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Jewish organizations come to the aid of their communities in the midst of COVID-19

By Stacey Dresner

In the midst of COVID-19, members of the Jewish community, all quarantining and/or sheltering-in-place, are becoming accustomed to this new virtual world. 

Jewish organizations are offering ways to stay in touch with and engage their communities, ZOOMing and YouTubing synagogue services, children’s programming like storytelling and religious classes, meetings, Passover seders, and even fitness workouts streamed by Jewish Community Centers.  

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations are doing what they do best – taking care of those in need, whether they are experiencing lonliness and insecurity, financial difficulties or are on the frontline as essential workers. 

Last week, JGS Lifecare began proactively testing residents in the Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home for COVID-19. Twenty-nine residents tested positive.

“Some are experiencing only mild symptoms, and many more are stable and showing signs of recovery,” said JGS Lifecare President  Adam Berman in a statement to the press. “Up until early this week, we had a few isolated cases in which residents and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in the Jewish Nursing Home. In all cases, we took aggressive steps to quarantine anyone with close contact. Residents who tested positive were transferred to an isolation unit and cared for by a separate and dedicated care team. Staff members with symptoms were asked to remain at home and self-quarantine.

“We are working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Longmeadow Fire Department, and other local authorities to take all possible actions to protect our residents, staff, and community. Any resident with a confirmed case of COVID-19 is being moved into our isolation unit and treated by a designated COVID care team. We will also continue to perform tests on all our residents until we feel confident we have firm control of the situation…We understand that this is a stressful time for everyone. We will continue to work hard to serve our mission of providing the best quality care for our residents and full support for all our families.”

It has been tough for Jewish Nursing Home staffers like nurse Ellie Riberio, who has been working endlessly to take care of her elderly patients throughout this crisis.

Two weeks ago she and her fellow JGS Lifecare co-workers received a surprise — emails announcing that they would all be receiving free groceries, thanks to a generous donation from the Perlman family, the owners of Ocean State Job Lots. 

“When I got the text that JSG was giving us five bags of groceries I was in shock,” said Riberio, who has been a nurse at the facility for the past four years. “I so much appreciate it; it helps me and my family out tremendously. The staff here has been wonderful throughout this ordeal that we’re going through. I cannot express how grateful I am for all that they’re doing to help us.”

The makeshift store opened in the Nirenberg Administration Building and its adjacent parking lot on the JGS Lifecare campus on Monday at 7 a.m., as the evening shift was leaving for home and as the day shift arrived. Each staff member was able to fill three bags of dry goods and two bags of fresh produce to take home to their families. 

The store was open Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday throughout the day. 

“Our staff is remarkable,” said Berman. “They come to work each and every day to care for our most vulnerable seniors, many leaving their children at home with the additional costs of child care. Their kids are snacking all day so we know that this free food will be of great benefit to them and it is a wonderful way for us to express our appreciation for all that they are doing for our residents. We are continually seeking ways to show our gratitude and support during these trying times. We are indebted to the Perlman family for making this possible.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Western Mass. and its board have started The Healthy Community Emergency Fund to assist its local constituent agencies and families in the local Jewish community. 

“One hundred percent of those funds will be used to support our community agencies so they can continue their operations; and [it is] also for use for individual or family needs,” said Stew Bromberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation. 

The Federation has sent out letters asking its donors with donor-advised funds to participate and the Federation’s major donors are also being asked to make additional gifts.

Bromberg said that they are hoping to raise a minimum of $150,000 through the Healthy Community Emergency Fund.

Bromberg has also been working hard to advise agencies and local Jewish organizations and businesses about resources from the government that are available to them.

“I have become very well-versed in the SBA (Small Business Loan) and paycheck protection program and I have been advising the organizations and helping them through the process – what is allowable, what isn’t allowable, how do you calculate it…and what do you need in order to apply,” Bromberg explained. “This is for all small businesses of 500 or fewer employees…Non-profits count, specifically all 501 c3, but there are provisions for other religious organizations to apply.”

The Federation is also coming to the aid of members of the Jewish community who may be in need of essential supplies, transportation to medical appointments, emotional and psychological support, daily check-ins, or any other pandemic-related needs.

“The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts would like to connect you to those in the community who are looking for volunteer opportunities during this crisis. We hope to be able to help in other ways as well,” said a post on the Federation’s Facebook page.

The post asks those looking for assistance to go to https://form.jotform.com/JFWM/assistance

The Springfield and Longmeadow offices of Jewish Family Service of Western Mass. are closed, but the staff is still going full blast to take care of its clients. Staffers have been calling active clients daily since the JFS offices closed; they are assisted by a COVID-19 resource page with coronavirus stats and recommendations for the staff.

“We put this together really fast,” said Maxine Stein, executive director of JFS. “We are doing everything remotely so we have not had many calls from clients because WE are calling clients. We are checking with them daily. We are doing caregiver work remotely; we are doing support groups remotely; we are doing counseling remotely; we are doing in-home therapy remotely. We are doing all of our team meetings remotely. We are just doing our very best to meet everyone’s needs.”

Every year through the JFS’s Matzoh Fund, almost 200 bags of food are delivered to those in need, but this year Stein said, they were unable to pull it off due to COVID-19 considerations.

“Through Temple Beth El’s generosity, we delivered eight boxes of Seder in a Box food to people that we normally would have subsidized to send to community seders, which are obviously not happening,” Stein said. “So we are taking care of those people.” 

The Springfield Jewish Community Center, usually bustling with children at the Early Childhood Center and members working out in the gym, is keeping its members active through J.Connection – its own virtual JCC.

The Virtual J shared links to Passover activities last week, in addition to other links of Jewish interest. Daily programs online include story time for kids, cooking classes, and a full schedule of daily fitness classes.

“Our building may be closed, but we are anything but closed,” said JCC Executive Director Michael Paysnick. “Our staff have quickly shifted to virtual programming to engage our members. Preschool staff are zooming with classes, sharing activities, reading stories and coordinating a program to express our appreciation to first responders, essential workers and medical professional heroes. Our trainers are broadcasting classes live as well as sending out brief routines to encourage individuals to keep active. 

“From Shabbat singalongs and challah making to theater hangouts and Kehillah social group activities, every member of our community can find connection with others. In addition, our staff and lay leaders have been reaching out to the membership, just to check in with a friendly voice. It is this connection with one another that is so important in what is certainly a time of high anxiety and loneliness. The J is like a second home to so many of our members.  We want them to know we are still family and we care deeply for them and their wellbeing.”

In Worcester, the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. has received a gift from the Melvin S. Cutler Charitable Foundation, which will enable the Federation to assist those needing help in the local community.

The Federation and Jewish Family & Children’s Service also have a Tzedakah Fund Program in place to help those needing financial assistance, and the Federation, the Worcester JCC and local congregations are coordinating volunteer efforts to make sure community needs are met.

“Community members have volunteered to help with COVID relief projects, and we’ve heard from others who have been impacted and are needing assistance,” said Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. “I am so proud of the strength and generosity of this community and the willingness to help one another.” 

Additionally, the Worcester JCC has launched Member 2 Member (M2M), in which JCC staff and volunteers will facilitate connections between volunteer members who want to check in with other members using phone, online tools or social media.

“While the pairing will be voluntary and remote or virtual,” said Emily Rosenbaum, executive director of the Worcester JCC in a message to the community, “M2M will be a powerful way for JCC community members to stay connected and ensure that others in our community are well and are safe and socially engaged during these isolating times.”

Main Photo: The dedicated staff of JGS Lifecare received free groceries, courtesy of a donation by the Perlman family, owners of Ocean State Job Lots.

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