Jewish philanthropy meets growing needs, even during COVID (Baltimore Jewish Times)

Susan Ingram
December 8, 2021

This article first appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times on December 8, 2021.

Across the nation, Jewish organizations aiding communities here and abroad are rising to challenges created by the pandemic — with the help of their donors.

A needs survey by the Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies, which looked at March 2020 through March 2021, found:

• 94% of agencies reported an increase in demand for mental health services

• 91% reported an increase in
food insecurity

• 85% reported an increase in demand for family and children services

• 84% saw increased demand in emergency financial assistance and senior services

Likewise, demand for aid to Holocaust survivors, the unemployed/underemployed, teens and young adults also rose.

At MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, headquartered in Los Angeles, Vice President of Community Engagement Naama Haviv said food insecurity and hunger spiked during the peak months of the pandemic — from 40 million Americans reporting food insecurity, to about 80 million.

“What we saw during the first few months of the pandemic was a real crisis,” Haviv said. “We all remember the images of the miles-long lines of cars waiting at food banks and food pantries.”

With community and government interventions, numbers have since returned to close to pre-pandemic levels, although those levels remain unacceptable, she said.

“What we also saw in the crisis months of the pandemic was an unparalleled response to hunger from our community,” Haviv said. “And not just in terms of charity, but an unparalleled demand for justice and change to the system that would allow so many people to go hungry in this country. So many were teetering on the edge, one paycheck away from financial ruin.”

MAZON donors typically give to about 19 organizations, Haviv said. Meanwhile, newer or returned pandemic donors, affectionately known as “pan-donors,” give to about a dozen.

“There’s a lot of focus on real systemic change and real justice,” Haviv said. “And our donors are very attuned to it.”

The International Association of Jewish Free Loans includes more than 50 member associations around the world, including one in Baltimore. With support from donors and affiliated nonprofits, the associations help people get through tough patches with interest-free loans.

“What we’re finding, and I think it’s probably similar to what is happening across the board, is an increase in the amount of the loan requests being received and processed,” said Ellen Friedman Sacks, president of IAJFL
and the executive director of Jewish Free Loan of Phoenix. “And on average, a bit of a decrease in the money that’s been raised as people grapple with the financial ramifications of the pandemic. Some of which were very clear right from the onset, and others I think are still revealing themselves.”

Sacks said that many communities implemented COVID-19 response very quickly, including to pandemic-related economic needs.

“Many communities were able to work with other agencies in their communities to increase access to both monetary services and other safety net services,” she said. “Clearly the demand for the interest-free loan programs offered by member agencies increased, and the agencies continue to evaluate the community needs and respond in the way that is most appropriate for their community.”

At the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Gideon Herscher, interim co-executive director of resource development, said two trends stand out: “An increase in human need and an increased desire for Jewish connection and meaning.”

The 107-year-old organization, which aids Jews and others in 70 countries, sees the most pressing needs in Europe, the former Soviet Union and Israel.

The organization aids about 80,000 elderly Jews and Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union. Demand increased for food, medicine, basic supplies and personal protective equipment for seniors and their homecare workers. Meanwhile, in Europe, Latin America and North Africa, JDC created a humanitarian aid fund to help Jewish families and communities with pandemic impacts. These included job losses and business closures, which increased need for food, rent, utilities and other basics.

In Israel, the JDC partners with the Israeli government on social services programs, including retooling and retraining workers; deploying virtual social services like rehab and housing support for the homebound or people with disabilities; and connecting Jews and Arabs in mixed cities.

In addition, demand continues for online platforms offering Jewish programming and educational offerings and safe in-person gatherings.

Herscher noted two trends driving pandemic giving. One is philanthropists’ need for connection with the people they help, and from like-minded social-change investors — connections challenged by the pandemic. The second is that JDC’s board and long-time funders have increased or sustained pre-pandemic giving levels “because they intimately understand the added value we have as a legacy organization with long history and experienced boots on the ground in communities around the globe.”

Eric Fingerhut, Jewish Federations of North America CEO and president, said federation donors have stepped up to meet needs.

“When Jewish Federations mobilized the community-wide response to COVID-19, we really saw donors step up to meet the needs of the community, whether in terms of protecting our most vulnerable, or making sure that our Jewish communal infrastructure remained strong,” he said.

About $175 million beyond what is typical was distributed during the pandemic. This additional money came from an increase in funds raised, reallocations and reserve funds. In addition, JFNA’s Human Services Relief matching grant initiative raised $62 million across the system to meet needs including food and employment services, food access for older adults and Holocaust survivors, safe transportation and technology to battle social isolation, and securing supplies and education for home health aides and cleaning services to help keep people safe.

“On a broader level, we are also seeing an increase in the desire for directed giving, in general, as a new generation of donors comes into the fold and is seeking to leverage their donations toward specific causes,” Fingerhut said.