IMPACT-Emergency Relief

COVID-19 Relief Stories: Ron & Julie

COVID food insecurity relief at the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry

Imagine realizing for the first time in your life that you need food assistance.

A Jewish couple, who we’ll call Ron and Julie, faced this reality last year, when COVID-19 infections raced across the globe to Pittsburgh. Ron and Julie had only been living in Pittsburgh for a year and suddenly found themselves unemployed. The feelings you probably imagine—the struggle to adjust to yet another new reality, the discomfort of asking for help—hit this couple hard.

When Ron and Julie walked into the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, the staff gave them not only food, but also reassurance and compassion. A social worker referred them to career services at Jewish Family and Community Services and connected them with a variety of other assistance from Jewish agencies united across Pittsburgh. In short, Ron and Julie came looking for food, but they found a community.

It will take a community working together to get through this crisis. Ron and Julie are not alone in their new reality, and your support through the Jewish Federation’s Community Campaign allows us to bridge communication across Jewish agencies and bring relief to people who are suffering.

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An Update from the Christchurch Foundation Overseeing Money Donated Through the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh

Al Noor Mosque, New Zealand

The Christchurch Foundation is making sound progress distributing money to meet the needs of the victims of the 2019 attack on the Muslim community and their families. This has been complicated by the pressures put on by the pandemic. These strains affect us all but more so those already weakened suffering as a result of the terror attacks. Thankfully the 5 million people in New Zealand have a geographical advantage being 3 hours fight away from our nearest neighbour and, by going Hard and Early the death toll is just 23.

The government and community have been active in a number of areas following the terrorist attack:

  1. Tighter gun controls have been out in place. This had made demi-automatic and assault style rifles illegal.
  2. The killer pleaded guilty and chose not to make a statement in court prior to sentencing. While this saved the victims being overloaded with repeat trauma, it denied them the opportunity to express their grief. He was sentenced to life without any prospect of parole.
  3. Funding has been provided to upgrade physical security at religious sites. While the Safer Communities funding was available to all, the only successful applications were made by the Jewish community (about 13 sites) and Muslim community (50+ Sites). We have been working with the Muslim community, giving advice on equipment and supplier choices and pricing. In addition we are sharing some training and other documentation.
  4. A Royal Commission sat reviewing all matters around the Christchurch Terror Attacks. We made a number of submissions to the commission including:
    1. Systemic failure in the Police and Security. For at least 10 years we had been warning the security areas about the vulnerability of the community (in this case Jewish rather than Muslim) to a lone wolf white supremist.
    2. The need for a whole of society overview to deal with racism, hate speech, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. We are starting to make some slow progress.

The report was presented to government on the 5th and will be tabled in Parliament on 10th December. I had a confidential preview with the commissioners on Tuesday last week. While limited in what can be said the report is quite critical of government ownership of the problems let alone finding the multi-disciplined resolution.

Overall the Muslim and Jewish communities have never been closer; something good has flourished out of all that evil.

Thank you for all your support.

Authored by the New Zealand Jewish Council, working with the Christchurch Foundation to distribute money contributed by the Jewish Federation.

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Jewish Federation COVID-19 Relief Stories: Rieta Hirschman

senior person on iPad

When you ask Jo Sawyer to describe the care that the Jewish Association on Aging (JAA) is providing to her mother during the pandemic, Jo says,

“They really treat her as if she’s their mother. It’s genuine.”

Jo’s mother, Rieta Hirschman, moved to Pittsburgh from Washington state to be closer to her son. She lived three years in Jewish Association on Aging’s Weinberg Terrace, in an independent-living apartment she loved. After her first stroke, she transitioned to Weinberg Village. As her vascular dementia progressed, she moved to AHAVA Memory Care Center of Excellence at JAA.

Rieta’s video chat with her daughter often included Jo’s cats.

In February, when the COVID-19 pandemic seemed likely to affect visitors’ access to facilities like AHAVA Memory Care, Jo flew from Washington to visit Rieta, before restrictions were needed. She wanted to take advantage of the narrowing window of opportunity to visit her mother. “I was amazed at how careful JAA was with staff, residents and visitors,” Jo says. “They [went] above and beyond to keep the virus at bay.” Leaving was emotionally taxing. With Rieta in her 90’s and with advancing dementia, Jo wondered if she would ever see her mother again.

When the pandemic hit, JAA implemented rigorous screening, safety and distancing policies that would not have been possible without support from Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The Federation paid for personal protective equipment (PPE) for JAA staff, extra people to conduct health screenings, air filtration systems and more.

Thanks to the money for extra staffing, JAA had the capacity to set up twice-a-week video chats between Jo and Rieta. In these video chats, Jo noticed that Rieta zeroed in on her and her brother, talked to them and seemed so happy to see them. Knowing the importance of these moments of joy amidst the confusion of dementia, Jo is grateful for all the effort JAA put into making the calls happen.

