A Mitzvah for the Loisada

Old mission embraces new immigrants

By Andrew Greenhouse

Article from Dollars & Sense Volume 31
Article from Dollars & Sense Volume 31

At 9 a.m. on a cold and windy day, dozens of young mothers are pushing strollers into the lobby of 197 East Broadway, an elegant six-story, 19th century stone building on the Lower East Side. They are dropping their children off at a local Head Start program in a building that has served for over 100 years as the headquarters of the Educational Alliance, a Jewish organization deeply rooted in the history of the Lower East Side.

Founded in 1899 by German-Jewish philanthropists, the Educational Alliance was established to help indigent East European Jewish immigrants adjust to life in America after fleeing Czarist oppression and poverty. There remain few poor Jews on the Lower East Side. Today the majority of the Alliance’s beneficiaries – and its employees – are non-Jews.

The Alliance’s mission, says Robin Bernstein, the CEO, is to create an “Abraham’s tent,” a place where all the residents of the Lower East Side can come together. The Educational Alliance, though a self-consciously Jewish community center, still devotes the majority of its resources to serving the needs of a new generation of impoverished and low-income residents, many of whom are Chinese and Latino immigrants or their children.

Despite years of gentrification, the Lower East Side, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, has a poverty rate at least twice that of other Manhattan neighborhoods south of the Harlem area and double the national average. And as the city’s unemployment rate soars, the services provided by organizations like the Education Alliance shine a spotlight on the needs of the poorest New Yorkers whose circumstances are only likely to worsen in the coming months.

The Alliance runs a total of 80 programs at 32 sites, many of them in public schools and community centers. These include day programs for preschoolers, after-school activities, mentoring services and clubs for teens, exercise classes and centers and assisted-living facilities for the elderly. The Alliance also runs two residential programs for drug addicts, an outpatient service for drug prevention, mental health counseling services for residents of all ages and a homeless outreach program specifically oriented to Jews, many of them people with emotional problems.

Historically, the Alliance’s greatest strength has been in its youth programs. In earlier years, the Alliance established a reputation for providing programs that helped get young immigrants off the streets. The Alliance’s theater group mentored the famous comedian and singer Eddie Cantor, and drew him away from a life of early adolescent gang-related crime. And its legendary art school, which still provides training at the East Broadway location, maintains a policy of never turning anyone away on account of economic need. The Art School nurtured the talents of the famous sculptor Chaim Gross, the socially conscious, left-leaning painter Ben Shahn as well as the comic actor and abstract painter Zero Mostel.

The Alliance continues the tradition of emphasizing programs that foster the development and self-esteem of low-income youth. Taken together, the Alliance’s programs touch almost every aspect of a young person’s life. For example, the Head Start and Early Head Start preschool programs “help many poor children overcome linguistic and cultural barriers,” says Hong Shing Lee, chief operating officer of the Asian American Federation.

For some 2,000 elementary school children, many of whom live in Lower East Side housing projects and are from immigrant families, the Alliance provides after-school programs combining sports, academic support and arts and culture. For parents who struggle to make ends meet, all of these programs, which run until the late afternoon, provide a free safe haven for child care. Furthermore, day care programs for young children are priced on a sliding scale based on income and can cost as little as three dollars a week.

For many of the neediest adolescents whose family lives are marred by poverty and the strains of adapting to a new land, the Alliance is like a second home. The Edgies Teen Center, which is affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, meets at the Alliance’s East Broadway headquarters and provides 400 economically disadvantaged teens a “safe after-school environment” with activities that help give them a greater sense of purpose and hope, says the center’s director, Amarilis Perez.

On a slushy late afternoon in January, a day when many students are studying for mid-term exams, the center is still full of activity. The center has basketball courts, a gym equipped with weights and treadmills, and wood-floored dance rooms for classes like yoga and karate.In the art room, which is stocked with supplies, kids can learn digital or graffiti mural art. Teens can learn how to cook, even participating in a cook-off. The center also offers mentoring services, leadership training, financial literacy classes and “boys” and “girls” discussion groups aimed at navigating adolescent challenges. And, at a newly formed College Prep Program designed to encourage teenagers from
low-income backgrounds to attend college, high school students get help with everything from preparing for the SATs to touring colleges.

