The calls come in daily.
They come from people who find themselves facing religious discrimination in the workplace. From family members dealing with end of life situations who are told by doctors that “pulling the plug” is the compassionate and humane course of action for their loved one. From a college student who is told by his professor that if he misses class on Rosh Hashana he will be dropped from the course, leaving him facing the prospect of a three hour walk each way to and from school.
These are just some of the calls received by Agudath Israel of America’s Constituent Service department. An average of ten new calls are logged daily, said Ms. Chava Shulman, director of Constituent Services for the last five years.
While some of the cases are as simple as people asking what they need to know about flying with a lulav and esrog on Succos, others are far more heart wrenching. One situation involved a destitute Holocaust survivor who was having difficulty paying her rent. Terrified that he landlord would throw her out on the street, she called Constituent Services.
“We applied for and received funds from various organizations which help needy Holocaust survivors and saved her from eviction,” recalled Ms. Shulman. “When she recently passed away, we were instrumental in arranging for burial through the Hebrew Free Burial Society.”
The Constituent Services department was created in the Agudah’s earliest days when those with problems would turn to Rabbi Boruch Borchardt with questions and requests for assistance. Over time, it became clear that a more formal process was needed to efficiently accommodate the many calls received, and the Agudah created the National Jewish Referral Network, renamed the Constituent Services department approximately ten years ago. Since then, tens of thousands of individuals have turned to the Constituent Services department which has fielded calls on diverse issues including religious discrimination, employment, immigration and social services.
Ms. Shulman estimates that 95 percent of the calls to Constituent Services come from the United States, with a handful originating in other locations including Israel, Canada and Europe. While some of the calls deal with general issues, the department focuses on problems involving religious matters.
“While we help people in any area, including government programs to assist people in applying for financial assistance, eviction prevention and Medicaid issues, we are unique in that we also help people with problems relating to Jewish life, such as religious accommodation in the workplace and end of life issues,” observed Ms. Shulman.
One of the cases currently being handled by Constituent Services involves an individual who is facing a difficult dilemma regarding the upcoming Succos holiday. A resident of a Lakewood retirement community, the man has found himself denied the ability to perform the most fundamental of mitzvos of the yom tov.
“The board of directors refuses to allow him to put up a Succah,” explained Ms. Shulman. “Avi Schnall, the director of our New Jersey office, is now involved. He is working with a pro bono lawyer in New Jersey to help this man.”
Other issues relating to the upcoming yomim tovim include people who find themselves facing religious discrimination in school or the workplace when trying to schedule days off for their holiday observances.
A rabbi who works at Staten Island College recently contacted Constituent Services after discovering that the school’s graduation would be held on June 1, 2017, the first day of Shavuos.
“We did our research to locate the college officials in charge of event scheduling, explained the problem to them and also put the rabbi in touch with them,” noted Ms. Shulman. “As a result, the graduation was rescheduled to another weekday and all Jewish students can now attend their graduation ceremony.”
The Constituent Services department tries to help every caller in a thorough manner.
“Either we help directly, or refer callers to a rabbi, lawyer, political representative, or social service organization which can help,” said Ms. Shulman. “We have a long list of resources which can provide assistance in almost any situation.”
Need help making arrangements with your employer or school for the Yomim Tovim or have another religious-related issue? Call the Constituent Services department at 212-797-9000 ext. 335