Federation responds to COVID-19 challenges by targeting urgent needs, marshaling community resources, and staying engaged
The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires mobilized in the weeks before Passover to reach out to the community it serves, and found new ways to deliver vital services and sustain Jewish engagement. Our efforts are ongoing and our game plans are evolving in this time of rapid change, but – with the support of community members and local congregations – Federation is responding to the urgent needs of our most vulnerable persons and to the unprecedented daily challenges facing families and individuals whose lives have been upended.
In this edition of the BJV, we spotlight some of the important work being accomplished by this Federation, our overseas partners, and other local organizations, along with some of the ways community members are coping and giving back during this crisis.
Volunteers are Vital!
Federation quickly mobilized its staff to adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, but it was immediately apparent that leveraging the enthusiasm and support of volunteers from our community would be essential to our outreach.
As soon as the threat to public health and the constraints on daily life became clear, Federation posted two forms on its website – one to fill out if help was needed, another to fill out by volunteers who wanted to help.
The response was overwhelming, reports Susan Frisch Lehrer, Federation’s coordinator of volunteers and PJ Library. “The people who volunteer for everything signed up,” she says. “People who have never volunteered with Federation were asking what they could do.” In all, approximately 100 people volunteered to pitch in during the early weeks of our outreach.
Susan and other members of Federation staff first connected volunteers with members of our community who are most vulnerable – older adults living independently and those in assisted-living facilities, as well as those unable to leave their homes or who requested urgent help. Our volunteers helped them shop online, picked up groceries and other necessities at local markets and pharmacies, and checked in regularly to chat and see how things were going.
When Federation made the decision to reach out to all community members in our database – which includes Jewish individuals and families who may not be affiliated with a local congregation – our volunteers enabled us to more rapidly complete our calls. But more importantly, they initiated their own dialogue with their fellow community members, and shared their experiences with Federation and their concerns during this time of uncertainty.
Getting meals to housebound members of our community is an essential service provided three times a week, and Susan says she wants to recognize the “unsung heroes” of that effort – David Pill and Dr. Alan Metzger. “They show up at the Knesset Israel kitchen to pick up the meals Cindy Bell-Deane has prepared,” she says, “and bring them to people with whom they’ve developed relationships.” Their interactions are necessarily more limited, but even more welcome during this time of social isolation. Susan says that several mental health professionals – psychologists and social workers – have volunteered their expertise, as well.
As coordinator of PJ Library for our Federation, Susan has developed relationships with families throughout Berkshire County. She says that, as everywhere else, local families are feeling a little stressed as they try to balance their efforts to keep their kids focused and entertained while working remotely from home. She says that PJ Library, on its website and Facebook feed, has been providing abundant daily Jewish-themed activities and events for young children, including concerts and story sessions. Susan also curates our own PJ Library Facebook feed to reflect the interests of our families.
Our local PJ Library also led an effort to remind local seniors in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that they are not alone by creating Happy Day cards that were then scanned and emailed and distributed to the residents. (For more, please see the story on page 1.)
“People have been making connections, which is imperative,” says Susan. “Not necessarily face-to-face, but voice-to-voice – one-on-one connections that are so important because we are one. This time is so hard because we are social beings who are missing one another.”
To volunteer, call Susan at (413) 442-4360, ext. 14, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Federation’s development officer, Leslie Kozupsky devotes a great amount of time staying in touch with both the full-time and part-time members of our community throughout the year. In ordinary times, it’s an important way to sustain relationships with our donors and keep conversations going about Federation and its vital role in building and sustaining Jewish community in the Berkshires.
With the COVID-19 crisis changing expectations for the summer months and beyond, Leslie – along with other Federation staff – responded by reaching out to our community members, wherever they might be, just to check in and see how people are coping.
“It’s been interesting how once someone I reach gets past the initial ‘what does she want’ moment,” says Leslie, “the conversation immediately turns back from them to us. To ‘How are things in the Berkshires?’ ‘What has Federation been up to?’ ‘How is the community at large?’”
