In the belief that there is an "untapped potential" in terms of synagogue volunteers who wish to help the Jewish poor in their communities but don’t know how to start, UJA-Federation is encouraging its agencies to team up with synagogue volunteers. It recently awarded $750,000 to facilitate eight such partnerships.
"In wanting to feed the hungry in southern Brooklyn, the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty will deliver food to local synagogues and have volunteers there package them and give them out," said Ronald Soloway, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. "In this way we will be harnessing the caring activities of those who have a volunteer spirit and a closeness to the community."
The activities funded by UJA-Federation involve feeding the hungry, visiting homebound elderly, shopping for the elderly and helping refugees to learn English by supporting English as a Second Language programs, Soloway said.
For the Hebrew Tabernacle of Washington Heights, a $30,000 grant will allow the YM/YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood to provide its largely elderly congregants with homecare and counseling.
"We have about 370 families, the majority of whom are elderly German Jews who have lived in this neighborhood since they arrived as refugees just before or after Kristallnacht [in November 1938]," said the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz. "Quite a few are widows and a number did not have children and are retired and living on limited income. Some receive [German] reparations, but it is not always enough to pay for home aides or companions. So this project is the most extraordinary blessing."
He noted that he, Cantor Michael Kruk and Rabbi Emeritus Robert L. Lehman have many congregants to visit in the hospital, as well as those who are homebound. To help keep in touch with everyone who is ill, the congregation has formed a Caring/Chesed Committee composed of women who primarily make phone calls to the sick. But he said it is "humanely impossible" to keep up with those who need help managing their bank accounts, getting prescriptions filled and dealing with Social Security and insurance. To deal with that, the Y will assign a social worker to the congregation who will have an office in the synagogue and regular office hours.Deborah Katznelson, associate executive director of the Y, said the grant would also provide congregants in need with an aide for two hours each week to do their laundry, shopping, light housekeeping and personal care. The aide would work with the social worker, who would help congregants contact an agency if more than two hours was needed.
"We are there to help make an assessment of their needs and then to help them plan whatever services are needed," she said. "Some are close to the poverty level and may be entitled to apply for Medicaid."
Although Selfhelp Community Services, another UJA-Federation agency, provides similar guidance in Washington Heights, Katznelson said: "People have to reach out to organizations and say they need something. Selfhelp is an outside group that would come in cold. But we are bringing it right where they are. Their rabbi or a volunteer in the synagogue might call and say that there is a worker in the synagogue, we know you are having difficulties, would you like her to come and see what assistance she can be to you."
The social worker is also going to work with members of the synagogue’s Caring/Chesed Committee, a fact that is welcomed by its chair, Hannah Eisner.
"It will be helpful to have a full-time professional and someone who is younger," she said, noting that her committee members are in their 70s and 80s.
"Members of our committee may go away or be ill themselves, so it’s good to have someone who will also be able to make calls," she said. "And sometimes the people we call are depressed, and we elderly are vulnerable to depression ourselves. Clients may also be more open to a stranger than someone they know."
Other grants were awarded to the JCC of Canarsie and Shorefront JCC for local food distribution; the Bronx JCC to address the needs of low-income Jews living in the Bronx; Greater Five Towns to help seniors make use of government benefits; the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services for the Briarwood and Lefrak City Bukharian communities in Queens; the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst for expansion of English as a Second Language and citizenship classes for Russian emigres; FEGS to establish a Mitzvahmobile Project for the distribution of food to homebound families; and the Educational Alliance to work with Town and Village Synagogue to provide the homeless with a weekly Shabbat meal.