Federations focusing efforts on communities’ critical needs

UJA Federation volunteer Nir Noam helping at this year’s Passover food drive, which was expanded to help those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Liora Kogan, UJA)

The Montreal Jewish community had a bit of a head start in dealing with the novel coronavirus. In February, a group of Grade 9 students were volunteering in Montreal’s twin city of Beersheba, Israel. They arrived at their hotel a few days after a group of South Korean students departed. When the latter group returned home to South Korea, nine of the students tested positive for the coronavirus.

That’s when Federation CJA in Montreal learned how complicated dealing with COVID-19 could be, said CEO Yair Szlak. It put together an ad hoc committee of doctors and volunteers to deal with issues concerning the virus near the end of February, and from there, “we became acutely aware that this is very quickly moving in the direction … that we may all be impacted by it.” Szlak said.

That’s why, by March 3, Federation CJA was already figuring out what the critical needs of its agencies would be – especially those responsible for providing food and social services – and how the organization would function. To respond to the urgent needs of community members, Federation CJA has leveraged a large group of volunteers and its staffers to determine what needs people have, such as lack of food or medications, and to address them in a timely manner.

“The beauty of it is our ability to do what we call our crisis response team, deploying volunteers and federation staff interchangeably to address the variety of needs that are arising,” Szlak said. “It’s important that we work with our ad hoc COVID-19 committee,… which has doctors who are in the field. They advise us on the protocol for helping these people. So, for example, we don’t have any face-to-face interaction, and gloves are used. So we’re taking extreme precautions while still being able to address critical needs in the community.”

Federations across Canada are working to address the same needs in their communities as Federation CJA. Some longer-term initiatives may be in the works, but for now, the first priority is about making sure vulnerable community members are safe and secure.

“Frankly, we’re only two weeks into this…. It seems like a month ago, but it’s two weeks,” said Joel Lazer, president of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. “The biggest item is just to see that nobody’s falling through the cracks.”

As a smaller Jewish community, Lazer said Winnipeg doesn’t have the “critical mass” to always be able to easily hit its financial needs. 

“A $50,000 shortfall is a big deal to us. And we don’t have a whole lot of room in our budgets, never have. Hopefully the government will recognize this need and we will be included,” he said, adding that he thinks the government will recognize that charities are essential, “but they may have gotten forgotten in all the rush to keep everybody going.”

If regular food security needs weren’t enough of an issue, local federations also need to worry about making sure their communities have access to Passover food. For the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC), which oversees New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, making sure everyone in its purview has access to kosher-for-Passover food can be tough even in the best of times.

In Halifax, there’s one supermarket that imports food for the holiday, said Naomi Rosenfeld, executive director of the AJC. It’s been receiving Passover food in waves, so the AJC is encouraging people to only take what they need and not to hoard. In Fredericton, there’s a supermarket that ships individual orders across the region’s bus routes.

“We’ve been encouraging everyone to get their orders in as early as possible, because we don’t know if the maritime bus routes are going to keep running. So it’s a little bit of uncertainty, but we’re hoping for the best right now. We’re trying to make do with what we have and make sure it all gets spread out and everyone is able to get some matzah,” said Rosenfeld. “I’m pretty confident there will be enough for everyone.”

The UJA Federation of Greater Toronto is also working hard to make sure everybody is prepared for the upcoming holiday. UJA Federation recently recruited volunteers to help pack and deliver boxes of kosher-for-Passover food. The packing was done in the parking lot outside its building to accommodate social distancing measures for the volunteers.

Genesis, which bills itself as UJA Federation’s Centre for Jewish Innovation, says more than 1,800 boxes were distributed to more than 4,000 individuals in less than three days.

UJA Genesis has also organized a phone tree to reach out to people in the community and check on their needs. As of March 26, 350-plus volunteers had already checked in on more than 7,000 community members, with more to come. UJA Federation also sent out an email to its members that same evening, detailing some of the steps it has taken, on top of providing groceries for those in need, including increasing support for Holocaust survivors, rent subsidies for seniors and advocating for government investments in charities.

“Because of our reach with more than 100 institutions in the community, because of our resources and the comprehensive lens through which we look at any challenge facing our community, this is really an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Steve McDonald, UJA Federation’s vice-president of communications and marketing. “We’re engaging synagogues, day schools, summer camps, JCCs and social service agencies to ensure that they have what they need to get through this crisis and, to the greatest extent possible, to continue providing continuity of service to the community.”

Federations across the country find themselves in similar situations, a unique position to co-ordinate the community from their vantage points as umbrella organizations. Right now, it’s all about the short-term future, ensuring that everybody’s basic needs are met. But the federations need to keep an eye on the long-term as well, which may mean shutting down non-essential services to save money, said Szlak, the Federation CJA CEO.

“Our ability to come out of this in the future as a strong Jewish community will depend on the organizations making very difficult decisions today to conserve cash to make sure that on Day 1 of the post-coronavirus trauma, organizations will be there in a strong position to address communal needs,” Szlak said. But for now, he added, with the focus on meeting immediate needs, “that is a much, much deeper and longer conversation.”