Leslie says that so many of the people she has spoken to have expressed frustration with being isolated. “They are used to being active and social, and now they can’t be. But so many have told me the most frustrating part is wishing they could be out there doing more to help others.”
During her outreach, Leslie has been able to provide a lifeline to community members who were struggling, but did not know where to turn. “I called a woman just to check in,” says Leslie, “and found out that her husband had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He had no clue about what was going on, only that he couldn’t go out on the walks they still enjoyed together. And she was overwhelmed. She expressed that she thought she needed help.”
Leslie connected her with Jill Goldstein, Federation’s social worker, who has helped the couple receive some of the assistance they need.
“People have been so appreciative of our phone calls,” Leslie says. “But what I find amazing is the way they seem more concerned about us than they do about themselves.”
Federation’s “Knosh & Knowledge” and twice-weekly “Connecting With Community” programming offers anyone opportunities for year-round engagement. These programs are free of charge and provide a learning environment that is welcoming, diverse, and sustaining throughout the year.
During the coronavirus crisis, all on-site programming has been suspended through the end of May. At press time, June events were scheduled to go on as planned, though that could change.
“During this time of heightened health concerns and awareness,” says Federation’s program director, Nancy Maurice Rogers, “we are still here and thinking about how best to continue engagement. Although on-site programs have been postponed and rescheduled, others have moved to phone and video conferencing.”
Maggie Bittman, the licensed mental health counselor who has for many years engaged with attendees of Connecting With Community about the stressors of life that we all experience, moved her “LET'S TALK: Conversations on Life” to a conference call format in late March. She said after her first telephone session: “I felt satisfied knowing that people can comfortably express feelings, thoughts, and ideas on the phone. I hold conversations sacred wherever people come together at various venues in person. Second-best is the telephone, as it allows conversations to flow".
“This is a time to develop strategies that maximize creative approaches for community engagement,” says Nancy. “Audiences continue to stay connected and presenters are eager and willing to try new approaches that reach and teach people.” She has been working hard to coordinate with presenters and attendees in the face of a constantly-shifting landscape of closures and social distancing protocols.
She adds: “We emphasize that although this is a time to stay at home, it remains a time to stay connected, engaged with reciprocity and sustained compassion. As always, communicating with people and staying engaged with community, with family and friends, is most important. I am continuing to look at how programming lends itself to these aspects in people's lives and in varied approaches to reach people right now.”
Please check Federation’s website (www.jewishberkshires.org) and emails for more information on our online offerings.
Jill Goldstein, LICSW, ordinarily follows the well-being of 35 people in our community, supporting them in the challenges they may encounter in negotiating daily life. Since COVID-19 restrictions were adopted, many of her clients have been challenged with an even greater sense of isolation than they are accustomed to, as many opportunities to socialize – such as, for example, Connecting With Community programs and lunches – are not available.
Jill, whose services are contracted by the Federation on behalf of the Berkshire Jewish community through Jewish Family Service of Western MA (JFS) in Springfield, reports that subtle changes can often make a meaningful difference in a person’s attitude toward being stuck at home.
One client who has worked as a yoga instructor, told Jill that “the way she’s coping is by working with a massage therapist, who has been walking her through a self-massage via telephone. It’s something she ordinarily wouldn’t do, but has found it a creative way to improve her mood while in isolation.”
Another client, says Jill, “lives on a fixed income and is still able to walk to the grocery store. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, she buys one extra item to donate to a food pantry.” Doing so gives her a sense of satisfaction from pitching in, and Jill says many of her clients have also made it a point to do something for others in order to keep themselves positive.
Over the Passover holiday, the community mobilized in many different ways to stay connected with one another. “There has been a huge volunteer pool of people who have made calls just to check in with members of our community just to say hi,” says Jill, “and it has made a huge difference. The great appreciation that people have for the outreach Federation and the synagogues have undertaken permeates the conversations I’ve been having with the people I reach. They are just so happy to receive those calls.”
