When employees at the Pittsburgh office of State of Israel Bonds arrived for work on Friday, Nov. 14, they were met with some harsh news.
State of Israel Bonds laid off four employees in Squirrel Hill and made Pittsburgh a satellite of its Philadelphia office. The move was part of a nationwide retrenchment by State of Israel Bonds.
The cuts included the executive director, Bobbi Elmer, two field representatives, Stuart Pavilack and Dottie Silberman; and one administrator, Dorothy Valko. A fifth position— a clerical job — was already vacant.
The furloughed employees had a combined 55 years on the job for Israel Bonds in Pittsburgh.
Bobbi Elmer, executive director of the Pittsburgh office, declined to comment on the news, referring all questions to the New York office. There, Bonds national spokesman Raphael Rothstein said the moves were necessary in order to modernize the Israel Bonds operation.
“We regret it deeply,” Rothstein said of the furloughs. “We admire and respect the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and we always want to have a strong presence there. We have to reallocate resources to stay in business as a reliable cost-effective and competitive enterprise, which is vital to Israel’s future.”
That doesn’t mean the free-falling economy didn’t also play a role in cuts, he added. “The economy overall, we’re not impervious to it, but the changes were to reallocate resources and to find more efficient ways of doing things.”
Though now a satellite of Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh office will remain open.
“We will have a full-time sales representative in Harold Marcus and a full-time clerical assistant,” Rothstein said, “and Bobbi Elmer has agreed to stay through the end of the year for a smooth transition. And members of the Philadelphia office will visit regularly to help with sales in Pittsburgh — on the same model that Pittsburgh used to help the Detroit campaign.”
Detroit had been a satellite of the Pittsburgh office. It will not be attached to the Chicago office.
All told, about 30 State of Israel Bonds employees nationwide have been “retrenched” (eliminated), according to Rothstein. Rothstein also said other cities are becoming satellite offices, though he wouldn’t name them.
Len Zimmerman, executive director of the Bonds Philadelphia office, said he and his staff will not neglect the Pittsburgh market
“I’ll be going out there; my staff will be going out there,” said Zimmerman, who has two kids at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’ll do everything we can to make sure the area is completely covered.”
“We still have the same goals to reach as we did when the Pittsburgh office [was at full strength],” he added. “Just because they cut the staff doesn’t mean they cut the goals of the organization, so we can’t let anything go by the wayside. In this economic time everyone just has to work a little smarter. Israel Bonds is no different than any other company having layoffs.”
Rothstein said he hopes Pittsburgh Jews will continue to support Israel Bonds despite the cutbacks.
“Standard and Poors and all the major banks dealing with Israel always point out that support of Israel Bonds and the cheap capital Israel Bonds provides is a critical element to Israel’s well-being,” he said.
Indeed, according to the state of Israel Bonds’ Web site, both Standard and Poors and Moody’s have given Israel Bonds a positive bond rating, while Fitch’s classifies the bonds as “stable.”
“The help Israel Bonds has given us … has been an important factor in making things different,” Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer has said in a statement.
The cuts follow an efficiency study, which is leading to changes in the way Israel Bonds will be operated. One such way is a new online national customer service.
“We’re working to centralize in a computerized fashion so all questions of processing and matters to do with sales can be referred to a central location,” Rothstein said, “so local offices will be relieved of that responsibility.”
Marian Unger Davis, who chairs the board of trustees for the Bonds Pittsburgh office, called the cutbacks “very painful,” but also said they had more to do with creating efficiencies than the economy.
“It makes a lot of sense to streamline a company,” she said, “to bring it up to the 21st century.”
It’s not the first news of organizational cutbacks in Jewish Pittsburgh. In August, Bnai Zion announced it was closing its Pittsburgh regional office and handling local matters from New York.
“I’m disappointed that the choice was made to downsize the Pittsburgh regional office,” Warren Sufrin, who chairs this year’s Bonds campaign in Pittsburgh, said in a prepared statement. “While bonds sales were down recently due to delays in large government purchases, I’m still upbeat about the future and the large number of Israel Bonds buyers in the Pittsburgh area.
Asked whether the furlough of field representatives familiar with longtime buyers will affect bond sales here, Sufrin said, “Only time will tell.”
Davis, however, noted that much of area sales are institutionally driven, which she believes will continue And since Israel’s high-tech based economy continues to grow, she added, the a bonds investment will be attractive to individual investors.
“Everyone has to invest their money,” she said. “Everyone I talk to says they should have bought more bonds because they [are] a Standard and Poor top rated investment, and that will never change.”
For the most part, the furloughed employees declined comment for this story, though Silberman said she enjoyed working for Israel Bonds.
“I’m saddened; I loved what I did,” she said, “but it truly was a financial consideration.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)