In the late 1960s, two psychiatrists studying whether stress contributed to illness asked patients to rank various life events by how stressful they were. Unsurprisingly, the death of a spouse, divorce, and marital separation were at the very top of the list. For some single parents, these events not only take a huge emotional toll, they also leave these parents with the financial challenge of raising children on their own.

Yefim and family
Yefim Ulitskiy with his mother and daughter.

Mazal Gadelov was new to single parenthood when a friend referred her to the Kadima program at the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Five Towns. “I’d just started going through my divorce, I’d just moved into the Five Towns, I was in a really bad state financially, emotionally, in every way,” Gadelov says.

The JCC of the Greater Five Towns is one of three sites (together with the Sam Field Y and the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst) that are part of UJA-Federation of New York’s Single Parent Network, supported in collaboration with the Jewish Communal Fund. The network was established after UJA-Federation completed studies of the demographics and needs of Jewish New Yorkers, which highlighted the prevalence of single parents living in or near poverty.

The needs of single parents differ in important ways from the needs of other New Yorkers who are struggling to make ends meet. “You have parents who are kind of in survival mode,” says Jennifer Sultan, a lay leader who sits on UJA-Federation’s Employment and Self-Sufficiency Taskforce, which recommended funding the Single Parent Network. “They would like to be on a career path, but they just need a job to get through day to day to support themselves. … There is such great need at so many different levels: the career level, the child-care level, the single looking-for-a-new-partner level.”

Through the Kadima program, Gadelov found supportive social workers who helped connect her with the JCC of the Greater Five Towns’ food pantry; access services for her son, who was recently diagnosed with autism; and simply listened to her as she talked about the problems she was facing. But the most important thing she found was a community of other parents going through similar situations.

“Just the support group alone, knowing there were people out there in the same position as me, was a huge help,” she says.

Striving for Self-Sufficiency

Marks JCH single parent art class
The Marks JCH holds many social events for single parents and their children. This painting class gave parents a chance to socialize and unwind.

At the Marks JCH, another site in the Single Parent Network, the staff sees many single parents coming through their doors. “Throughout the entire agency, about 30 percent of our clients are single parents, and that’s a very large number,” says Julia Linetskiy the program director for youth and children’s services.

Since the Marks JCH serves many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, these parents often face language and cultural barriers on top of the other challenges of single parenthood. “We understand that for a lot of our families, self-sufficiency is a long-term goal, though it might not be feasible for them at this moment,” say Violetta Shmulenzon, the Marks JCH’s director of program services and institutional advancement. The staff connects single parents to government entitlements, job training programs, and other steps that can put them on that path to self-sufficiency.

Linetskiy shared the story of Yefim Ulitskiy, a 55-year-old father who emigrated from Ukraine in 1994. His two daughters were living most of the time with their mother, his ex-wife, until she passed away from cancer. He works long hours as a driver for a Brooklyn car service to support them and relies on his aging mother to pick them up from the after-school program at the Marks JCH.

For three hours at the end of every school day, the girls go to the Marks JCH and get help with their schoolwork and participate in dance and swim programs. And more importantly it’s become a second home to them, a place where they can connect with a community, where their father doesn’t have to worry about them and can focus on putting his entire family on a path to a brighter future.