The Other Jewish Austin: Meeting Critical Human Service Needs in a Booming Central Texas Economy

The Other Jewish Austin: Meeting Critical Human Service Needs in a Booming Central Texas Economy

By Rebecca S. Cohen  

Buying into the stereotypical image of a wealthy Jewish community is relatively easy and even comforting to some of us in Austin. We are, after all, the people of the book, professionals and academics, accomplished in business and with a history of helping our own. Yet despite Austin’s bustling economy and laudable unemployment statistics (3.4 percent in December 2015 compared to 5.0 percent nationally), we have in our midst, believe it or not, an ever-increasing number of coreligionists in need of food, housing and financial counseling. Forty-seven people reached out to Jewish Family Service, a branch of Shalom Austin, in 2014 and fifty more in 2015 asking for emergency financial aid.

“A lot of the stories are the same, explains Katie Price, JFS Office Manager and long time employee of Shalom Austin. “People fall so far behind they don’t know where to go.” 
Asked if he keeps a pot of gold under his desk that he dips into to provide assistance, JFS Executive Director Gil Levy (LCSW) says, “Yes. But it’s a very small pot.” In his five months on the job (Levy joined JFS in October 2015) he has seen a definite uptick in requests. Among these are people who came to Austin with high hopes that the strong Texas economy would sustain them, but were unable to adjust quickly enough to the rising cost of living and had no personal support system to lean on. There were others who had been here for years, but had fallen on hard times.

“We’re seeing real people come forward who are not rich, not of means, who are struggling financially in various ways,” Levy says. He and Price work directly with applicants, inquiring about their future prospects and helping identify multiple resources that might be available to them. No funds are dispersed to individuals. Instead payments are made directly to cover a month’s mortgage or rent or utility bills, which, if not paid, would result in foreclosure or eviction. (By negotiating on the client’s behalf, JFS can occasionally get late charges waived.) These payments are not structured as loans; clients are not obligated to pay back the money. The hope is that they will benefit sufficiently from stop-gap aid to regain their economic footing and move forward. Frequently this has been the case, as with one family, homeless despite a good credit record, for whom a month’s rent payment allowed sufficient time for them to stabilize their financial situation and begin to cover future months’ obligations. Six months later they are still moving forward. 

Food insecurity as well as homelessness is an issue for some of Austin’s Jews. On an as-needed basis, JFS distributes fifty-dollar  supermarket gift cards purchased with money from a small dedicated fund to provide food support in a way that preserves peoples’ dignity. 
“We have hungry Jews out there,” says Price. While clients are also referred to Meals on Wheels and the Capital Area Food Bank, those who observe kashrut may have difficulty making use of food from the community at large. 

Sometimes the needs are even more complex. A variety of problems, including mental health issues, can impact one’s ability to manage financial affairs. JFS offers individual, couple and family counseling as well as providing support groups and case management and other assistance for seniors seeking to live independently as long as they can. 

Some people bring situational challenges that can be resolved over time by working with a trained clinician. Others deal with chronic problems that will likely reappear throughout their lifetime. In those cases JFS helps as much as possible and for as long as necessary by teaching coping skills, making sure the client has the right resources and access to additional support in times of need. JFS therapists aim is to help people journey through life in as smooth a way as possible. 

Fine tuning the workings of his team of therapists and counselors is one of several priorities that Levy has begun to tackle. At present his staff includes Price, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator Mary Axelrud, and Senior Adult Services Director Carlye Levine (MSSW, LMSW, C-ASWCM, LCSW) and a social work intern. Emma Howitt (LPC, LCDC), JFS’s newest professional counselor and therapist, joined the team on February 29, 2016.

Another of Levy’s goals is to increase the size of that small “pot of gold” so that his team can keep up with the demand for services. “We have operated almost exclusively on a sliding scale for payment of services,” he explains. We have not ever become active in third party reimbursements such as Medicaid or an kind of insurance or anything like that.” His plan is to begin those things that will allow JFS to recoup some funding for services in addition to what people can pay. “I want us to be able to expand and make sure we keep pace with the growth of the community. We have to make sure our capacity grows, whether that’s adding staff or engaging volunteers in the community in more meaningful ways.” 

Although the Jewish Federation, Shalom Austin’s philanthropic and community development branch, provides the lion’s share of JFS’s budget through the Annual Campaign, Levy notes that additional contributions and fee-based revenue will be necessary to grow both the size and scope of JFS programming. 

Technology and improved infrastructure will also serve to move JFS forward. Providing laptops for staff members and initiating cloud based storage of health records would allow team members to do more home visits and record notes in the field. “A team of five could do more, reach more people, if we had a better tool set,” says Levy. 

A large volunteer pool would also be an asset, asserts Levy, but only after a volunteer management system for recruitment and training is established. 

At present Jewish Family Service is located in an office building on Jollyville Road, nearly 7 miles from the Dell Jewish Community Campus. They are out of sight and presumably out of mind for many members of the community. The Generations Campaign now underway will therefore play an important role in increasing JFS’s ability to reach more people and provide more and better services. “Being located on the campus will be helpful,” says Levy. He envisions attracting the attention of would-be volunteers and clients through the physical presence of offices on campus and looks forward to having easy access to rooms large enough for group sessions. These are not available in their current facility.

For some people, it may be hard to ask for help. For others, it may be difficult to face the reality that increasing numbers of Jews in this community need financial and emotional support. But Levy thinks both should be grateful that JFS, Shalom Austin’s social service arm, is poised to provide that assistance. 

For more information about JFS support services or volunteer opportunities, call (512) 250-1043 or email To make a donation to the 2016 Jewish Federation Annual Campaign or Friends of JFS, call (512) 735-8034 or email jenifer.

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