There is an intriguing black-and-white picture in the Agudah’s historical archives. Dating back to 1880, it shows a laborer sitting at his Shabbos table on the Lower East Side. Some things about the shomer Shabbos community have stayed the same for hundreds of years: There’s a braided challah, what looks like a salt shaker, and a nice place setting. But the setting of the photo is telling. The man is sitting in a tiny room – a converted coal cellar. There’s a shovel right next to him. He looks like he lives in poverty and his expression tells us that this was the best room he was able to afford.
And other things that have stayed the same for hundreds of years: Parnassah has been a challenge for our community – as it has been to the general population – for as far back as the shomer Shabbos community has existed in the United States. The Agudah has engaged with this challenge for decades, and COPE, Agudah’s first parnassah initiative, started in 1977 to teach people the skills they needed to get jobs in IT and computer programming. But it changed its focus some years back, according to R’ Daniel Baumann, COPE’s director. Big companies started outsourcing their IT positions to India and the market for programmers and IT professionals was shrinking. COPE pivoted to accounting programs. But not the traditional accounting degree path – at least, not at first.
“We have unique programs,” says R’ Baumann. “We offer a junior accounting program, completely separate for both men and women, which can be completed in three to six months, depending on one’s schedule, as well as a Bachelor’s degree program whose graduates are eligible to sit for the CPA exams.”
Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov graduates are particularly suited to these accelerated programs, which in this case, besides accounting, give a broad background in business and finance. “We have students from the most chassidish and most litvish communities, and everyone in between,” R’ Baumann says. “Both men and women from all kehillos join COPE and I think they do so well because they are so intent on taking their capabilities to the next level. We really change their lives.”
Many people have never heard of a junior accounting program. Junior accounting is a certificate program whose graduates are skilled in accounting and business, and are able to work at a high level in a professional environment. COPE graduates have gone on to become bookkeepers, entrepreneurs, CFOs, and much more. “The beauty of the junior accounting program is the number of choices it gives to its graduates,” says R’ Baumann.
One of those choices is becoming a CPA. Some twelve years ago COPE saw how many of its students were interested in learning more about finance, and had the skills and the drive to eventually sit for the CPA exams. To help those students, COPE created a 150 credit degree program which students can complete in 22 months. Upon graduation, the students are awarded a B.S. in Business with a concentration in accounting, and are eligible to sit for the CPA exams.
These accelerated programs allow men and women who are seeking to provide for their families in a derech kavod to learn the skills they need to be competitive in the job market. COPE graduates are very successful in finding jobs, with an employment rate of over 90%. In fact, COPE’s biggest referrers to its programs are its previous graduates. Recently, one family had its fourth child graduate from the program!
Over 2,500 students have completed the junior accounting course, and about 500 the accounting degree program.
“I started in COPE as an accounting instructor,” says R’ Baumann, himself a veteran accountant. “At that time COPE was only teaching 75 people a year. That means that 75 families’ parnassah each year could be credited to COPE.” Soon, though, there were problems. COPE’s budget was not being covered and the Agudah was reluctantly considering closing COPE down. R’ Baumann couldn’t accept that there would be 75 families the coming year who would not have parnassah because COPE closed. Taking on the responsibility for this division of Agudath Israel Community Services with the encouragement of members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, R’ Baumann made sure that this resource for Klal Yisroel stayed strong.
The bottom line, says R’ Baumann, is that COPE isn’t just a school. “We’re not in the education business. We’re in the business of helping people.”