That was the word executives at organizations that serve the needs of the Greater Washington Jewish community used to describe the situation posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s total fear of the unknown,” said Susan Koss. She is the manager at the Capital Kosher Pantry, the only all-kosher food pantry in the Greater Washington area.
“I was on staff when we dealt with the furlough emergency over a year ago,” said Shuli Tropp, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington. “The period of uncertainty was much shorter, and this is impacting every single person. It’s different than most crises that we see.”
Here is what Jewish organizations are doing to help community members meet their needs — of the body and the spirit.
Yad Yehuda, in partnership with Hebrew Free Loan, Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington, and Chai Lifeline, is operating a COVID-19 Telephone Assistance Hotline. Yad Yehuda volunteers manning the hotline help connect callers with local resources, Jewish and general.
Yad Yehuda President Nechemia Mond “is working around the clock,” said Koss. In addition to running the kosher pantry, Yad Yehuda regularly offers financial assistance and other services for members of the local Jewish community in need.
So far it is mostly hourly employees rather than salaried employees who have reached out to Yad Yehuda for financial assistance, said Mond. Either their hours were reduced, or they lost their jobs. “All the Yad Yehuda financial assistance coordinators try hard to be encouraging to those reaching out for assistance so that they don’t feel alone. One of the most painful places for anyone to be is the feeling of aloneness,” said Mond. In addition to ensuring their immediate needs are met, coordinators walk people through dealing with mortgage payments and resources such as unemployment insurance.
Board members of the Hebrew Free Loan Association (HFLA) have agreed to back emergency loans related to COVID-19. These loans for up to $1,000 can help with challenges including but not limited to medical expenses, lost wages, and the cost of additional child care. “The online application takes less than five minutes,” said Tropp. “We’re trying to turn them around within three days, but we’ve generally been turning them around within a few hours.”
Five emergency loans have been approved in the past week, high for an organization that averages two to three loans per month. “We want to make sure people know that we’re here and that we’re available and that we have this emergency loan program and that people apply,” said Tropp.
The loan process is usually a face-to-face procedure, but in the interests of social distancing HFLA is utilizing online tools like DocuSign and releasing money electronically. For regular HFLA loans, which can be up to $15,000 and have a longer approval process, repayment is required to begin within the month. Emergency borrowers, however, are able to push back their first payment on their loans to within 90 days.
The Capital Kosher Food Pantry, located on University Boulevard in Wheaton, is usually open Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings and regularly serves an estimated 100 Washington-area families. Now there is only entry by appointment, to ensure social distancing.
In contrast with shoppers cleaning supermarkets out of staple items, patrons of the pantry are not using the access to free goods as a way to stockpile, according to Koss. “They understand that there are others in the same situation. They take what they need,” she said. “Sometimes they take for two weeks, because sometimes it’s not so easy to schlep in. People are basically very good and considerate.”
Passover is a looming challenge for people. “Pesach is doubly, triply, quadrupally expensive,” said Koss. Not only do people need matzah and other kosher for Passover food, but they have to also get the basics to make Pesach in their home if they’ve never done it before or usually depend on invitations out for meals. To that end, the pantry is offering patrons disposable aluminum pans and cleaning supplies in addition to kosher for Passover food and beverages.
“We have bins to drop off [donations] at synagogues and shuls, but if people aren’t going then that doesn’t do any good. We are getting donations from people online [through the Yad Yehuda website], which is such a blessing.” People order from vendors like Amazon, Walmart, Target and Costco. Individuals are also offering cash donations to cover purchases of staples by the pantry.
“We can’t solve being shut in, but we can try to take the financial burden off of people,” she said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington launched a new page on its website, Connect With Purpose During COVID-19, almost two weeks ago. In addition to links related to COVID-19 preparedness and closures, it features links to health and wellness content, including livestreams of fitness classes; remote Jewish learning opportunities, activities for children and teens and parenting resources; donation and volunteering opportunities, and more. The page also has a calendar of upcoming events – all virtual, of course, but offering ways to connect and build resilience as individuals and as a community.
New resources are added to the page based on insights from the community. For example, the Health and Wellness tab includes a link to online Alcoholics Anonymous meetings added after a local rabbi brought up the impact of isolation on people with substance abuse problems.
“And we keep on getting new ideas,” said Federation CEO Gil Preuss. “Certainly it’s crowdsourcing at its best.”
The Federation is focused on two levels of need right now, he said. First is the new and increased needs of families and individuals in the community. These demand an array of responses ranging from cash assistance to mental health services to finding ways to help people trapped at home with their abusers.
“The second thing is looking at Jewish organizations and their viability and financial health as we come out of this,” he continued. “All three JCCs are shut down, for instance, and they are losing significant revenue every day … We’re looking at how do we make sure when we come out of this that we have strong organizations that can serve the Jewish community.”
While the coronavirus can infect people on all ages, the elderly and people with underlying health issues have the highest mortality rate.
Yad Yehuda is making food deliveries for people who are elderly or immunocompromised. “For the safety of our volunteers and pantry shoppers, we confer with a number of area physicians that volunteer their expertise, and for logistics we talk with Nechemia Mond, or the [food pantry director] Stephanie Savir, and others about how to maintain the confidentiality of the patrons, what’s best for our volunteers, and efficiency,” said Koss.
Preuss praised local agencies for their innovations in response to the current circumstances. For example, the Jewish Council for Aging (JCA) usually takes seniors by bus to senior centers, but those are currently shut down to avoid spread of the virus; so they are working with Montgomery County to use the busses to transport food to the seniors who need help.
“It’s creative and it’s an important service,” he said. WJW
Reach the Yad Yehuda COVID-19 Telephone Assistance Hotline at 301-494-1010, Sunday – Thursday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. Visit the Connect With Purpose During COVID-19 webpage at jconnect.org/connect-with-purpose-during-covid-19.