The Economic Toll of a Pandemic

EDITOR’S NOTE: The photo below of two young women shopping in Pomegranate, a kosher supermarket in Brooklyn, was take in 2011. This backdate was not indicated in the caption in the print version. We have corrected the caption below, and apologize profusely for this oversight.

 

For musicians like Sam “Bodi” Bodenheimer, the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was swift and severe. “From Purim through the early summer of 2020, my entire live event calendar was canceled,” recalls the New York City–based musician and music producer. “That meant zero income from live events for about five months—I had more than thirty events planned.”

The simchah industry is often held up as the hardest hit within the Orthodox Jewish community during the pandemic, which began in March of 2020. Due to Covid precautions—and often government regulations—weddings were downsized, celebrations were delayed indefinitely, and fundraising dinners went virtual. For caterers, photographers, florists, musicians like Bodenheimer, and others whose livelihoods depend on these events, the economic hit has been devastating.

As a producer, Bodenheimer provides bands under the names Spicerack Music and Bsamim Orchestra for weddings, semachot and Jewish organizational events. “When assembling the band, playlists, and a myriad of event details,” he explains, “my focus is on the ba’alei simchah having the best possible experience on their special day. That includes lots of planning to make every event uniquely special for each family. With Covid regulations at venues constantly changing, our clients don’t even know the date, venue and band size until right before the event itself. It often ended up being a huge amount of work with little to no paycheck.”

Due to the nature of the music business, Bodenheimer points out, it’s difficult to guess how long the impact may linger. “The pandemic prevented us from working, and the uncertainty prevented us from planning ahead for upcoming seasons,” he says.

It was especially challenging for Bodenheimer to get through the leanest months knowing that so many of the musicians he works with were struggling and there wasn’t much he could do to help. “Everyone in music is hurting,” he says. “There are fewer opportunities and lower rates. When people cut back on numbers or costs—that’s us.”

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.6 million people were unemployed last summer as a direct result of business lost due to the pandemic. The degree to which the Orthodox community in the US has been affected economically by the pandemic is debated, with some pointing to dire indicators and others positing that frum Jews have fared better than the general population. Metrics are hard to come by due to the uneven spread of the fallout across business sectors and even geographic areas.

“Some industries were very hard hit,” explains Rabbi Zisha Novoseller, executive director of EPI Networking, a Lakewood, New Jersey, nonprofit with a mission of helping individuals earn a respectable living. “In general, entertainers struggled, as did caterers. Real estate is still in bad shape, especially in New York. People couldn’t pay rents, so the landlords weren’t making money—but they still had bills to pay. The hotel industry has suffered terribly, along with its suppliers. Those businesses have been decimated.”

On the other hand, he says, some sectors have been doing just fine. “Of course, there’s healthcare. But the kosher food industry, for the most part, is also thriving. Construction is off the charts, and online businesses are booming. While retail real estate isn’t bouncing back quickly, industrial real estate is in high demand.”

New York City’s economy suffered a harsh blow from the pandemic and has been slow to recover, leaving some segments of the Jewish community reeling. According to a September poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, more than half of New York households experienced a job loss or a cut to wages or hours during the pandemic, and one in five New Yorkers had serious trouble affording food.

“The need for emergency food assistance in the greater New York area has tripled since the pandemic,” notes David G. Greenfield, CEO of Met Council, America’s largest Jewish charity serving the needy.

According to Michelle Shain, assistant director at the OU’s Center for Communal Research (CCR), who conducted a study on how Covid-19 affected the frum community economically and in other ways, “the pandemic’s economic impact was felt most acutely by the most vulnerable Americans.” According to a Washington Post analysis, between February and April 2020, 10 percent of Americans between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four lost their jobs; the employment rate for that age group fell to its lowest point since 1975. By the end of September 2020, however, employment levels in the highest paid quartile had reached pre-pandemic levels, while jobs of those whose wages are in the bottom quartile were still down 20 percent from the start of 2020.

Across the country, small business owners were significantly affected by the pandemic. Research from the Brookings Institution estimates that between March and July 2020, nearly 420,000 small businesses failed—the number of failures typically seen in an entire year. “The frum community is a very self-reliant community that runs and supports its own businesses,” explains Greenfield. “It has been hit much harder financially than other communities because a significant percentage of individuals are entrepreneurial.”

Some sectors have been doing just fine. “The kosher food industry, for the most part, is also thriving. Construction is off the charts, and online businesses are booming. While retail real estate isn’t bouncing back quickly, industrial real estate is in high demand.”

Although EPI Networking does not normally assist established businesses, in the difficult economic climate of the pandemic, Rabbi Novoseller spread the word that his organization was ready to help any company that had taken a hit from Covid. Despite extensive advertising, “very few people have come to us,” Rabbi Novoseller says. “When I reached out to ask some individuals why they weren’t calling, I got three answers: either, ‘We’re significantly in debt and hesitant to take on more’; ‘Our guarantors won’t sign for us in the current situation’; or, ‘We can’t ensure the future of our company now.’

