A Jewish charity reports a 25% increase over the past year in requests for help with living expenses. PAULA TOWERS talks to those in need and those trying to help.
Recent cost-of-living increases are forcing members of Melbourne’s Jewish community to ask for help for the first time.
Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund (MJCF) CEO Yoni Paluch told Plus61J Media the organisation has seen a sharp rise in demand for its services.
“We’re getting a lot of people come to us who previously wouldn’t have needed any support where, for example, an unexpected medical bill comes in or their child might need dentistry work or therapy; unfortunately, that’s the situation that a lot of people are finding themselves in right now.
“It’s causing those who’ve never before had to reach out for support, to reach out to us, as well as taking a toll on those regularly receiving welfare.”
“Without this help, I wouldn’t have been able to feed my children.”Rivka, MJCF client
In the past 12 months, there’s been a notable jump in requests for assistance. “Just in medical bills, for example, we’ve seen an increase of 23%,” Paluch said. “In general living expenses, an increase of 26%, and greater than a 10% increase in accommodation expense support requests.”
The cost-of-living increases have also impacted the capacity of donors to give. MJCF is entirely dependent on private donations, mostly from individuals or charitable foundations. But the charity is seeing a lot of the donations decrease while the demand increases.
“The key point is clearly that the Jewish community is definitely not immune from any of the cost-of-living pressures and we’re really seeing it everywhere.”
More than half MJCF clients are single mothers, often escaping domestic violence. “They leave with basically nothing but the clothes on their back and they’ve got significant issues with how they’re going to afford rent or food or clothes for the kids,” Paluch said.
“We partner with other welfare organisations, so we will help support them with rents and vouchers – we’re giving out about $30,000 every month now in Coles vouchers and there have been 198 families so far this financial year who have been recipients.”
Established clients are also struggling with the decreasing buying power of vouchers that have supported them in the past. Typically they say something like, “I want to thank you very much for what you’ve given me but unfortunately it’s just not buying what it used to.”
The fund has had to increase the amount it is giving clients by 10 or 15% so they can keep up with increasing grocery prices.
After becoming aware that children were attending school with torn and ill-fitting shoes because parents could not afford properly sized new shoes, MJCF also introduced a shoe subsidy program. This financial year close to 400 kids will get a new pair of shoes through MJCF.
Judy, MJCF client
“My spouse was diagnosed with a serious illness. He had to stop working and was not eligible for income insurance. We needed financial support to pay our bills.”
Set up over 50 years ago, the Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund is the largest provider of financial welfare support in the Melbourne Jewish community.
It was started by Hershl Klein in his St Kilda East study. “People would come and ask him for support and he would write them out a cheque for whatever they needed and it has just grown from there organically,” Paluch said. “Now it provides over $2 million in financial assistance to around 600 families every year.”
A volunteer organisation working with individuals and families to address poverty in the Jewish community, MJCF provides emergency medical, financial and practical assistance in a crisis.
It specialises in immediate response in a crisis, with quick turnarounds from initial client contact to the provision of financial assistance and services while also providing long-term support to break the cycle of poverty, restore dignity and improve quality of life.
With only three part-time case workers, MJCF has very low overheads – spending only 10% on administration, whereas charities generally run at around the 30% mark: “So 90 cents in the dollar goes direct to people in need – relatively unheard of in the charitable space,” Paluch said.
The demographic that MJCF services is wide – from children to the elderly and from all across Victoria. “We support anyone who comes to us and says they’re Jewish, their partner is Jewish or someone in their family is Jewish.”
“Following my divorce, I was left with nothing,” she said. “My ex had stopped paying the mortgage and wasn’t paying child support. It was a very difficult time. I didn’t have any work qualifications as I’d been a full-time mother – so one of my friends suggested I seek assistance from the Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund.
“The first thing – that pleasantly surprised me – was that a MJCF person met me personally. She was very understanding: she listened to me and not at any point was she judgemental; she fully realised how difficult my situation was and said: ‘We will try to help you.’ And it was instant help: right at that meeting, she gave me some Coles vouchers and frozen food to feed my children.
“They saw that’s what I actually needed; I just needed food on the table for my children.
“I know, for sure, it helped save my life and the lives of my children. Without this help, I wouldn’t have been able to feed my children. I also wouldn’t have been emotionally stable enough to provide for them.”
Rivkah received support for seven years, including money for food and regular meetings to assess her needs, until she was able to get work and eventually buy her own business.
Now in her 50s, Rivkah is a donor to MJCF and a volunteer who helps abused women. Her three eldest children are at university and/or working while the youngest, still at school, hopes to become a doctor.
“I realise how many people in the community are in dire need of support – the same that I received – without judgement. With the living-cost increases there are many more people – including single parents as well as those who cannot work and the elderly.”
“My spouse was diagnosed with a serious illness. He had to stop working and was not eligible for income insurance. We needed financial support to pay our bills. The help we got from MJCF allowed us to concentrate on being a support for my very ill loved one. It allowed him to get medical treatment and not worry about the day-to-day financial pressures.
“It is a place that the community can go to for help, without feeling judged or embarrassed.
“Not having to pay back the money or feel the pressure of taking a loan with interest is one of the best features of MJCF. It feels like you are being cared for and listened to with no conditions attached. Giving back one day will be the greatest pleasure for me.
“We would not have got through this awful time in our lives [without MJCF]. The help and support we received during my spouse’s illness and after he passed away, will always be appreciated and I will be forever grateful. The kindness and compassion I got from my case worker was absolutely incredible. She was a pillar of strength for me to lean on.”
Names of case studies have been changed to protect privacy.
More information and donations at Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund.
Photo: Each month, Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund gives out about $30,000 in supermarket vouchers (Marco Verch)