How Jewish Agencies are Addressing, Adapting to COVID-19 Pandemic

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Magen David Adom medical team members, wearing protecting gear, are handling a Coronavirus test from patients in Jerusalem on April 17, 2020. Photo by Oliver Fitoussi/Flash90

Article reprinted with permission from Cleveland Jewish News


As COVID-19 leaves no community untouched and all stretching for resources, for Todd Polikoff, it’s vital to deeply consider the future.

The CEO of the Jewish Community Board of Akron told the CJN as agencies like his consider prospects vastly different than anticipated as recently as two months ago, they now have an opportunity shape what that future is. After all, organizations are now running aspects of their day-to-day business in a way that was previously deemed impossible.

“It’s going to end, and when it does we have a phenomenal opportunity to rewrite, or to amend or to improve upon what we are doing,” he said. “We have to keep track of those things in real time and see what’s working, and why it’s working.”

As Northeast and Central Ohio’s Jewish agency leaders consider their responses to the pandemic, an uncertain impact and ways in which their organizations may need serious assistance, they are also holding close that forward-looking mindset.

The CJN talked with leaders of seven such Jewish agencies who all reflected on their role assisting the community, cuts they’ve faced and what may be ahead.

Federations, fundraising agencies respond

When the pandemic hit Ohio, Jewish fundraising agencies quickly adapted as staff began working remotely. They figured out how to adapt programming to prevent face-to-face interactions, which were largely depended upon for fundraising and community building – until now.

Despite the shift, Jewish Federation of Cleveland President Erika B. Rudin-Luria has seen evidence the community wants to engage, potentially more so than before. More than 400 devices logged onto its Yom Hashoah commemoration April 20, and seven other virtual events have had an average of 100 unique viewers.

One challenge faced by the Beachwood-based Federation and similar organizations is how they conduct such fundraising for community needs. Another deeper challenge is making sure the most vulnerable have resources.

Rudin-Luria cited increased community needs for food and emergency assistance, as well as mental health and employment-related support. Thus far, the Federation has contributed $100,000 to the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund organized by the Cleveland Foundation, which now has raised more than $8 million. The Federation also set up its own emergency relief fund, as well as helped provide personal protective gear for front-line workers at Jewish agencies.

And, Rudin-Luria said the ability to respond to the crisis demonstrates community contributions at work.

“All of those dollars that are contributed during our annual campaign, I’m hoping that every one of our donors is looking around to the Cleveland Jewish community and recognizing that these are their dollars at work,” she said.

Looking toward annual campaigns, federations and fundraising agencies are considering how they may look different this year. For JewishColumbus, which already raised more than $1 million for its COVID-19 Community Response Fund and is coordinating community response with its partner agencies, the annual campaign closes June 30.

“The annual campaign is something that is tough,” JewishColumbus CEO Joel Marcovitch said. “We do kind of lose our personal touch – everyone understands, but it’s harder.”

JCBA, which also created an emergency relief fund, is also considering such changes and adaptations.

“We are really stressing the difference between physical distancing and social distancing. If anything, we are encouraging everyone to be more social than ever,” Polikoff said.

JCCS shift

Jewish agencies hit the hardest include community centers, which have closed to stem the spread of the pandemic and have no reopening planned yet per state order.

The Mandel JCC in Beachwood serves about 10,500 members, representing 4,500 Jewish and non-Jewish households. Until the pandemic, about 40,000 people monthly entered the Mandel JCC, said president and CEO Michael Hyman.

Now, the goal is to maintain that socialization and connection core to the J’s mission, but from a distance.

According to Hyman, early results show it’s working. Early childhood teachers have Zoom meetings with students and parents twice weekly with almost 100% participation. Virtual classes include storytelling and science; summer camp programs are having virtual dance parties, cooking classes and more. For Jewish arts and culture, the J is offering virtual book club meetings, access to past festival films and a challah baking class, to name a few. That’s in addition to, of course, fitness classes.

“The challenges here have actually turned into some valuable opportunities for us and our members,” Hyman said.