“It’s such a horrible situation, agonizing for everybody. We had stress on every angle,” says Jo.

“JAA made every effort to make it easier for us and to make me feel good about the safe care my mother was being given. I trust them completely.”

Jo Sawyer appreciates that donors to the Jewish Federation are providing care across the community. Jo explains, “It’s like a 360-degree situation. JAA is not only taking great care of their residents and their staff, but they are also looking at the continuity of services around the community.” The Jewish Federation leads the effort to coordinate services across Jewish agencies and to ensure that families have the support they need at the critical time they need it.

Rieta enjoys a safe visit with her children at AHAVA Memory Care.

Ultimately, Jo says, “It’s not just about a nursing home. It’s about understanding our family’s needs.”

When we, as members of the community, give together, we help more people. We help our neighbors, our friends, our own loved ones. Thanks to donor support through the Jewish Federation, our community can meet the needs of Rieta’s family, thousands of Jewish families around Pittsburgh and millions of people in Jewish communities around the world.

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COVID-19 Relief Tops $7 Million

stethoscope heart check up

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s board approved an additional $1 million in COVID-19 relief distributions on December 14, unlocking $600,000 in matching dollars for health and human services from Jewish Federations of North America. The $7,300,854 in total pandemic relief funds blew past the $7 million milestone and provided critical funds to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases skyrocket in Allegheny County and worldwide.

The latest round of distributions will address the most urgent needs in our Pittsburgh Jewish community and in Jewish communities around the world through seven of the Federation’s beneficiary agencies and overseas partners: Jewish Association on Aging, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Community Day School, Hillel Academy, Yeshiva Schools, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Based on the requests of these agencies, the board approved funds to address critical areas such as meal delivery for older adults, personal protective equipment and health screenings.

Jewish Federation’s pandemic relief distributions are made possible by the strength of the Federation’s Community Campaign, which has supported Jewish Pittsburgh for over 100 years. On Sunday, volunteer fundraisers further strengthened this year’s Campaign by raising over $211,000 at the Super Sunday phone-a-thon. This year’s event looked a little different, with volunteers making calls from their own homes, but that did not stop community members from answering the call to make their commitments to the Community Campaign.

COVID Distributions - $1M on 12/14/2020

JAAHuman service needs – specifically:
  • Staff time for distributing grab and go meals to older adults.
  • Collaboration with the Squirrel Hill Health Center to provide COVID-19 testing.
  • Health screenings for the Early Childhood Center.
JCCMeals for residents and PPE.$212,000
CDSExtra staffing.$100,000
Hillel AcademyExtra staffing (including nurse).$100,000
Yeshiva SchoolsExtra staffing (including nurse).$100,000
JAFIUnrestricted for food insecurity and emergency funding programs in Israel and other communities. Specifically:
  • Global loan fund for struggling Jewish communities around the world.
  • Stipends for immigrants, many of Ethiopian origin, in absorption centers who cannot easily find employment.
  • Staffing for Amigour facilities to protect physical and mental health of senior residents.
  • Living stipends for recently discharged lone soldiers who cannot find work due to pandemic and don’t have families to rely on.
JDCUnrestricted for food insecurity and emergency funding in Israel and other communities around the world. Specifically:
  • Providing food, medicine and shelter to elderly and families at risk in Europe.
  • Helping the neediest of families in Israel including hygiene kits, medicine, food, computers, games for kids.
  • Providing essential care including medicine, home repairs, housekeeping to low-income seniors in Israel.
  • Providing food, medicine, and money to the neediest elderly Jewish and families at risk in Argentina.
*The overseas agencies received roughly 5% of their requests to the Federation system.
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Keeping Our Community Safe and Open

Blue Point Security

I have taken some time over the last few weeks to reflect back on how much has happened in the last two years since the attack at the Tree of Life Building but especially on the leadership and investment made by our Federation in the area of security. You will recall that our Federation Board took the step of hiring our first ever Jewish Community Security Director in January 2017 and we know that his work had been so important in not only saving lives on October 27, 2018 but in protecting all of us from the inception of our security program. Since October 2018, we have continued to build upon the foundation we set.

Recently, our Security Director, Shawn Brokos, with our Security Committee chaired by David Ainsman, took the lead in procuring and providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to any Jewish organization requiring it at no cost to any Jewish institution. To us, safety includes keeping people healthy.

Due to the incredible generosity of a private foundation, we are close to completing installation and activation of a system called BluePoint in 15 of our Jewish institutions. Bluepoint is a state of the art alert system that not only connects to our local law enforcement, it also connects all the Jewish institutions with each other. If something might happen at one organization, all will know about it. This investment of nearly $750,000 comes at no initial cost to any local synagogue or agency and Federation security will manage the platform going forward. We have installed it in our Jewish Day Schools and Early Childhood Centers.

