Project Ezrah’s critical role in our greater community. Included in my presentations were the identification of our organization’s two major core functional areas of service: EMPLOYMENT SEARCH ASSISTANCE for hundreds of unemployed, under-employed, or soon-to-be-unemployed individuals, utilizing a comprehensive approach (i.e., resume preparation, employer network development, interviewing techniques) and FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE for many families currently unable to meet the overwhelming financial demands of a typical Bergen County family. This assistance includes, but is not limited to, financial management and basic budgeting principles. Both departments are headed by very strong and competent managers.
My synagogue tour was punctuated by many generous post-Shabbat offers, including financial support, identification of specific employment opportunities, and a cross-section of pro bono service offerings (e.g., accounting, legal advice). I was overwhelmed by the show of support for Project Ezrah. My walk home, many times in snow, sleet, and rain, was warmed by reflecting on the kindness and generosity of this community.
Being a part of each of these micro communities, I realized that Project Ezrah could not accomplish its vital work without our rabbanim, a very special group of individuals, completely dedicated to each member of this community. This dedication manifested itself on Purim and on Pesach. Many of our rabbanim were able to extract significant funds from their congregants directed toward our Matanot L’Evyonim and Maot Chittim campaigns. I was barraged by multiple calls on Purim day with a continuous flow of synagogue contributions (several rabbanim even delivered checks to my house during the snowstorm) as well as many Maot Chittim contributions prior to and even during Pesach. In addition, I was treated to first-hand exposure to “many” different congregational cultures (e.g., I was able to perform Birkat Kohanim twice on a Shabbat morning at Congregation Sha’arei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck), rabbinic sermons, tefilah nuances, and a variety of very tasty kiddushes.
Some highlights of my travels: Departing from the Young Israel of Teaneck on a snowy morning in early February, I took a huge fall on the ice and picked myself up with the assistance of several very nice people, offering me Shabbat lunch in their homes and, from one man, offering me a large donation to Project Ezrah. Evacuating the building at Congregation Sha’arei Tefilah on a freezing morning in January was also an unforgettable moment, leading to an attorney offering free service to our clients. On a rainy Shabbat morning in December at Congregation Keter Torah, a woman agreed to help our candidates find employment at NYU Medical Center. Outside of Beth Abraham, also in December, a dermatologist agreed to provide his medical service to our clientele. Project Ezrah was offered free pediatric dentistry from a member of the “SWEAT” minyan in Teaneck. A very moving occurrence took place at Congregation Beth Aaron in late November. The Har Nof massacre had just occurred; Rabbi Rothwachs approached the front of his shul to deliver his “regular” Shabbat sermon, appearing emotionally distraught. The Rabbi proceeded to explain that he was not able to deliver his prepared remarks and, instead, spoke beautifully from his heart about this tragic incident in Israel. This was an enormously emotionally moving experience for all of us.
The Maitland Minyan in Teaneck reflects a particular brand of warmth and camaraderie by hosting a Kiddush in congregants’ homes. On the day of our annual dinner, several Maitland congregants approached me with generous donations to Project Ezrah. At Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, Rabbi Goldin did a great job connecting Project Ezrah to “local” tzedaka issues, leading to an avalanche of questions and answers, and several concrete proposals and meaningful offers. A special spot for me was being introduced by my own congregational rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Adler, at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in early November. Speaking in front of my friends on my home court was the perfect kick-off to this great journey. Immediately following the davening, I was greeted with a “line-up” of people, offering Project Ezrah donations, free accounting service, free legal service, free tutoring, and several other wonderful offers A prominent physician in Rinat also provided invaluable assistance in identifying “real” positions in a very large company.
These few examples, plus many other stories provided me with a greater appreciation of the wonderful chesed embedded in our various communities. Neighbor helping neighbor (literally) took on a whole new meaning for me as I witnessed the outpouring of support for Project Ezrah.
All in all, I believe that I accomplished my purpose of spreading the Project Ezrah message. My direct encounter with nearly 6,000 people proved to be enjoyable,educationally enlightening, and, I hope, extremely valuable.
Robert Hoenig is Executive Director of Project Ezrah.
By Robert Hoenig