703-J-CARING connects people in need with help

By codix / Public domain

“Hi, I’m Kylie, how can I help you?”

Moments later, Kylie will ask you for your name, address and phone number. She’ll write down the time you called. She’ll ask you if it is OK for her to share your information with other service organizations.

It’s variations on the same opening every time, but the calls to 703-J-CARING diverge from there.

People call with various needs — like food insecurity, job loss and mental health struggles — and Jewish Social Service Agency case managers, like Kylie McCleaf, connect them with services tailored to their needs either by email or right on the call.


This Jewish community support line was created by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and JSSA to ameliorate the pervasive effects of COVID-19. 703-J-CARING, hard-launched on July 1, received around 20 calls in its first week and a half of operations.

“The goal of the program is to make it easy for people to get the help that they need when they need it,” said Todd Schenk, CEO of JSSA. “I think this is really an investment by the community in trying to help our neighbors to get the support that they need early on and avoid more complex end crises from emerging.”

It’s a one-stop shop for resources, countering a complex and fragmented social service system that makes it difficult for people to figure out who to call when they need help. Instead of dialing four separate lines, people can just call one that will work to provide them with the connections they need.

“Very often, it’s incumbent on the caller to navigate the system in order to get what they want,” said Schenk. “We’re trying to flip that where it’s incumbent on the service system to do the navigation, and we’re an agent for that.”

Federation CEO Gil Preuss said it’s a matter of reimagining collaboration within the Jewish community.

“The idea is how to get our Jewish community and the organizations working together in a completely different way to make sure that we meet the needs of the population as opposed to the needs of the organization,” he said.

The program is built on a network of connections, including many within the Jewish community, like Tzedek DC, JCADA and Yad Yehuda. It operates on a system of warm handoffs, with case managers connecting callers to some organizations right on the line.

To get a sense of how the system works, I called the support line.

McCleaf cheerfully greeted me, and I posed the service line’s most frequent type of call: job loss. We walked through the steps, simulating the process as it might unfold for someone who had lost a job.

It went something like this:

“Are you having trouble meeting your basic needs?” “Yes.”

“Do you have fear of loss of home?” “Yes, if I can’t pay rent next month.”

“Do you need childcare?” “No.”

“Are you working with other agencies?” “No.”

“Do you have mental health concerns?” “Yes, for the first time.”

“Where do you live?” “D.C.”

She told me then that she was pulling up resources for the D.C. area.

When she found them, she listed resources according to my established needs — employment, mental health, housing and food — and posed follow-ups as she narrowed her search to the best-fitting services.

For example, she asked me if I keep kosher, and when I said yes, she replied that she wanted to connect me with Yad Yehuda, a volunteer organization that serves as the Jewish community’s financial safety net, through a warm handoff.

The sheer amount of resources was overwhelming, but McCleaf said that she usually sends follow-up emails to callers with resources grouped by their needs. For example, one category might read “food contacts.”

The case managers also reconnect with many callers, especially if the need is complex or if the caller refused a warm handoff. McCleaf might, for example, reach out to Yad Yehuda and ask if [caller’s initials] made the connection.

“Our approach is not just to give a phone number,” said Schenk. “It’s to help a person make the connection to the resource that they might need.”

Though the service currently functions as just a phone line, it is slated to soon incorporate other offerings — like texting, emailing and chatting with a case manager on a website.

Schenk hopes the additional points of contact will make the service line more accessible. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to access the help that they need,” he said.

Preuss anticipates this kind of service will be helpful for the foreseeable future.

“Having a single point of entry with skilled people at the other end and people who will follow up became really important right now,” he said. “But we believe [it] actually will continue to be important for the long-term.”

The Support Line — 703-J-CARING, or 703-522-7464 — is available by phone Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. It serves the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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