Company & Culture
November 12, 2020
8 minute read

Despite financial and logistical hardships, Jewish nonprofit organizations in Chicago do not intend to stop their critical work of supporting Jewish life. With covid wreaking havoc on everyone’s lives, the nature of nonprofit operations is changing at record speed.

Organizations found new and creative ways to adapt. At Maot Chitim we didn’t have any hands-on volunteer activities this year. We were forced to cancel the annual seder for BBYO in the Illinois Holocaust Museum. We also gave food to The Ark, the Chesed Fund, and the Holocaust Community Services. 

Expanding Their Reach

Covid pushed Maot Chitim and the Jewish community in Chicago to work together more than ever. Assistant Vice President of Communications at Jewish United Fund (JUF) Elizabeth Abrams said that “JUF is providing extra assistance in five key areas: emergency financial aid; health and safety; expanded social services; organizational stability; and food assistance.” To date, JUF distributed $14.7 million in grants through its covid relief plan to over 75 local agencies. These funds were in addition to their usual allocations and significantly increased human services in the Greater Chicago area.

JUF is serving far more families this year. This is due in part to their expanded research efforts. Between April and September, JUF sent out three surveys to all local Jewish organizations, including synagogues and schools. Survey participation was high. Through its covid action initiative, JUF reports monthly on the dollars spent and number of families served. Based on the survey results, their partner agencies offer critical aid such as emergency cash for food and housing. “People are willing to share because they see we’re using the information to help them get access to resources they need,” said Karen Galin, associate vice president of JUF’s Planning and Allocations. In order to reach more families, JUF even removed some of its eligibility requirements. 

Going Virtual

Nonprofits switched to web-based programming on a massive scale. After covid hit, JUF started focusing more on mental health issues. As mental health professionals moved exclusively to virtual visits, JUF’s partners expanded their reach to individuals they would not have otherwise connected with. Day schools also expanded their online education tracks. Despite general criticism about the challenges with virtual learning, day schools in Chicago are making a concerted effort to offer quality web-based learning. Of course it’s not the same as in-person instruction, but the feedback so far was overwhelmingly positive.

JCC Chicago worked quickly to offer quality virtual programming as well. Three days after they closed their doors in the spring, they launched Channel J to offer programs that foster community connection. “Continuing virtual programming has enabled more community members to engage with Jewish content and conversation while at home and has significantly broadened the agency’s reach,” reported Ilana Carp, assistant director of Marketing and Communications. During quarantine, JCC Chicago made significant operational changes in time to reopen early childhood facilities and day camps in the summer. 

North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park felt the same about going virtual. They invested in high quality cameras for live streaming services, which drew feedback from members who joked that they now have a better view of the bimah than when they attended services in person.

Adjusting In-Person Programs

Obviously, virtual programming isn’t a perfect solution. With so many people continuing to spend their days in isolation, community leaders such as regional director for Chabad of Illinois Rabbi Meir Moscowitz and his colleagues found ways to reorient their usual programs to foster face-to-face interaction while accommodating the CDC’s social distance requirements. 

For example, Chabad is known for blasting the shofar on street corners and in parks. This year, Chabad of Illinois put even more effort to blow the shofar outdoors. People of all ages and religious backgrounds came in droves. An estimated 12,600 people heard shofar throughout the state. It was socially distant, safe, and connected people in a way that Zoom can’t.

For Sukkot, many Chabad Houses sent “Sukkah mobiles” to individual homes. This was a small sukkah that was loaded onto the bed of a pickup truck, which enabled many families to enjoy a Sukkot experience and do the mitzvah of shaking lulav and etrog.

In addition to Chabad, Metro Chicago Hillel offers a number of in-person programs that adhere to CDC guidelines. But the pandemic hasn’t just hurt the people they serve; the organization is working through some internal struggles. Executive director Charles Cohen of Metro Chicago Hillel said that COVID-19 sparked a number of mental health discussions with his team, because the pandemic is making it extremely challenging to do their jobs.

Fighting Isolation, Loneliness, Hunger

Cohen said that his staff is trying to help the people they serve battle feelings of isolation and loneliness while dealing with the same feelings themselves. “Being isolated is not human nature,” he said. “We naturally want to be together with people and our communities. It’s our mission to provide that sense of connection, and our team is devoted to that goal.” Many college students and post-college graduates that Metro Chicago Hillel serves are experiencing job insecurity, wondering how they will pay rent and buy food. “People are losing their jobs and figuring out how to pay for life. They are dealing with this 24/7,” Cohen said. 

Rabbi Levi Notik of F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees from Eastern Europe) is in a similar position. He operates the Chicago-based Bubby Fira’s Food Bank that serves the West Rogers Park and Uptown neighborhoods. The food bank is producing six times the amount of food that they used to prepare. Instead of 200 meals per month, they serve 1,200. Chicago’s Jewish Relief Agency is busier than ever sending food packages to 6,400 people every month.

