New Jersey Jewish News is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Jewish social service agencies struggle to keep up with side effects of Covid-19
Coronavirus 2020

Jewish social service agencies struggle to keep up with side effects of Covid-19

Domestic abuse, food insecurity among top concerns

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Marty Axelrod, a volunteer for Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, is ready to deliver groceries from the food pantry in Elizabeth. Photos courtesy Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey
Marty Axelrod, a volunteer for Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, is ready to deliver groceries from the food pantry in Elizabeth. Photos courtesy Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey

As unavoidable side effects of the Covid-19 crisis, domestic abuse, food insecurity, the well-being of seniors, and the overwhelming responsibilities of parenting in this new reality have emerged as the top issues confronting local agencies. In particular, Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Central New Jersey headquartered in Elizabeth, and Jewish Family Service (JFS) of MetroWest headquartered in Florham Park are scrambling to meet the growing needs of their clients, with providers working 12- 15-hour days.

Unlike many Jewish institutions, JFS of Central NJ is keeping its 10,000-square-foot building open — albeit with a skeleton staff — in part to keep the food pantry open and to continue offering its home-health-aide service.

“There’s a lot going on and we are ready to serve,” said executive director Tom Beck in a telephone conversation with NJJN. According to Beck the front office is open, and the small number of employees — just social work, front office, and nursing staff — and the large building gives them enough space to practice social distancing. (The front doors are locked, so anyone needing services should call ahead and leave a message stating exactly what services are needed.)

Overall, JFS of Central NJ is transforming itself to meet rapidly changing and growing needs in Union County. As of last year, its food pantry served approximately 2,600-3,000 people per year, but that is changing dramatically. As of Thursday, March 26, food requests had risen by 50 percent from the previous week, and Beck expects that to continue. The food pantry, normally open three days a month, is now open five days a week and one day on the weekend each month, in part to meet the growing demand, but also to minimize people congregating in large groups.

Further complicating the situation, the pantry has had to shift and add food suppliers, as the two it used to work with no longer have the staffing or capacity to do so, and now JFS of Central NJ is using seven different distributors for food, produce, and kosher meats. Also, the agency has had to purchase in larger quantities than in the past, sometimes at a premium price, because the new distributors won’t work with smaller amounts. So far, it’s received an emergency allotment from Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, its umbrella organization, as well as grants from The David Tepper Charitable Foundation and the Wilf Foundation to meet the increasing costs.

(Clients who needs groceries should call ahead. A bag, with a first name and last initial, will be prepared and left outside to be picked up, honor-system style in some situations; other times, a volunteer will meet clients to give them the package.)

An increase in funding through federation, The Grotta Fund for Senior Care, and private donations has also enabled the agency to expand the number of Meals on Wheels clients from 85 to 100. Meals are prepared by the YM-YWHA of Union County, known as the Green Lane Y.

With the holiday just around the corner, there’s also been an increased demand for kosher-for-Passover food, and so the annual holiday food drive under way now is more critical than ever. A drop-off area was created just outside JFS of Central NJ’s main office on Westfield Avenue in Union with boxes, for both Passover and year-round food, and donations of food and money are being accepted to meet the growing need. With the massive increase in food, the 800-square-foot food pantry in the building’s converted garage is no longer big enough, so the board room was reassigned as the Passover food pantry.

Despite the risks, JFS of Central NJ’s home-health aides continue to visit clients. The aides are in direct contact with patients, bathing them, taking blood pressure, and providing short physical exams, so just as with other health professionals, they are in desperate need of face masks, both surgical and N-95 masks. They also need thermometers; each of the 85 home-health aides and seven nurses are now required to take their own temperature before visiting clients to ensure everyone’s safety.

JFS of Central NJ is operating remotely for its other services, using Telehealth methods for mental health services, and Zoom and similar apps for continuing support groups, including Café Europa for Holocaust

“Everything is exacerbated because everybody is anxious,” said Beck. “The current situation adds to anxiety, depression, family problems, and now unemployment is being added to the mix.”

