Congregant-volunteers from several Pittsburgh synagogues took out their phones during the second week of the coronavirus shutdown to remind fellow Jews that, despite this time of self-isolation, they were not alone.
Jessica Hammer, a Congregation Beth Shalom member who teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon University, said there were three components that drove the dozens of calls she made last week: personal contact, volunteer leadership and research-based programming.
Volunteers, she said, were focused “on meeting people’s mental, emotional and spiritual needs — we realized we had to step up what we were doing,” said Hammer, who lives with her husband, Chris Hall, and their 5-year-old daughter, Ada, in Squirrel Hill. “Community is something Jews are very good at. Doing this is just an extension of what I’ve been trained to do my whole Jewish life. You bring people together to live together and study together. This is just an opportunity to respond Jewishly to a crisis situation.”
Hammer and Hall said 5% of the Beth Shalom community reached out by phone last week to some 1,200 congregants, asking if they needed help with groceries or just wanted to talk a bit because they were lonely or anxious. And they didn’t just reach out to those considered at highest risk for the coronavirus. They called everyone — and they keep spreadsheets about it.
“What we’re collecting data on is who needs help from our community, not on demographics,” Hammer said.
Marian Allen, a retired nurse and Point Breeze mother of three who has been a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation for 33 years, saw the calls her fellow congregants made as a kind of tzedakah, a form of giving back, say, or a spontaneous act of goodwill.
“[We’re there] for people who don’t have their immediate families here — there is a Pittsburgh diaspora and there are plenty of folks with kids who live out of town and grandchildren who live out of town, and, now, they can’t get to them,” Allen said.
“I’m starting to see a lot of people say, ‘Yeah, I need help setting up grocery delivery,’ or ‘Yeah, I need help learning how to FaceTime.’ We are asking them specific questions like that.”
Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno said there’s a lot of wisdom in those small gestures.
“We’re collecting information about their needs,” Bisno said. “But we’re offering our members the chance to make these calls, too. Because even the person who receives tzedakah is expected to share.”
To that end, Rodef Shalom has been asking those they call how they might be able to help others. Again, even in small ways, these questions have made a difference. Allen said she asked one older woman, a widow who lived alone, if she had information that would help others; the widow mentioned she was taking comfort in Jewish Broadcasting Service programming on Verizon FIOS channel 798. Allen spread the word — tzedakah paid forward.
Irwin Harris is familiar with reaching out to shaken members of his community. The Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha vice president fielded those calls after the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting at his synagogue and is making the rounds again as the coronavirus sweeps the globe.
Harris said he has been sharing resources with congregants about classes with rabbis, and fact-checking information on COVID-19 and virtual tours of area museums. He has also shared links to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the United Way and the 10/27 Healing Partnership. Members also have discussed financial assistance from organizations such as the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which is providing no-interest loans to those financially impacted by the pandemic.
“We are reaching out to every single member of the congregation,” Harris said. “The overall response has been very good. I don’t think anybody has said, ‘What are you calling me for?!’ They appreciate that their synagogue is doing this.”
Hall, an IT consultant who’s been working from home since he and Hammer moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania six years ago, typically takes his daughter to Shabbat services every Saturday at Beth Shalom. The coronavirus temporarily has put a stop to that ritual, which Hall initially found a little disconcerting. But he said he is taking comfort in his peers.
“A volunteer made calls and said to me, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this mitzvah,’” Hall said. “You’re always looking for a blessing to say or a good deed to do. This is that opportunity.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.