Jewish groups advocate for the neediest during pandemic

Washington Jewish Week
May 18, 2020

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The novel coronavirus continues to alter lives, shutter businesses, schools and camps, and send many to food pantries.

But it has been particularly cruel to those in jail, living in refugee camps and detention centers or without the means to feed their families.

In a joint video conference call May 14, representatives from HIAS, which aids refugees and asylum seekers; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, described current problems and detailed how people could help.

Naomi Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS, explained that her organization “now works with people of all faiths” in 16 countries, to help resettle refugees in this country as well as provide legal services for refugees stuck at the Mexican border.

Her organization, headquartered in Silver Spring, is working to enable refugees to enter this country rather than remain in overcrowded camps.

She described the poor conditions in these “squalid camps,” which have limited clean water and cleaning supplies, as “vectors for COVID-19.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus “could be less if we reduce the population,” she said.

Steinberg said the vast majority of people in camps at the border are there for immigration violations and not for violent crimes.

“They don’t pose a threat to the public,” she said. She called on the elderly, sick and pregnant refugees to be released.

HIAS also provides legal services to the refugees.

Of the clients who have resettled here with the help of HIAS, Steinberg estimated that 61 percent “will not be able to make their rent this month without assistance.”

Tammy Gilden, JCPA senior policy associate, spoke of her organization’s efforts to assist those in prison and detention centers and its other advocacy issues determined through 125 Jewish community relations councils.

Citing the importance to “stand up for the needs of the more vulnerable,” Gilden noted that there is no such thing as social distancing in these institutions, which enables “rampant disease spread.”

She listed poor ventilation, subpar medical care, lack of hygiene products, limited staff and not enough protective facial coverings as problems that will accelerate the novel coronavirus problems.

JCPA is calling for states to “significantly reduce the number of people in detention.”

It also has called for more soap products, virus testing and free telephone calls for those who are incarcerated.

She cautioned that the virus will spread not just among prisoners, but also to employees and others who live in the community.

Many states have released prisoners, “but it is not enough,” Gilden said.

To those who fear releasing prisoners into the general population, Gilden said there have been a few problems, but she called those people “outliers” who are “a tiny fraction of those who are released.”

Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON, noted even before the virus outbreak, 40 million people faced food insecurity.

“We now are expecting millions more to be at risk. With skyrocketing unemployment rates, we will probably see 70 million.”

Especially vulnerable are military families, veterans, Native Americans, college students and single mothers, he said. “The pandemic has laid bare the hollow myth of the American dream.”

He urged the 230 people on the afternoon virtual call to ask their legislators to support a 15 percent boost to SNAP – the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“No one deserves to be hungry,” Protas said.

He addressed the current status of crops being destroyed, livestock slaughtered and milk dumped due a lack of buyers and supply chain problems, noting there was little that could be done quickly.

Also during the hour-long call, Rabbi Victor Urecki of B’nai Jacob Congregation in Charleston, W.Va., praised the activists, saying they are doing the heavy lifting during the pandemic when so much is needed even though they are “ignored by those in power” and “have doors shut” on them in Washington.

He predicted, “What lies ahead may make today look like a walk in the park,” adding their work has become Herculean.

He warned that some might lose hope and give up, although “we are not free to desist from this,” adding, “Your holy work inspires me.”

Suzanne Pollak is a Washington-area writer.