“The world has changed in this pandemic,” he adds. “Business owners aren’t confident their businesses are viable and worth salvaging.”

When traditional financing is not an option, struggling breadwinners often turn to their shul rav for help, says Rabbi Adir Posy, national director of the OU’s Karasick Department of Synagogue Initiatives. “Rabbis’ discretionary funds serve a very unique purpose,” he says. “They are positioned to help discreetly. Data is hard, if not impossible, to find, but the dollars distributed are significant. Shul rabbanim have been on the frontlines of much of the financial hardship in our communities during this time.”

Greater Need

Masbia, an emergency food assistance network in New York City, reacted quickly when the pandemic began, pivoting from sit-down dinners at their three locations to take-out meals, and increasing the size of grocery packages to last a family two weeks instead of one. The people Masbia serves—approximately 7,500 families each week—tend to be those who aren’t eligible for government assistance for whatever reason, Alexander Rapaport, executive director of Masbia, explains. “We are like an emergency room for food,” he says. “We see the acute situations—those who have fallen through the cracks or those who have some level of assistance but it’s not enough.”

A volunteer prepares foodstuff at a Jewish food bank in Toronto, Ontario. Photo: Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock.com

To accommodate the increased demand—and Covid-19 precautions—Masbia began staggering appointments throughout the day to save people from standing in long lines on the sidewalk. “For the first time, our food pantry became a twenty-four-hour operation,” says Rapaport. “I’ll admit it was very sad to watch people coming for food in the middle of the night.”

Although he’s seen a lot in fifteen years at Masbia, Rapaport says even he was shaken by the poverty in the wake of the pandemic.

Rabbi Posy agrees that there is tremendous need as a result of Covid-19. Yet he believes that Jewish communities around the country have fared relatively well because the infrastructure to meet these needs was already in place through organizations like Masbia and local Tomchei Shabbos groups, thanks to communal support and occasionally, government assistance.

In Baltimore, for example, the Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund ramped up its existing activities at the start of the pandemic, with the help of both grassroots support and grants. “Early on, we launched an emergency campaign for Covid relief,” says Executive Trustee Eli Schlossberg, director of operational and financial administration at Ahavas Yisrael. “The community was extremely generous. We anticipated large-scale layoffs and financial issues that didn’t happen immediately. The [financial issues] evolved more slowly, and I don’t think it ever got as bad as we expected.

“The organization helped quite a few families with basics like rent and food. Some were working hard and not making enough. For others, the pandemic meant the kids were home and a parent couldn’t go to work. Many families were getting by with reduced wages. Those were difficult situations, but most people have since adjusted. Covid has been challenging, but baruch Hashem, it has been a challenge we have been able to meet.”

Ahavas Yisrael also distributed significant grant funds from the city and state. “We got a sizable amount from Baltimore City, which we distributed to three kosher restaurants to supply meals to those in need within the Jewish community,” explains Schlossberg. The well-received program helped both local businesses and individuals in a dignified way.

Getting By with Less

Shira (name has been changed) got a call from her employer shortly before Pesach of 2020, informing her that her salary was being reduced by 50 percent. “The company laid off a lot of people, so I was grateful to still have a job,” states the New Jersey resident, who works in wholesale. “But we had to immediately look at our budget and ask, ‘Okay, what can we eliminate?’”

When New York City put a stop to all construction, the family’s financial situation went from bad to worse, leaving Shira’s husband Ari (name has been changed) out of work entirely. “He got six weeks’ worth of unemployment insurance before his firm reopened,” she says. “But for the first few weeks, until the paperwork was processed, there was no money coming in.”

The frum community is a very self-reliant community that runs and supports its own businesses. It has been hit much harder financially than other communities because a significant percentage of individuals are entrepreneurial.

Shira and Ari made tough decisions. They canceled their daughter’s plans for camp and got a refund, in addition to slashing their grocery budget, giving up household help, and cutting back on virtually all their discretionary spending. “We also ate into a lot of our savings to get by,” Shira adds.

Eventually, Shira’s company adjusted her salary to 75 percent of her previous income. A year later, however, there’s been no word on whether or when her salary might be restored to what it was pre-pandemic. Shira and Ari continue to live more frugally than they did in the past, weighing their spending carefully.

The couple’s experience may be more common than most people realize. The above-mentioned CCR study found that roughly half the people surveyed reported that their household income had declined since the pandemic began. The Center collected data at three points in time from members of eleven shuls in four communities: Atlanta, Georgia; Dallas, Texas; New Rochelle/Scarsdale, New York; and West Hempstead, Long Island. “People whose income declined generally retained about two-thirds of their income,” notes Shain. “A very small percentage of people in this study (less than 5 percent) are finding it difficult to get by. So it’s not a rosy picture, but I don’t think I’d characterize it as dire.”