At the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, CEO Mike Klapper said while the empty parking lot is “heart wrenching to see,” the organization got down to business with its online programming as well.

The Columbus JCC has about 7,500 members and sees about 40,000 monthly visits. Now, members and guests are enjoying virtual programs ranging from fitness to Israeli trivia to kids’ chats.

“Our staff has done a fabulous job to get our virtual JCC up and running as quickly as they possibly could,” Klapper said.

At the Mandel JCC, membership is suspended. Members can convert payments to donations for a staff and sustainability relief fund, or cancel.

Hyman said the largest number of members chose to freeze their memberships. So far, about $15,000 has been converted from membership to donations, he said, and the Mandel JCC has received $6,000 in direct donations. Staff is still being paid.

At the Columbus JCC, a J Sustainability Fund was developed, where members can maintain their dues, contribute additional funds and maintain renewal dates, supporting the JCC into the future.

The board approved paying JCC staff who work 20 or more hours weekly at full salary until May 30, and last week, JewishColumbus made a $300,000 allocation to the JCC to help it weather the pandemic. The Columbus JCC was also awarded a $100,000 grant from the Columbus Foundation to continue virtual programming.

Klapper said he’s hopeful when the JCC re-opens, members will have enjoyed the online programming, and that will translate to them coming back. And like many agencies, the new normal involves seeking and applying for financial assistance and other support.

“We are really looking at anything and everything to help get us through short term, long term, medium term, whatever it might be,” Klapper said.

Social service agencies adapt

For social service agencies, the need for their assistance may be more abundant than ever before, but funding remains a concern.

Karen Mozenter, CEO of Jewish Family Services in Columbus, said although she’s expecting funding cuts, her agency also expects a surge in need for services in few months – after emergency funding has been used, some jobs no longer exist and the economic and mental health impacts continue to take their toll.

Mozenter said because the agency’s funding comes primarily from program grants that are expense-based, it has been able to operate at full capacity – it actually hired a couple staff members for open positions since the pandemic hit Ohio. She said the organization has also worked with funders to find ways to be flexible with how funds may be spent during this unprecedented time.

Long term, however, she said challenges come if donations decrease due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Loss of corporate donations is a big concern, as is loss of grant funding from other agencies.

“Now through the end of June we feel like we are in a good position,” Mozenter said. “We also know the work we do is going to be needed more than ever as a result of this, and that is going to continue for a long time, so we are always looking for continued sources of funding.”

For Bellefaire JCB, a children’s service agency in Shaker Heights that serves about 36,000 children and families each year, new challenges involve adopting telehealth practices and accessing PPE.

Beth Cohen Pollack, director of organizational advancement at Bellefaire, said 90 clients live on campus and 175 staff members remain there to support them.

“Just accessing and enforcing the appropriate PPE has definitely been a challenge,” she said, adding so far, no clients have tested positive for the virus.

In terms of funding, Bellefaire has seen a decrease from some of its regular financial supporters. And while planning for new projects, some funders the organization would normally approach have altered their focus due to COVID-19, which will delay some of that new programming, she said.

Cohen Pollack said of 800 staff members, about 50 employees total in Bellefaire’s Monarch Center for Autism and JDN Early Childhood Center have been laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic stunting programming. Those laid off are also eligible for open positions in Bellefaire’s residential treatment program.

Cohen Pollack said she’s hopeful such changes are temporary.

Monarch, which had between 170 and 180 students enrolled, sent home local students while the about 40 students who live on campus remain there. As a result, about half of the assistant teachers took a voluntary furlough and will be eligible for recall if the school reopens, or can re-enter if those working fall ill.

The JDN Early Childhood Center shifted to only providing free care for children of Bellefaire’s essential staff and that of partner agencies, as the state mandates only six children can be in each classroom.

“It makes sense to make it easy for them to come and do the work,” she said of the organizations’ essential workers and their families. Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland declined to be interviewed.

Impact, cuts and the future

Rudin-Luria noted although much depends on where the market lands, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland has already considered what services were most essential and began tightening its budget.

