A Source of Strength to One Another

On a year of rising up to unprecedented challenges together

By Dara Kaufman / Executive Director, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires

On June 30, the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires held its 80th annual meeting. This column is adapted from Executive Director Dara Kaufman’s report and remarks to the community.

Each of you with us tonight are the heart and soul of our work together. I want to focus on just a few key areas of our past year and share an update on our COVID-19 response and our plans moving forward. 

This past year, with your support, the number of schools participating in the ADL’s A World of Difference© anti-bias peer leader training program nearly doubled.  This program has laid a solid foundation for hundreds of students and educators to have important discussions with their families and friends about the complicated systems of racism and bias in our world today.

We are in a time when we, as individuals and as organizations, all need the skills and courage to listen and learn, and to stand up and speak out about racism, anti-Semitism, and injustices of all kinds. There is still much work to be done.

Communal security continued to be a priority this past year. In September, Federation hosted the Secure Community Network for a full-day security training for the staff and leadership of our local Jewish organizations. Situational awareness training, hands-on active shooter scenarios and a greeters and ushers training gave affiliate organization vital resources to strengthen their own security protocols and consider additional security upgrades to their facilities.

This past year, Jewish Federations across Massachusetts, including ours, actively advocated to encourage Governor Baker to significantly increase the dollars available through the Commonwealth’s Non-Profit Security Grant Program and to specifically require that a portion of those grants be made to organizations in western and central Massachusetts.  This past March, Knesset Israel, Congregation Beth Israel, and Hevreh of Southern Berkshire were all awarded non-profit security grants which will allow them to make important security upgrades to their facilities.

But the largest and most pressing priority this past year has been supporting our community through the unexpected challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The needs of our community changed almost overnight. It took less than 48 hours for Federation to mobilize a force of over 70 volunteers to begin an outreach campaign that we could never have imagined needing.  Volunteers were at the heart of our efforts to deliver meals, to make grocery runs, to pick up medicine, to help people figure out how to order from Instacart, to figure out how Zoom worked, or, in so many cases, just to be there to listen.

Thank you to the many, many volunteers who stepped up to help.

We expanded our kosher meals on wheels program to include regular participants of our weekly Connecting With Community lunch program, with some participants receiving double meals to carry them through the week. Federation is committed to maintaining this expanded format through September, at which time we will re-evaluate the needs of our older population 

Our community social worker, Jill Goldstein, received referrals from dozens of volunteers and community members during our initial outreach and helped community members connect to resources for food, housing support, and counseling and other mental health services. As the effects of long-term isolation intensifies, Jill continues to support more than 30 community members each week. 

Shabbat care packages, happy day cards, and our “care’avan” parade have helped lift the spirits of our elderly residents who are experiencing significant isolation during the extended quarantine at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

And Federation continues to sponsor and share virtual programs and interesting opportunities for community members of all ages to come together, to connect, to volunteer, and to learn.

This has also a particularly trying time for young families. I am pleased to share that Federation will be underwriting a 6-week summer experience for children ages three to twelve years old, in collaboration with Hevreh in Great Barrington. Open to all regardless of affiliation, kids will have the opportunity experience outdoor summer fun in a socially-distant manner that meets all health protocols while their parents receive some much need relief. 

So many of you answered the call for our COVID-19 relief and recovery fund, and together we have raised over $49,000 to support the needs of individuals and families most impacted. Thank you to all who contributed.

We have already made nearly $7,000 in assistance grants to help community members with essentials such as rent and mortgage payments, utility bills, food, and gas assistance. If you or someone you know is struggling as a result of this crisis please reach out to us.

In addition, we have approved $20,000 to support critical needs for our friends and neighbors across the Berkshires.

Our first round of community tzedakah focused on assistance to food pantries, many in the smaller underserved hill towns and rural communities. We are in the process of a second round of relief focused on helping families and children, as well as under-resourced populations.

During these critical times, your support is also helping local organizations like Berkshires Bridges expand the hours of their community navigators.  These folks work hand-in-hand with individuals in the most under-resourced areas of our community to help them access housing support, government benefits, unemployment insurance, and even provide transportation to food pantries.  

Demand for these critical services are expected to rise as eviction moratoriums lift and the increased unemployment benefit recedes, leaving people scrambling to figure out how to keep themselves and their families afloat in this new reality.

Recently, Federation’s executive committee approved an additional $12,000 in grants to support technology upgrades that will help our affiliates offer meaningful and accessible High Holiday services and experiences to our Jewish community.

A community member recently asked me when I thought everything would return to normal again.

The truth is we do not know what the future holds. Our world is changing rapidly. 

Federation as an organization and all of us as a community will need to continue to be nimble, creative, courageous, and willing to think strategically and pragmatically about what really matters for our future.

There are many things that are unique in our small federation, but over the last year, I have come to realize that it is strong leadership, authentic relationships, and the trust that Federation has with our affiliate organizations, our donors, our volunteers, and our program participants that makes this community so special.

We are a source of strength to one another. We are a community that cares deeply and works together to help one another. That is what makes our Jewish Berkshires strong! It is this strength that has carried us through this crisis. It is that strength which will bring us through to a time when we will again gather and celebrate together.