This year has been devastating for the world and for the Jewish community of Los Angeles. COVID-19 closed summer camp, synagogues and businesses. It also left many Jewish families struggling to meet even their most basic needs.
Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the , said this crisis has been unlike any the Los Angeles Jewish community has ever seen. The need for funds to pay for rent, childcare, utilities and medical expenses skyrocketed. The closure of food pantries exponentially increased the need for food deliveries. Holocaust survivors’ need for necessities and grocery deliveries heavily increased. Hunger among Jewish students sharply increased. The mental health toll has also been widespread.
“I’ve restructured the organization three times in the 10 years I’ve been here,” Sanderson said. “To be an organization that deals with these issues, you have to continually evolve and constantly adapt. Very few could have predicted this pandemic; we’ve never worked harder to deal with it.”
Sanderson and the Federation team wanted the entire Jewish community to lean on them for help this year, as they have for the last 100 years. So the Federation rose to the occasion to secure their community and protect its most vulnerable while also innovating new activities to keep people engaged and connected.
Addressing Economic Struggles
Becky Sobelman-Stern, executive vice president and chief program officer at the Federation, said the first thing the organization did was launch the COVID-19 Response Plan to deal specifically with the damage caused by the pandemic.
The Federation launched new programs to provide food to synagogue members, college students, young adults, Holocaust survivors, seniors and other community members in Los Angeles and Israel. West Hollywood residents Sarah and Aaron (names changed for confidentiality) were just one example.
The couple, who are Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, were overwhelmed when COVID-19 first hit. The Federation provided Sarah and Aaron with comprehensive services, including a Russian-speaking in-home care worker who helped with cleaning, cooking, shopping, driving, bathing and dressing Aaron. It also arranged for weekly deliveries of frozen meals, funds for a new freezer and virtual socialization opportunities.
“I’m blown away by our Jewish leaders,” Sanderson said. “They have enough strength to tackle these issues, and if Jewish leaders are capable of looking beyond their own institutions to see how to collaborate for the end-user, rather than just their institution, we’ll get out of this. We’ll find light out of death.”
In August, the organization helped young adults form a Serve the Moment L.A. chapter to provide food and other resources to those in need. In September, the Federation also launched the CARES Fund, which provided 55 community partners — synagogues, early childhood centers, day schools, museums, summer camps and JCCs — with guidance on reopening in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. These funds helped pay for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilation upgrades, facility and classroom upgrades (plexiglass panels, desk shields and fully equipped touchless restrooms) and staff training on COVID-19 safety measures.
Dr. Sarah Shulkind, head of Milken school, told the Journal that if the school didn’t receive relief from CARES fund, it would have dipped into the school’s tuition assistance fund to cover the costs of virtual and in-person learning. CARES helped fund Milken’s nursing stations, receptionist areas, teaching units, washing stations and outdoor pods.
“There’s just been so much to worry about in such an operational way” Shulkind noted, but to “have the Federation really making sure the basic needs are provided for…has been valuable personally and professionally.” “There are all kinds of things that seem small but they were really essential to the operation to the school,” Shulkind said.
Providing Emotional Support
The Federation has also recognized emotional wellness as an integral part of surviving the pandemic. For more than 10 years, the provided community members in crisis with access to a range of services including government programs, medical insurance, unemployment benefits, pro bono legal services, job search assistance and mental health counseling.
Calls to the Federation from struggling community members doubled as a result of the pandemic’s toll on mental health. The Federation has been receiving the voicemails and directing callers to resources that provide counseling and emotional, legal and financial support.
Anastasia Shostak started her job as program coordinator at the Federation’s project the week the pandemic hit. For the past 10 months, she has been overseeing the Community Call Line((323)-761-8305) and directing hundreds of people to professionals so they seek the care they need.
“There are so many people struggling in our Jewish community financially and emotionally,” Shostak said. “A lot of callers come to us as a last resort. People have called in a vulnerable state… you can’t even compare the influx of requests we [are getting] to what it was before. It’s one of our top priories.”
In the first half of 2020, the Federation’s partner social workers helped 880 clients, over 400 more clients than they serviced in the first half of 2019. By April 2020, the Federation increased staff hours and hired an additional social worker to the Ezra Project, allowing them to serve more than 200 clients since August.
“We try to share what is available from the city, from the state [and] at the national level, we put it all in one place,” Shostak added. “We try to keep up with what the community needs, and I think we have been in the right direction so far.”
Bringing People Together
The Federation thrives on bringing people together for various events yearly. When in-person gatherings couldn’t happen, the Federation focused on Zoom and Facebook Live. From rabbi roundtables to cooking presentations, the annual Tour De Summer Camp fundraiser and comedy shows, the Federation put on a range of virtual and semi-virtual events for every age group in the community.
Michael Fritzen, the Federation’s PJ Library program manager, realized that for many families, this would be the first time everyone was under one roof 24/7. He and his team equipped families with free books, at-home activities, virtual events and parent sessions. Before the pandemic, Fritzen said, PJ Library L.A. served around 13,500 families. That number has jumped to more than 14,000.
Fritzen noted that this year, PJ Library wanted to diversify their content. “The Jewish family is changing and looking a lot different,” Fritzen said. “We made a concerted effort to reach out to the Persian community, the LGBTQ community, Jews of Color and offer them PJ Library as a resource and ask them how we can best serve them at this time…We want the books to represent everybody. In 2021, you’re going to see more books with different faces and different stories.”
The Federation also had to respond rapidly to killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, which prompted protests among the Jewish and greater Los Angeles community. The Federation was among the growing group of organizations calling for from government officials to hold police officers accountable.
Sanderson said all Jewish spaces need to be inclusive so that Jews of Color feel safe and valued. “This is about the whole Jewish community and Jewish institutions creating environments that everybody wants to walk into and eliminating as many barriers to entry as possible,” Sanderson said. “This isn’t something that is anywhere near resolved at this moment.” But he emphasized that organizations need to “reach out to those who don’t feel welcomed, and we need to find out what the concerns are and what the barriers are and eliminate them… I’m very proud that the Federation has made it a priority.”
Adapting the Holidays
Jewish holidays are an essential time for families to gather and observe Jewish traditions. The Federation knew this year would be different, so they worked with the community to keep the holidays meaningful. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Federation partnered with IKAR for the first annual — bringing together synagogues, rabbis and congregants throughout Los Angeles to sound the shofar simultaneously outside. During Hanukkah, the Federation’s young adult network, NuRoots, adapted their annual Hanukkah lighting party into a virtual party featuring Mayim Bialik, Stephanie Butnick, Jackie Tohn, Alex Edelman and Joshua Silverstein.
As 2020 comes to a close, Sanderson noted that although he is proud of the efforts the Federation did this year, he’s more proud of “the Federation for building an infrastructure that allowed us to pivot,” Sanderson said. “We need to be able to deal with big challenges and new challenges… We’re not going to solve every problem every day. But at the end of the day, the Jewish Federation’s relationship with the community of Los Angeles and globally is getting stronger, and we will continue the work we do into 2021.”