The fears about food and lost income are real and raw. Rabbi Moscowitz said that his members are struggling with job insecurity and feelings of loneliness. People want a listening ear, including older people who are not going out as much. In one case, Rabbi Moscowitz convinced one Jewish senior to take a walk outside.

Increasing Support 

Highland Park’s Beth El Synagogue said this year they redoubled their efforts to reach some of its more vulnerable members, mostly seniors over 80. Their program, Chazak, connects volunteers with seniors. Some elderly people don’t have family around, or they’re not as tech-oriented, which makes certain tasks such as grocery delivery very difficult. The volunteers call to check in regularly, help run errands, and ensure access to food and other essentials. The seniors really appreciate the effort. 

Nonprofit organizations such as Chabad and Hillel are planning to offer more in-person programs this year because people are craving that face-to-face support and connection. Both Rabbi Moscowitz and Charles Cohen said that Jewish United Fund has provided incredible support for financial aid and other critical resources. 

Certain efforts were paused indefinitely this year. Maot Chitim continued working with other local organizations, but was forced to cancel in-person drives. Beth El’s Rabbi Alex Freedman commented that the men’s club usually works with Maot Chitim during the holidays. “It’s a great partnership,” he said. “The guys get very excited about working together on that.” Maot Chitim hopes to resume the drives soon.

Solving Food Insecurity

Because more people are experiencing food insecurity, communities are working hard to fix this. The Ark, one of JUF’s partner agencies, shifted its regular model to give food-insecure community members consistent access to nutritious meals. Maot Chitim continued collaborating with the Ark on this critical initiative as it does every year by providing food items. So although the partnership remained, the nature of the food preparation has changed.

The Tikkun Olam Volunteer “TOV” Network is another prime example of how organizations are shifting. Chicago’s residents love to help those in need. Some changes this year involve contactless deliveries. It helped people get excited about volunteering and connecting them to others in the community. So far the contactless food programs were well received. The organizations involved communicate regularly to potential volunteers about available opportunities. They also created space for organizations to make specific requests for materials such as providing Chromebooks to day school students. 

Keeping it Going On Campus

Rabbi Chaim Telsner of Chabad at ISU said Covid-19 hasn’t stopped them from continuing their activities even though donations have fallen drastically. Like many nonprofits, funding challenges persist and they take it week by week. To accommodate safe food handling procedures and social distancing, the Telsners give students pre-packaged food for Shabbat and holidays, which is more expensive than the fresh homemade meals they used to serve. But as Rabbi Telsner explained, “we’re not going to stop our activities just because we’re low on funding.” Lately Chabad at ISU is organizing all in-person activities outdoors. Instead of five students per table, now it’s two at a table. Their sukkah went from 15×20 feet to 25×40 feet, more than triple the size of the original. 

This year, many Campus Chabad Houses around the country decided to send holiday packages to students in lieu of hosting dinner as they usually do. It isn’t the most social initiative, but it helps students feel cared for. The larger campus Chabad Houses around Illinois schedule shifts of guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. 

Helping Inmates

The pandemic caused logistical challenges for Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman, a Chabad prison chaplain at the Hinda Institute in Illinois. While most of the federal and state prisons accommodated the inmates’ religious needs, new covid policies made it difficult for chaplains to do in-person visits or even deliver kosher food to inmates in county prisons. Passover was especially hard due to extreme regulations that were implemented in the spring. It took an incredible amount of effort for Rabbi Scheiman to provide Jewish inmates with supplies for Passover (Maot Chitim donated most of the food items). 

Financially they are doing fine. “It sounds counterintuitive, but we actually had a better year than previous years,” Rabbi Scheiman said. “People are giving more because of the pandemic.” Maot Chitim sends most of the food he gives inmates for Passover and other holidays. This year they supplied the usual food packages. 

Sukkot was a little easier to navigate as many prisons started easing up certain restrictions on deliveries and visits. It helped that the prisons classify chaplains as contract employees rather than volunteers, who are still not allowed to do in-person visits.

Working Together

All the nonprofits say that they are thrilled to be part of the local effort to join forces around Chicago. “It’s beautiful to see the collaboration between the Jewish organizations around Illinois with Jewish United Fund and other agencies, which has always been a thing in Chicago, but has become even stronger this year during the pandemic,” Rabbi Moscowitz commented. 

No one knows how long the pandemic will continue to wreak havoc. But Jewish organizations are determined to keep going. As regional director for Chabad of Illinois Rabbi Moscowitz put it, “We have a lot of work ahead of us and we’re not slowing down.”

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