For teenagers, the Alliance provides “an excellent support system,” says Sherice, a senior at Bard High School Early College who has participated in a variety of Alliance programs since she was a freshman. Sherice says she benefitted from the College Prep Program, including free SAT classes that raised her scores considerably. Sherice, who was accepted into both Albany University and Spelman College, is now getting help from the Alliance with her financial aid applications.

Chris, a resident of the Lower East Side and a student at the LaSalle Academy, was first encouraged to attend the teen center when he read an outreach flyer three years ago. He has relied on the Alliance for everything from a sense of community to college preparatory courses. Chris, who has been accepted at St. John’s University, began taking karate and yoga at the Alliance when he was a freshman. The classes, he says, helped him “stay stable in his chi,” or life energy, which has kept him goal-directed and focused. Chris, whose goal is to become a telecommunications entrepreneur, credits the Alliance’s mentoring program with fostering his social and leadership skills. And he says he acquired many practical life skills through participating in Money Matters, a Boy’s Club/Edgies Teen Center Program. The program helped him learn how to budget, open a savings and checking account and, perhaps most importantly he says, “to differentiate between needs and wants.”

The Alliance fulfills crucial needs in a neighborhood where amid trendy new restaurants and refurbished condos, many residents still live in poverty. Even at the peak of the economic boom, and more than a decade of rapid gentrification in downtown Manhattan, according to 2006 Census
estimates, 25 percent of the residents of the Lower East Side lived at or below the federal poverty level, currently set at $21,000 for a family of four. The real poverty level is actually much higher; Mayor Michael Bloomberg revised the city’s poverty guidelines in 2008, to $26,138 for a family of four to account for the cost of living.

Now, as the unemployment rate in New York City has climbed above 8 percent – the highest it has been in five years, according to Crain’s New York – demand for the Alliance’s services is likely to increase. At the same time, the Alliance will face an uphill battle maintaining its funding streams.

Financially, the Alliance is in a position of relative strength. Between 1998 and 2007, the Alliance increased its budget by more than 50 percent to more than $33 million. Still, like many other nonprofits, the Educational Alliance is facing budgetary constraints due to the financial crisis.

The organization relies on government sources for 50 percent of its funding and 15 percent from private foundations and donors – most of them from the Jewish community. The Alliance raises another 25 percent of its budget from fee-generated services ranging from parenting programs to
arts and cultural activities for the more affluent members of the community. Unlike many Jewish philanthropic organizations, the Alliance says it has had no direct exposure to the Bernard Madoff investment scandal. But, government funding for its after-school program and some programs for the elderly have already been cut back. The Alliance predicts that foundation money will, at best, remain stable, but certainly not increase for the foreseeable future.

The Alliance has begun to adjust to the new realities by eliminating some jobs via attrition and layoffs. However, the Alliance has not “closed or significantly curtailed programs due to budgetary pressure,” says Danny Rosenthal, senior vice president of external affairs at the Alliance.

Some supporters of the Alliance say its best prospect for future growth and stability would be a strong federal government commitment to providing massive funding to nonprofits that provide essential services to their communities, an idea advocated by some policy experts as a cost-effective way of adding jobs and alleviating poverty during the economic downturn.

Indeed, during the New Deal, the Educational Alliance served as the neighborhood headquarters for the Works Progress Administration, and was visited by Eleanor Roosevelt on several occasions. Ruthie Barnes, an octogenarian who experienced the hardships of the Depression in New York City and is currently active in Jewish organizations, believes that in a new era of both need and reform, the Alliance and the Jewish community that founded it might once again play an important role in the “fight for a more just and compassionate society.”