Among the questions and worries that keep us all up at night: What will happen with school openings this fall? Will there be a significant second wave in New York? Will a vaccine be developed, and, if so, when?
Typically, summer is a somewhat quieter time at UJA. This summer couldn’t be more different. We’ve been working at a furious pace developing strategic plans, with multiple potential scenarios, for addressing the staggering needs across our community in both the social service and Jewish life sectors.
First, we’re focused on helping our partners in the social service sector meet unprecedented demands at a time of materially reduced government funding. We’re particularly targeting three basic needs that have seen sudden and drastic increases:
1) Food insecurity. The demand for food has nearly doubled, with those who needed help before now joined by the ranks of the “new poor.” The 18 food pantries in UJA’s network are serving people of all ages, from young families coping with sudden unemployment to older adults who had previously relied on meal programs at JCCs and senior centers. The elderly in particular can’t come to the pantries in person, so our agencies have developed creative ways to safely deliver meals, and continue to pursue additional strategies for distributing food.
2) Mental health. Every one of us has been negatively affected in some way by the current pandemic. But some have been more deeply impacted: those who were sick in the hospital with no family at their side, or who grieved the loss of a loved one by themselves; healthcare personnel working in conditions akin to a war zone; victims of domestic abuse, trapped at home with their abusers; the newly vulnerable, suddenly dealing with the loss of a job; and the many experiencing the pain of isolation. We’re funding a multitude of supports, including interventions that provide social connectivity to those who are isolated, as well as virtual mental health sessions. And we’re focused on making these services as accessible as possible, promoting them through synagogues and JCCs.
3) Workforce development. The unemployment rate in New York City in June 2020 was at 20.4%; in June 2019 it was less than 4%. And it seems clear that many business sectors will be facing a prolonged slump. Agencies throughout our network are offering career services, including help with resume writing, interview prep, and job training programs. Supporting pathways to employment will be a vital piece of New York’s recovery.
Our second major focus is on finding new and creative ways to nurture Jewish engagement when, for the time being, we still can’t fill our shuls, travel to Israel, or attend large-scale events at Hillels on college campuses. Technology has been a lifeline, in some cases breaking down barriers and giving people unprecedented access to the wonderful richness and breadth of Jewish life. For example, since the pandemic began, UJA has hosted weekly pre-Shabbat community-wide gatherings over Zoom, each with an intentionally diverse array of Jewish leaders spanning the denominational spectrum, all sharing a single virtual podium.
However, virtual experiences can’t replace face-to-face interaction — you can’t sing together or hug over Zoom. And people are also understandably beginning to experience Zoom burnout. So we’re looking at how to build compelling Jewish engagement virtually and foster connections online and “on-land,” given the new reality.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll report about our next steps in confronting these challenges in the continuing Covid era. But for now, it’s important for us to remain optimistic about the future of our community.
It’s said that when you’re living through a crisis, it’s hard to see past it. But I’m reminded that UJA-Federation was created in 1917 as World War I was raging, with millions of impoverished Eastern European immigrants coming into New York seeking a better life. We helped the New York Jewish community through the Great Depression, creating many of the social service agencies that are still at the forefront today. We helped our city rebuild after 9/11, and then again after the financial crisis of 2008. At each point, we didn’t go back to what was before; we moved forward, building something better.
More broadly, throughout Jewish history, our people have not been strangers to crisis. But we’ve endured and flourished. And I believe that, while we’re facing vast challenges, if we work together and support one another, what comes next may well prove better than what came before.