Shain makes it clear that the CCR findings reflect the reality of the select synagogues in the four communities that participated. Clearly, the pandemic did not hit all sectors of the Orthodox community equally. Communities that tend to be less economically stable as well as those that are more commerce-oriented suffered more. “This not a monolithic community, and therefore there are going to be multiple stories . . . multiple realities,” she explains. “There are hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews in the United States. Let’s just remember that we’re a heterogeneous group and there are pockets of Jews doing very well, but also pockets of devastation.” [See sidebar on page 65 for more information on the study.]

From his perspective, Schlossberg says the most severe impact of the pandemic is on individuals who were dealing with significant issues—financial or otherwise—prior to the crisis. “The biggest difficulty I’ve seen has been the compounding of issues,” he says. “People who were struggling before are struggling much more as a result of Covid. Of course, there are also people who were managing previously, but the pandemic eventually wore them down.”

A Swell of Support

Research from the Brookings Institution estimates that between March and July 2020, nearly 420,000 small businesses in the US failed—the number of failures typically seen in an entire year. Photo: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx via AP Images

For many employers in the Jewish community, the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was the lifeline that kept them afloat during the pandemic. The $669 billion business loan program was intended to help businesses and nonprofits continue paying their workers. This resource was so vital that EPI Networking brought on additional staff specifically to help companies apply for PPP and other government resources.

“PPP made a huge difference for shuls,” says Rabbi Posy, who is also associate rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles. “It gave them short-term breathing room. We were expecting a rash of firings and shul closings, with declines in membership dues and event income, and that has not happened.”

From a broader standpoint, Rabbi Posy notes that the economic hit brought on by the pandemic hasn’t led to the downfall of communities. “Baruch Hashem, most communities have members in diversified fields. So while some sectors have been hard hit, others have weathered the storm, and therefore, communal institutions remain stable.”

For the most part, individuals have stepped up to close fundraising gaps and care for their fellow shul members. “People are giving more—and more people are giving—because they know they are living through a crisis,” says Rabbi Posy. “The reminders are all around them. The spirit of giving is strong.”

Similarly, Rapaport has been amazed by the generosity he has seen since the onset of the pandemic. “When the pandemic started, I told my board, ‘We’re going bust until Pesach, we’ll see if we can even reopen afterward,’” he recalls. “But the donations kept coming and we kept working. Regular people are running to help. There was talk of donor fatigue as the pandemic wore on, but we’re seeing the opposite. People are giving more and giving more often.”

Time to Pivot

Individuals whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic have tried to learn new skills or pivot their businesses to stay relevant. Ahavas Yisrael maintains an employment fund and is helping people retrain to better position themselves for jobs. EPI Networking, in addition to providing free loans to entrepreneurs, runs education programs to help people acquire the skills they need for today’s workforce—which may be different from last year’s workforce.

According to Rabbi Posy, in shuls across the country, especially larger ones, members have created networking initiatives to connect potential employers with job seekers and help businesses stay afloat.

Admittedly, it is easier for some types of businesses to adjust to the new reality than others. Retail stores have seen success going online; in the hospitality and event industries, re-focusing has proven much more complex.

For musicians like Bodenheimer, performing virtually doesn’t come close to the real thing. In pre-pandemic times, he visited shuls as a chazzan/performer. While he has done various virtual events for schools, Chabad centers and online galas, compensation for those has been a few hundred dollars, if anything, as opposed to the thousands he would earn from an in-person gig or weekend. He is grateful to do these shows, but they don’t compare to live events. “It’s not just the income,” he says. “I’ve missed the collective energy of the crowd. Music is a purposeful mission for many of us in the industry,” he says. “In normal times, it’s a decent living, but really it’s what I live to do. Not being able to share live music experiences with people for such a prolonged time has been so challenging—beyond just the financial hit.”

While EPI Networking has been busy helping people get back to work, there has also been an uptick in loan applications for new businesses. “It’s the people who’d been thinking about going out on their own for a while, and now they’ve been laid off,” observes Rabbi Novoseller. “This was the impetus they needed.” He has also seen individuals starting new businesses related to Covid.

Rapaport says he is not surprised to see frum people “finding ways to make a parnassah from the pandemic. We’ve survived for thousands of years by blocking out the bad news and plowing ahead. That attitude has helped Judaism survive, and it’s also what drives our economic engine. We’ll make it through this like everything else.”

For Bodenheimer, who is starting to see events being scheduled again, it’s just a matter of time until the music scene bounces back fully. “We all chose this industry because it’s who we are—not because it’s easy even in the best of times,” he says. “The world is already starting to emerge from this. We don’t know what ‘normal’ will look like or when we’ll get there, but I’m certain of one thing: There will be music.”

Rachel Schwartzberg works as a writer and editor and lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

More in this Section:

Opening New Doors by Yossi Bard-Wigdor, as told to Sara Spielman

How One Supermarket Fared During the Pandemic by Yossi Hollander, as told to Sara Spielman

How You Can Be Helpful To Those Struggling Economically by Rachel Schwartzberg

Making Connections: Pivoting Small Businesses

Studying the Economic Impact of Covid-19

Entering the Post-Pandemic Job Market: A Symposium

 

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This article was featured in the Summer 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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