Direct Service in the Age of Coronavirus

By Sheila Katz, Rabbi Lori Koffman, Cindy Greenberg,
and Ruth Messinger

Nonprofit organizations that provide direct service to vulnerable communities are facing an almost unfathomable set of difficulties right now. The Covid-19 pandemic is severely curtailing their capacity to be of service, while simultaneously compounding the very vulnerabilities they were established to address. 

People who had, up until mid-March, faced no particular difficulties are now struggling; those who were already struggling are now facing devastation. Service organizations, like those with which we are affiliated, desperately want to help but cannot do so as easily as we might have before.

As in all things, the organizations we represent have long known that we are stronger together. We recently gathered virtually to discuss the challenges before us and share ideas for best practices. Here are eight lessons we’ve learned that you can use to further your direct service efforts in the coming months as we all adapt to our new reality:

  1. As any flight attendant will tell you: Put on your own life mask before helping others. Make sure that you and any volunteers in your organization are in good health and well supported. Never put yourself at unnecessary risk – and, as hard as it can be for people who have spent their lives in service, don’t ever hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Remember that social distancing is a form of loving-kindness, of caring for neighbors and strangers alike; and that not endangering yourself, and being sure others follow this advice, is a real form of community service – not to mention good for public health. Be gentle with yourself.
  2. If you can volunteer safely, do. Many volunteers before this crisis are now those most at risk from coronavirus. If you’re able to, check out what opportunities are available in your community and which organizations need volunteers. Meals on Wheels is still running in many communities, including kosher meals through NCJW Michigan, and now more than ever need people to volunteer to deliver food. In Brooklyn, Repair the World is working with The Campaign Against Hunger to find volunteers to help maintain their urban farms so their fresh, healthy produce can be distributed to those residents who need it the most. Call or visit the website of your local food pantry to see how you can help – most need donations, and many need drivers to get shipments of food from one place to another.
  3. Expand your definition of community service. We are by nature a creative community, forever finding ways to stretch funds and engage more people. Apply that creativity to expanding your definition of community service so that it includes checking in on a neighbor or loved one. As with any other action we undertake, it’s vital that we respect the dignity of those we seek to serve, making sure that no one mistakes outreach for patronization. Leave a note on a neighbor’s door that includes your phone number; if you have their number, give them a call and ask if they need anything from the market or your next trip to the pharmacy.
  4. Develop intergenerational plans of action for your family and beyond. Those less at risk may be able to volunteer in-person at food banks; those at more risk can make advocacy phone calls from home. Build a collective effort with family or an extended community: Hold an online family meeting, discuss what issue you care about, assign tasks, follow up the next week. We are, truly, all in this together, and even our youngest generation can make a genuine contribution while learning the value of caring by writing cards to healthcare workers or drawing signs to post for their neighbors.
  5. Lean into going digital. Many of us are conducting online meetings and helping our kids with e-learning, but feel overwhelmed when thinking about how to do direct service online. Consider the types of volunteer work that can translate to an online space. Tutoring is also desperately needed in many communities right now and can be done virtually; if you can help a 5th grader with fractions or a 9th grader with biology, do it. Repair The World Atlanta is providing online tutoring during regular mealtimes for young students in need of support; and Repair The World Detroit is matching volunteers with isolated seniors who need tech support. Nationally, Repair the World is mobilizing volunteers to conduct virtual mock interviews with job seekers and so much more. For those with professional skills, matches volunteers with pro bono consulting projects for nonprofits.
  6. Remember, model, and teach the power and importance of advocacy work. The current crisis has ripped the veil off the structural inequities that are everywhere in our healthcare and social safety net. After we’ve delivered a packaged meal or logged off from tutoring, it’s more important than ever to ask what’s behind this particular issue (why are so many hungry in a rich country? Why is it so hard for many people to get health care?) and to see how we can address those structural problems. There is no magic number of volunteer hours that can heal the world without also investing in those changes. Consider signing NCJW’s petition to include important funding for women, children, and families in the next COVID-19 package or sign up for action alerts from advocacy organizations that prioritize the issue you care about most.
  7. Very specifically advocate for protecting and expanding voting rights. The nation just watched in real time as Wisconsinites literally risked their lives to exercise the right to vote and in some cases got sick doing so. A vibrant democracy is absolutely vital to every part of the work we do, yet we’re living in a time in which voting is actually becoming more difficult, particularly for those Americans already more vulnerable to the systemic inequities we’re seeing brutally exposed by the pandemic. First, make sure you are registered to vote and request an absentee ballot using an online voter registration tool. Then, promote and encourage advocacy around national vote-by-mail efforts, with the understanding that this will help voters of every generation and with whatever challenges better engage in their civic duty. Consider joining NCJW’s Digital Lobby Day on voting to learn how to make your voice heard on this issue.
  8. If you can, donate money or essential products. Without fail, every agency to which any of us have turned since this crisis began has said that they are desperately in need of increased and new forms of funding. Those who are able to make cash contributions should be encouraged to do so; those who cannot may very well be in a position to make in-kind donations. In particular, periods don’t end in a pandemic. Consider donating tampons or other essential hygiene products that women need through groups like I Support the Girls or NCJW Essex’s Period Project. You can also purchase and donate items like cleaning supplies, paper goods and baby products directly from Repair the World’s Amazon Wishlist. And if you have old computers or phones in your home, Repair the World Baltimore is working with Thread to donate internet capable technology to students who need access to complete their schoolwork. And if you’re able, sew masks to help others stay safe. You can find inspiration from NCJW’s Sacramento and Cleveland sections.  

This is a time of tremendous fear. Each of us is facing challenges we could never have imagined, even just two months ago, in every area of our lives. Such times require that we build resiliency, in our organizations and in our own hearts. We cannot know the future, but neither can we retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.

The words of Pirkei Avot have never been more true: We are not required to solve every problem, but we must remain committed to the task. We can yet build the world we want to live in – but only if we dedicate ourselves to the effort.

Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. Lori Koffman is a Rabbi and educator and serves as the Vice President of the Board of National Council of Jewish Women. Cindy Greenberg is the CEO and President of Repair the World. Ruth Messinger is the Global Ambassador of American Jewish World Service. All of them participated in a webinar through the National Council of Jewish Women which inspired this op-ed. You can watch the full webinar here.