JFS Pandemic Update

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Rose Shea, director of Jewish Family Service, noted an increase in two types of phone calls during the past year. There were calls from people asking for financial or emotional support due to the COVID pandemic. The other calls? They were from people asking how they could help JFS, not just financially, but by offering services for those in need.

“The Jewish community has been very generous with its time and resources,” Shea said. She noted even though this time has produced “unforeseen difficulties,” it hasn’t damped “our spirits” since the community has come together to help each other.

The past year has been a very busy one for JFS. Since Shea began working outside the office in March 2020, she’s received 25-30 phone calls a month, which she calls “a big increase.” Shea said that many of the people JFS helped this past year have no family in the area. Their out-of-town relatives are often frustrated by their inability to help or visit, which means there is an increased need for emotional support and referrals – for both out-of-town family members and those living in this area. 

According to Shea, the pandemic has created a great deal of insecurity and fear. She has worked with clients on how to maintain a positive perspective and manage their emotions. The first group to call were seniors, who needed help with everything from where to find masks to how to arrange for food deliveries. More recently, calls have been coming from those who were formerly employed by the hospitality industry (restaurants, nail salons, small businesses that have closed, etc.) and who are now facing permanent job loss.

Shea said she did a great deal of research to find low-cost solutions to problems, as well as collaborating with other local community organizations to find financial resources. Not only has she worked with local rabbis and synagogues, but JFS agencies outside the area (including Ithaca, Albany and New York City) have been exchanging ideas on how best to serve those in need. Shea believes the collaboration will help them find new avenues to supply help and reach more people. A local agency that is also helping is Catholic Charities: Shea noted that some members of the Jewish community feel uncomfortable asking JFS for help, so the two organizations are collaborating to offer them resources.

Shea noted how community members stepped up to help meet people’s needs. According to Shea, people called to ask about how they could help and then called back months later to see if she needed more help. This was in addition to the regular holiday giving that occurs every year. Volunteers did everything from grocery deliveries to making phones calls to those who felt isolated due to the pandemic.

Shea said she misses being in the Federation office at the JCC and seeing the people who used to stop by, either with questions or just to say hello. Even though the past year has have left many people feeling anxious, she is aware of a sense of unity in the community, which has been shown in the way people are supporting each other. Shea said she is very grateful for all the help she’s received and wanted to thank everyone who has stepped up to help.