She also said the Federation, which has not had to cut staff, is working with partner agencies to ensure stimulus packages, funding and other forms of assistance are maximized.

Moreover, the need to fight new incidents of anti-Semitism that have emerged during the pandemic and must be addressed, she added. “These are serious, serious issues,” she said. “We are going to need to address these as a community. We are going to need to be louder and stand up and push back on the hate and connect with our natural partners to work against those that are looking for a homogeneous nation.”

The ability to shift and the impact of the pandemic may be different depending on the size and funding of communities and their related organizations. For Polikoff, the unknowns create the biggest challenge financially.

“This community has been in a position where ... it’s not been frivolous,” he said. “The community has set up certain parameters. That said, the cash flow basically stops when you close your business – I don’t think we are unique in that. The planning is very hard because you have to run a million different scenarios. What if summer camp doesn’t happen, what does that mean? What if the early childhood (centers) can open up but you can only have six kids in a class? What if fitness opens up but nobody wants to come and sweat in the same room as other people?”

Marcovitch said in serving a smaller Jewish community, JewishColumbus has a unique benefit in terms of maneuvering, adding the generosity of donors is a “tremendous asset.” His organization has not cut staff.

“Because JewishColumbus is set up to be nimble, and to be not reactionary, but proactive, we’ve been able to pivot remarkably well given the circumstance,” Marcovitch said.

How to help

A Jewish Federations of North America survey last week found half of Jewish groups that applied for government loans received them, totaling $264 million, as reported by JTA.

The report also estimated at least $650 million will be needed collectively.

Also last week, a group of Jewish foundations, including the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation in Cleveland, created an $80 million fund in interest-free loans and grants to help maintain infrastructure of Jewish life, education, engagement and leadership during the pandemic.

Hyman noted there’s hope for such support for the Mandel JCC.

“We are hopeful there will be some philanthropic support from our Jewish community as well to support our operations when they resume,” Hyman said.

Volunteering in a physically distant way can also help local agencies.

JewishColumbus, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Columbus JFS all pointed to volunteers making calls on behalf of the organizations, either for fundraising or checking in on those facing social isolation.

“I think each of those interactions provides hope – in both the volunteer and the person on the other end,” Rudin-Luria said of check-in calls.

At Bellefaire, the greatest needs involve securing PPE and funding for projects that rely on external funds.

“We do know overall our revenue streams are going to be down,” Cohen Pollack said. “We are just unable to stay at the same pace as we were before just because of all the provisions that we have to follow now.”

Crediting the work of lay leaders and staff, Polikoff said JCBA applied for and is likely to receive the government Small Business Administration loan, which can aid with the organization’s finances.

More universally though, he stressed the need for empathy.

“The way we are working is very different than the way we normally work, and that’s going to take a toll,” said Polikoff, describing his family as an example. With his three children at home, he’s taken on new roles such as tutoring math and cooking frequently to meet the needs and tastes of all.

“I’m not the only one. … We all have to recognize that when we are talking to our colleagues, when lay leadership is talking to professionals and vice versa, we are all under a lot of stress,” he said. “And I don’t know if we give ourselves – meaning all of us – enough credit.” And looking toward a different future and adapting to a new reality is not all bad, Marcovitch said.

“If you are looking for a silver lining in all of this, the opportunity to innovate – in order to be the next iteration of Jewish life for the next couple of generations – is there,” he said. “The world has changed. ... do we have to fly to New York for a meeting? Can we not just do it online? Do we need what we thought was an essential program?”

As positive and previously considered unlikely changes, Polikoff pointed to baby boomers who now use Zoom fluently, children having virtual hangouts with Jewish summer camp friends, organizational boards running video meetings and the global Jewish community doing Passover virtually.

“I’ve grown tired of everyone saying ‘We’re not going to look the same when this is over,’” Polikoff said. “When I hear that I immediately say, ‘Fine, so what are we going to look like?’ And it’s up to us to define what that is.”

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