Justice for all

Bet Tzedek - known for its advocacy work with Holocaust survivors - has provided free legal aid for the elderly and the needy of Los Angeles.

Bet Tzedek 88 248 (photo credit: )
Bet Tzedek 88 248
(photo credit: )
Justice, justice shall you pursue - Deuteronomy 16:20 We're living in a world gone mad, a world where Bernie Madoff can squander the lifelong savings of thousands of people, where corporate CEOs of the big three automobile companies can fly into Washington in their private jets to beg for handouts and where every day working men and women are losing their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods. As a result, now more than ever is the time to pursue justice with the zeal and fervor as advocated in this line of Torah. And in an unobtrusive building in the middle of Los Angeles, one organization is attempting to do just that. Bet Tzedek (House of Justice) takes its name from Deuteronomy 16:20, and the statement is the organization's motto. A nonsectarian, nonprofit organization, it has been providing free legal aid to more than 10,000 people in the Los Angeles area since 1974 and is internationally recognized for its innovative work. Using a unique model combining direct representation for its clients coupled with outreach, education and legislative advocacy, to date Bet Tzedek has provided assistance to more than 200,000 Los Angeles residents of every race and religion, as well as having made a significant impact on the quality of its clients' lives. With 65 staff members, including 30 full-time lawyers and eight paralegals, bolstered by hundred of trained volunteers (both legal and lay), you'd think Bet Tzedek would be a fairly flashy organization. However, you'd be hard pressed to find its offices, situated as they are in a fairly nondescript building directly opposite the bustling Farmers Market and The Grove shopping center. Bet Tzedek is located in the heart of the Fairfax district, an area once home to the largest Jewish population in the city, particularly when the organization opened its doors 35 years ago. However, while the area still retains a strong Orthodox presence and there are some yeshivot, kosher bakeries and Israeli restaurants in the area, Fairfax is no longer the hub of Jewish life it once was. That title now belongs to the Pico Robertson neighborhood in West Los Angeles. A myriad of corridors plastered with awards, plaques and posters reflecting the work of the organization greet you as you walk into Bet Tzedek. The corridors give way to numerous rooms where attorneys, paralegals and volunteers work away in relative quiet. President and CEO Mitch Kamin sits in his large, airy office surrounded by photos of his wife and children and piles of pamphlets promoting Bet Tzedek's services, the bustling Farmers Market in full view from his third floor window. "We started here in what was once a historically Jewish neighborhood," says Kamin, "but the mission has always been to pursue justice, which has been interpreted by our founders as doing so for the entire community. We've never asked clients what their religion is, much less screened them on the basis of their religion, and we certainly don't keep statistics on this." WHAT KAMIN does state clearly though is that Bet Tzedek's client demographic "is that of poverty in LA. Most of those people are not Jewish, although we do make every effort to ensure that any needy Jewish person or family has access to our services." Those services can by and large be broken down into several major areas: elder law - which includes a wide range of services for seniors in the community - public benefits, employment rights, outreach and education and Holocaust services. "Obviously our Holocaust reparations project is 99 percent Jewish," Kamin says. A lot of outreach to the Jewish community includes synagogues, other Jewish community service providers, seniors' centers funded by Los Angeles County and a lot of public speaking in the legal community. "We just want people to know that we're here and available to help them," he says. Bet Tzedek's mission is constant, no matter how the winds of fortune blow. And since the economic downturn, Kamin says there has been a definite increase in people seeking Bet Tzedek's help. "Our report in March showed the downturn really started in September," Kamin says, "and in that six-month period, demand for our services has gone up between 15 percent and 20 percent." Those services play out across a number of different areas, Kamin notes. "In the foreclosures area we have many clients who are confronted with losing their homes, either homes that they own or apartments that they live in where the owner is being foreclosed on." Other clients are increasingly concerned about their public benefits. The state budget will result in some major cuts in health care benefits and home supportive services, and we have lots of clients who have been calling for guidance on how to deal with that," Kamin adds. It also comes as no surprise in the current climate that there are big increases in calls by people seeking help when it comes to consumer issues, he says. "Those things cover everything from debtor-creditor problems, bankruptcies, people who can't pay their bills and financial fraud and abuse." Fraud and abuse go hand in hand with tough times, according to Kamin. "There are all kinds of scams out there in times of crisis," he says ruefully. "Criminals come out of the woodwork and prey on the most vulnerable people." As a result, some of the cases Bet Tzedek is currently handling include seniors who may have agreed to a contract for some kind of service they didn't need and couldn't afford or being misled about the terms of their contracts. "Other things relate to the area of foreclosures," Kamin adds, "where people were either talked into a bad loan or for some reason or another signed over the title of their home without