Internal Riches

From The New York Daily News

by HEATHER ROBINSON

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Anita J. Raizman will never forget the day when, on her way to work at Project Ore, a kosher food bank, she saw someone abusing a homeless woman.

“I was coming to work here, and there was a black girl wrapped up in cardboard, sleeping by the movie [theater], and somebody started kicking her to get her up as I passed,” she said. “And this girl got up and said, ‘You know, you could be homeless, too.’”

Recalling that the harasser “turned around and made a sly remark,” Raizman continues.

“Normally I don’t interfere in most things, but I turned around–” she pauses and takes a deep breath, carefully emphasizing each word in an accent that suggests her birthplace of Brownsville, Brooklyn, “and I said, ‘You know, she is ab-so-lute-ly right! It can happen to you, too! Because it happened to me!’ I just got so infuriated.

“You never think it’s going to happen to you. But there are so many things we take for granted.”

Raizman, 63, spent almost three decades working in Manhattan’s Garment District as a controller before becoming homeless for a brief time in the early ’90s. She now works as a case worker at Project Ore in Chelsea, where she helps the needy—mostly Jewish clients who are homeless or poor—to turn their lives around.

“Most people go from rags to riches,” she says. “I’ve gone from riches, to rags, to internal riches.”

The “internal riches,” she explains, come from her work, which includes shopping with clients, and helping them do paperwork to get food stamps and social security benefits. She also helps out in the kitchen, and assists Pinchos Kurinsky, director of Project Ore, with keeping inventory and ordering supplies.

“I go home each day and I feel really fulfilled,” she says. “Spiritually…I feel complete again.”

For most of Raizman’s adulthood, she was living a comfortable life.

“I had a good job—coming in with my jewelry, my business cards,” she recalls of her years managing an office. She also enjoyed going out to restaurants with friends many nights.

Then, in 1989, she sustained a severe leg injury.

“The boss says, ‘You’re not doing what you were before.’” she recalled. “Sometimes I used to stand at the Photostat machine with my knees buckling. One day I went down and… that was the end of that job.”

After losing her job, her life began to spiral downward.

“You get depressed because you’re injured, and not working, and start going to a psychiatrist,” she says. “It’s $150 a half hour, ‘Here’s your meds, goodbye.’”

She was eligible to collect disability, but too proud to do so.

“[The idea that] this is the way it is—‘I’m on disability.’ I just couldn’t accept it.”

Without an income, however, she couldn’t afford her rent, and went to live with her parents–retirees in Florida.

She eventually did apply for disability, and received a check that retroactively awarded her $14,000. With that money, she bought a car and arranged to rent a room in New York for $80 a night. Soon after returning, however, her apartment-mate kicked her out for coming home one night at 11.

“She said, ‘Pack your bags and get out or I’ll call the police.’

“I had no place to go.

“So I started living in my car.”

She felt too proud to go back to her parents’.

“I was going into McDonald’s every morning to clean myself up,” she recalled.

“Once a week, I checked into a motel, to have a shower, really have a good night’s sleep, because when you’re sleeping in the back of your car, with a jacket over your head, praying you’ll wake up the next morning, it’s a little scary.”

A stroke of luck provided an opportunity for affordable housing: her mother received a forwarded letter from Penn South Condominiums in Chelsea, which are run by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, stating that Raizman was eligible for a rent-controlled co-op apartment. Twenty five years earlier, Raizman had placed her name on the waiting list.

Soon she had a roof over her head, and enough money in disability to live frugally. But the damage to her self-esteem kept her in a 10-year depression that finally lifted in 2000, when she found her life’s work at Project Ore.

“I think when someone is homeless, part of their identity is taken away,” she says. “From feeling like a million bucks, you become zero mentally, and it’s very hard to build up again.”

For almost a decade during the 90’s, she spent her time alone in her apartment, “watch[ing] too much of the boob tube,” she says.

She began coming to Project Ore, which is affiliated with UJA-Federation, when, walking down the street, she noticed the synagogue in which the food bank is located. She began coming for lunch, and also to feel connected with people.

“It was like I was getting a spark back in my life again” she said.

After several weeks, she began working as a volunteer at the facility, and eventually was hired as an employee. Today she also holds a part-time job as a companion for a 29-year-old, developmentally disabled man, whom she says she “wish[es she] had known…since he was a baby.”

Her past hardship informs her work with the hungry and the lonely at Project Ore.

“I think it’s given me more compassion and understanding,” she says. “If someone asks for an extra Danish, I’ll try to find it somewhere.”

Her clients praise her.

“She’s very dedicated, very protective of this place,” said Jim Zeman, who was eating lunch at Project Ore on a recent afternoon.

“I think when you take the initiative, God is there to help you,” Raizman says. “Because when I wasn’t working, my Mom said to me, ‘Why don’t you do some volunteer work?’ And smarty-pants Anita turned around and said, ‘I’m not dirtying my clothes for volunteer work.’”

“That is a terrible attitude when I look back now. But I had to be stubborn and smarty-pants. Does anybody ever listen to their mother? Not enough. That’s what it comes down to.”

This entry was written by and posted on May 31, 2006 at 12:52 pm and filed under Profiles.