If you believe that you or someone you know might benefit from talking with Jill, please get in touch by calling (413) 442-4360, ext. 17, or via email at email@example.com.
For Cindy Bell-Deane, Federation’s director of food services, Passover season is usually a very active time in which her ordinary routines are disrupted. Normally, she and her assistant Ken Conlow prepare three meals a week (two in the summer months) for the regulars who have formed a tight-knit, supportive community at Federation’s kosher lunches for older adults at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. When the holiday rolls around, Cindy oversees the transition of the KI kitchen for a strictly kosher-for-Passover food service in advance of Federation’s always well-attended annual community Seder.
This year, just before the holiday, the sit-down communal Seder had to be canceled – but a decision was made to provide those who wanted a traditional Passover repast the opportunity to purchase their holiday meals, catered by Crown Market of West Hartford, through Federation.
The food arrived in large containers on Monday, two days before the first night Seder. Cindy and Ken worked at a feverish pace over two days to package 125 meals and get them ready for pickup on Wednesday morning, April 8.
They got the job done. On Wednesday morning, cars began to roll into the KI parking lot, where teenaged volunteers placed the meals in the trunks of community members who had ordered them.
During chol ha’moed Pesach and beyond, Cindy and Ken have continued to prepare meals-on-wheels for the homebound recipients who ordinarily receive them, but also for many of the regulars who would usually dine together at the Federation-sponsored lunch.
Cindy takes pride in preparing varied menus, but due to the coronavirus response, she’s had to adapt. Says Ken: “It’s hard to figure from day to day what availability might be at the markets.” Adds Cindy: “I also try to make sure to use what I might have on hand, so I can stay safer by not having to go out to the grocery store.”
Cindy also takes pride in knowing what each of her regulars like to eat, along with any dietary restrictions they might have, and tailoring meals to their preferences. That hasn’t changed because the food is being delivered, rather than served directly from the kitchen.
“We don’t deliver food just to deliver food,” she says. “I want to make sure that people get food they want to eat.”
On April 1, in a meeting attended online by Federation vice president Josh Bloom, the board of directors and Federation leadership of the Southern New England Consortium (SNEC) – the group of Federations that have joined together to connect with our Israeli Partnership2Gether region, Afula-Gilboa – allocated $50,000 for relief of the effects of coronavirus in the Afula-Gilboa region through partner non-governmental organizations.
The first allocations were made to Bet Singer Children’s Home (for multimedia equipment and other supplies), Afula Crowns / Shehakim (for sandwich club and home computers), Afula Municipality (hot meals for seniors), Emek Hospital (coronavirus-related medical equipment), the Gilboa Arab population (small business funding and support for workers who have lost jobs), and Haifa Rape Crisis Center (additional social workers and hotline operations). The group planned to reconvene in early May to assess further potential allocations.
The group planned to reconvene in early May to assess potential allocations.
Jewish Women’s Foundation of Berkshire County
When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the executive board of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Berkshire County ecognized the fear and anxiety, as well as the economic impact, this situation caused. To that end, they called emergency meetings to address the food insecurity escalating in Berkshire County.
The Board unanimously voted to allocate an additional $1,000 to support the families of its Berkshire Hills Regional School District Project Connection Backpack kids and also to send $1,000 each to the three food banks in Berkshire County, Community Pantry at the South Congregational Church of Pittsfield, People's Pantry of Great Barrington, and Berkshire Food Project of North Adams
The Board reached out to Foundation members by writing: “We are painfully aware that food insecurity will be an ever-increasing problem as this crisis continues and are looking into how the Jewish Women's Foundation can best serve this community that nourishes our souls. Your continuing membership in the Jewish Women's Foundation is more important now than ever.”
For more online stories from the Berkshire Jewish Voice, click here.