A field of hope in times of distress
OpinionGuest columnist

A field of hope in times of distress

We worry about our planet. We fear for the future of our country. And we fear for the future of Israel.

Volunteers stock shelves at the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. (Photo courtesy of JFCS)
Volunteers stock shelves at the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. (Photo courtesy of JFCS)

Last week, I attended the annual PowerNET conference in Pittsburgh, an international event of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies that
JFCS Pittsburgh and The Branch had the privilege of hosting for the first time.

While this conference takes place every year, it felt especially important this year for professionals at Jewish organizations to meet, discuss challenges and successes, and learn about social service work that is being done across North America to serve our communities. Our agencies work with people with disabilities, run food pantries, resettle refugees, guide job seekers, provide mental health counseling and support our aging community members.

During the best of times, the work of social service organizations is exhilarating and exhausting, rewarding and frustrating. People often come to us for help when there is a crisis, and our staff understand and are trained to look beyond the anxiety and tension that is so prevalent among the people we serve. We push through the challenging moments and celebrate the successes that we are fortunate to witness and be a part of.

But these are not the best of times. From the 10/27 synagogue shooting to the pandemic, to the increasing political polarization, to the Afghan crisis, to the war in Ukraine, to the rising inflation, to the war in Israel and Gaza, to the rising antisemitism in the U.S., our community has been feeling frightened and out of control these past few years. Even those of us who are fortunate to have our basic, concrete needs met (sometimes quite substantially) are still struggling with our emotional needs. We worry about ourselves and our families.

We worry about our planet. We fear for the future of our country. And we fear for the future of Israel.

The staff and volunteers of Jewish human service agencies are not all Jewish, nor are our clients. We are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, middle class, working class, city dwellers, suburbanites, fresh out of college, and looking toward (or already enjoying) retirement. We represent the Jewish community’s dedication to meeting the needs of everyone in Pittsburgh who may be having a difficult time with a life transition or a sudden event. And the people providing the services are members of the same Pittsburgh community and are affected by the same challenges, as the people we serve. As we all know, in Pittsburgh there are few degrees of separation between any of us.

The NJHSA conference was a chance for staff of agencies like JFCS and The Branch, from across North America and Israel, to support each other, to learn from each other and to marvel at the dedication our peers are demonstrating during these incredibly distressing and painful times.
After attending several inspiring plenary sessions and practical workshops, I entered a session on antisemitism in a small, crowded room where the mood was somber. The session immediately turned into an impromptu support group, with participants sharing their experiences with antisemitism in their home communities. Some were work-related experiences, but many were personal.

Jews talked about frightening moments that they and their college children have had because they are Jewish. Non-Jews talked about their uncertainty about how to support their Jewish colleagues. Everyone talked about their worries for the future. There were a lot of tears and a lot of hugs — not a typical conference workshop but also not totally surprising at a Jewish social service conference.

Like many of the conference attendees, I left the conference feeling tired but inspired. It is an honor and a privilege to work with such dedicated colleagues and to serve the brave people who bare their souls at their darkest hours and take a risk with relative strangers who say they’d like to help. This work is not for the faint of heart, but it definitely draws those who are looking for a meaningful profession and the opportunity to have a lasting impact on people’s lives.

There is tremendous kindness in the world that is easy to miss if we are not looking for it, especially during these difficult times. I’m fortunate to be part of a community of Jewish communal professionals who search for that kindness and do their best to help it blossom. PJC

Jordan Golin is the president and CEO of JFCS Pittsburgh.

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