We assembled and distributed 500 “Go Bags” for every classroom in the Jewish community within synagogues and agencies. These bags contain nearly everything one would need in case of any kind of emergency whether it be medical or security related. This came at no cost to any local organization.

We are trying not only to keep our community safe, but also trying to help everyone to feel safe. Feeling safe is just as important so that all will continue to engage in Jewish life. We have been saying since the start of our security initiative that our goal is to make the community both safe and open. None of this would happen without the convening power of our Federation. These and other capital investments, government dollars we successfully lobbied for, and security personnel hired by Federation on behalf of the Jewish community has resulted in approximately $2 million in investments since October 27, 2018.

We wish we didn’t need to spend a penny on security. We would much prefer putting those dollars into programming, education or support for those in need, but unfortunately this is our reality and we will always take the safety of our community members as a high priority.

Thank you for helping us keep our community safe. Shabbat Shalom. Go Steelers. Wear that mask!

P.S. If you are interested, the Secure Community Network conducted a webinar entitled “Two Years After the Pittsburgh Attack: The Evolution and Future of Securing the Jewish Community” that includes our former Security Director Brad Orsini, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and me.

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Jewish Federation Steps Forward to Combat Anti-Semitic Disinformation During Election

good graffiti

The image was shocking — anti-Semitic graffiti saying, “Kill the Jews,” spray-painted on the Beverly Hills sign in California and attributed to “Antifa.” It went viral via social media.

The only problem was that it was fake. There was graffiti, but it was Photoshopped to turn the message anti-Semitic.

“We want to make sure that we’re able to understand the nature of threats quickly, whether they’re real or faked, and get that information out to the Jewish community so they can feel safe,” says Shawn Brokos, director of Jewish community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Fortunately, we have a rapid reaction force to help Jewish communities where misinformation about anti-Semitism may surface, quickly enough for them to do damage control.”

The Jewish Federation — which has been on high alert since the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building — is working closely with Jewish Federations around the U.S. and Canada to address the expanding volume of misinformation spreading in advance of the election in November. Brokos works with Jewish Federations of North America’s national group called the Secure Community Network, that specializes in this work.

“It’s critical now more than ever to distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake. During a time when lots of misinformation exists on social media across the political spectrum, it’s even more important not to jump to conclusions when we see reports of anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh or around our region.”

David Sufrin, chair of the Jewish Federation’s board of directors

“The unfortunate truth is that sometimes these incidents are real,” says Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation. “That’s why we have an excellent relationship with law enforcement and the ability to share information rapidly across the Jewish community to keep Jewish agencies and synagogues secure.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. Recently, Antifa was blamed for putting up barriers in front of a synagogue, Chabad of Sherman Oaks; another report called the security barriers “weapons placed by Antifa and professional anarchists.” Chabad of Sherman Oaks had actually installed the barriers themselves.

“We know that there is fake information being promulgated by people on the right and the left, not to mention fake information put out by foreign governments trying to intervene in the United States’ election. We know from the recent, bipartisan U.S. Senate report that China and Russia are actively using social media to try to interfere. As horrible as it is for them to use something like anti-Semitism to do that, it’s not outside the realm of possibility,” said Brokos.

There are simple things that the Jewish community members can do to help.

“It can be as simple as getting the message out to their Jewish community that there is fake information about anti-Semitism circulating,” says Brokos. “If you see something, say something, for certain. But you should also not just assume right away that it’s real.”

People can report potentially anti-Semitic information or incidents at, or by contacting the Jewish Federation by phone at 412-681-8000. If anyone feels threatened, they should call 911. The City of Pittsburgh also recently upgraded 311, a non-emergency phone number for problems such as graffiti. Non-Pittsburgh residents can reach “311” operators by calling 412-255-2621.

“We don’t want people to ignore reports of anti-Semitic incidents,” says Adam Hertzman, director of communications for the Jewish Federation. “On the contrary, it’s important to report things like this. But it’s also important for the Jewish community to know that, especially at a time of political turmoil, they shouldn’t believe everything they see on social media.”

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, notes Hertzman.

“There aren’t a lot of divisions in the United States when it comes to racism, bigotry and hatred,” says Hertzman. “After the Oct. 27 attacks on the three synagogues in Pittsburgh, we all saw how the city of Pittsburgh, and the U.S., and the world came together to condemn this act. Where it becomes divisive is where it’s attributed to someone with one particular political ideology.”

The law enforcement community works very closely with Jewish security efforts.

“This is about keeping the Jewish community secure and making people feel safe,” says Brokos. “The reason someone would create a fake image or fake story or fake video is to instill fear, doubt, and unrest. Staying vigilant, mindful and accurately informed is the way to combat that.”

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