knowing it." Another area where Bet Tzedek has seen increases in its cases include workplace abuses where employers are not paying earned wages. "There are just more employers in a down economy who don't pay what they are supposed to," says Kamin. Some of the more insidious practices, he says, include employers taking advantage of workers' immigration status. "Even if they are not here legally, the law in the United States is that if you work [even illegally], your employer is still obligated to pay you and to pay you overtime if you work it." BY FAR the steadiest stream of work that comes across Bet Tzedek's desks, though, pertains to seniors. "That's merely by the virtue of the demographic changes in the US," says Kamin, "where there are more seniors proportionally as part of the population each year and it's growing." Kamin cites statistics in Los Angeles County that show that between 2008 and 2014 the number of people older than 65 will double and that the percentage of people older than 85 is also growing. While Bet Tzedek continues to provide aid, the organization is also feeling the pressure of the sluggish economy. "It's a particularly challenging environment for organizations like Bet Tzedek," Kamin says, "because while our client need is increasing, our funding is decreasing." And while Bet Tzedek benefits from what Kamin says is "a nice range and diverse funding base" - 30 percent of the organization's funds come from government money, and the rest from private foundations, corporations and individuals - "all sectors of nonprofit fund-raising are down right now." As a result, Kamin says, Bet Tzedek has had to put plans to expand its services on the back burner. "We're also not filling positions when people leave," he says. "We're taking affirmative steps to reduce our costs and are doing our work in an innovative and creative way. That includes training and working with a lot more volunteer attorneys. Luckily many are eager to undertake the work and want to help the cause. "In the past we'd have a couple of hundred volunteers from the community throughout the year to help us, but in the last year we had about 1,000 volunteers in Los Angeles and a network of volunteers who were working round the country with Holocaust survivors." Volunteering is very much part of the ethos of Bet Tzedek, and it's evidenced in the two major fund-raising efforts it undertakes each year, the Justice Ball for young professionals each summer, which draws close to 4,000 attendees, and the Annual Dinner Gala in February. Fund-raising is a major component of Kamin's job these days. The Harvard Law School graduate, who has a background in litigation and civil justice, spent 10 years in private practice before taking up his position with Bet Tzedek six years ago. The fund-raising efforts have helped Bet Tzedek to move beyond Los Angeles and to help people around the country, especially when it comes to helping Holocaust survivors, which Kamin says is so important, even in the current economy. "Within the first couple of years of Bet Tzedek's founding, it began serving Holocaust survivors seeking reparations and restitution," says Kamin. "We developed an expertise in all the famous European government programs and became involved in some of the biggest cases around the United States, including World War II insurance polices. We were part of the class-action suite in New York against the Italian insurance company Generali, and we filed briefs in the Supreme Court in the Maria Altman case over the Klimt painting." ONE OF the organization's biggest programs is now a national one - the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, started in Bet Tzedek's offices in early 2008 in response to the German government's new reparations benefits for people who had worked in the ghettos. Trained Bet Tzedek volunteer attorneys now work with survivors not just in LA but also around the country to help them discover if they are eligible for these benefits and file for them. "We've now done this in 31 cities in North America," says Kamin "and of the 5,000 survivors we've met, around 4,000 of them have been eligible for this program." In fact, Bet Tzedek's efforts have been so successful, this year the organization was awarded the American Bar Association's Pro Bono Publico Award, one of only 500 nationwide each year. Kamin says despite Bet Tzedek's achievements, the toughest thing to deal with, particularly in these times, is "working at a place like this knowing that we are not able to serve everybody. In my job I don't turn people away, but I'm responsible for bringing the resources to the organization that enable us to serve as many people as possible and to innovate and to be on the cutting edge of our field. Especially in times like this, it's a major and difficult responsibility." Nonetheless, Kamin says Bet Tzedek is "lucky, because we have 35 years worth of goodwill and a great base of support in the community with our volunteers, board of directors and our staff, many of whom have been here for decades." Ultimately, he believes the economy will improve. "It may get worse before it gets better, but we're very focused on being responsive to our clients' needs right now, because those needs are dramatic. But we're also prepared for a time when there are more resources available again." Kamin says while Bet Tzedek was "in growth mode" when the economy tanked, "we still managed to adjust and we're proud of how dynamic and nimble we are as an organization. Part of our responsibility is to be ready to emerge from the back end of this thing when it's over and to continue to be innovative and effective." At the end of the day, Kamin says, no matter what the state of the economy, it's all about Bet Tzedek's objective, which is "to make sure that everyone has access to the justice system and to all the opportunities that one should have in the United States."