The needs of clients at JFS of MetroWest NJ are slightly different from its Central NJ counterpart. All JFS of MetroWest buildings are currently closed and the staff is working remotely, but executive director Diane Squadron said they remain fully operational, which is particularly important during this time as three demographics have emerged with the greatest need for JFS services: seniors, parents with young children, and people in worrisome home situations. As these numbers are likely to increase, Squadron said, JFS of MetroWest is providing free access to virtual support groups throughout the week for anyone, even those who aren’t existing clients. (Times are available on the JFS of MetroWest Facebook page and website.)

Older adults who used to have easy access to grocery home delivery services now compete with everyone else for what has become the holy grail of suburban life: a delivery time slot. To meet this new need, JFS of MetroWest is looking for volunteers to shop for their clients’ groceries and deliver the items, and to donate gift cards the volunteers can use to pay.

Regarding delivery inquiries, “In the last two days we’ve had over a dozen calls and we expect this to triple and quadruple shortly,” said Squadron. She added that the need for gift cards from other outlets as well, from CVS to Amazon, has also dramatically increased.

Additionally, JFS of MetroWest is seeking a kosher caterer to provide meals for seniors on an ongoing basis for Shabbat, and for Passover. At the same time, JFS of MetroWest is providing its regular services for this group, from mental health counseling to Café Europa, its program for Holocaust survivors, via Telehealth and Zoom.

With the increase in time at home in close proximity to immediate family, those who have unstable relationships or are victims of domestic violence may be in dire need of outside assistance. According to Shari Bloomfield, clinical director of JFS of MetroWest’s Rachel Coalition, a partnership of eight organizations that provides services to victims of domestic violence, people in this group “can feel particularly isolated now, so it’s important to maintain contact” with these individuals. Like other parents, many are struggling to adjust to the “new normal” of having children at home and homeschooling but, said Bloomfield, “after years of abuse, they feel they are failing and incapable,” so “[O]utreach helps them cope and feel more confident.”

Mother-and-daughter-volunteer-team Robin (right) and Lauren Plattman in the Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey’s Passover food pantry, formerly its board room.

Bloomfield added that women in these situations must take extra safety precautions. “Some of our clients are not in safe situations and can’t talk because they have no privacy,” she said, and suggests they start by reaching out to the Rachel Coalition; The Safe House, a domestic violence shelter in Essex County (Rachel Coalition used to have a dedicated kosher safehouse of its own, but it closed after other shelters opened and the need diminished); or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. (The phone number for the Hotline and the numbers of other social service organizations are listed at the bottom of this story.)

For those concerned about their safety at home, Suzanne Groisser, director of legal services for Rachel Coalition, reminds people to call the coalition and that court is open for emergency matters. Even during the crisis, temporary orders of protection are available through local police departments, and Groisser said advocates are pushing to make them available via telephone soon. “We’re here to help navigate the legal system and the courts,” she said.

Unfortunately, for some challenges that have arisen, there are no quick solutions. Frequently people who have been in abusive relationships and have young children, afraid to live at home with their significant others, have opted to stay with relatives who are older or have serious medical issues. Worried that they will be exposed to Covid-19, and in turn expose their relatives, they may be hesitant to leave the house to buy diapers, formula, or other essentials. To address this concern JFS of MetroWest is requesting volunteers to shop for them and deliver the items, along with gift cards for Shop Rite, CVS, and Amazon to cover the costs, especially for those whose finances are complicated by having temporary restraining orders issued and are not receiving child support. There’s also an ongoing need for donations of baby and infant products like diapers, wipes, and formula.

Visitation rights is also complicated. Under normal circumstances with an abused parent, a third party will often conduct the exchanging children for visitation. “But people don’t want the extra potential exposure,” said Groisser. In at least one such case she knows of, “The abuser is saying, ‘I’ll just keep the kids with me all the time,’” to sidestep the issue, said Groisser, whose client “does not know what to do.”

And, of course, even for working parents who live in stable environments and with loving families, having to simultaneously work remotely from home and take care of their children has its challenges.

“We are starting to hear from parents not used to being home all day, trying to do their job and be with their kids,” without their usual childcare arrangements, said Squadron, adding “that’s not just our clients — it’s also our staff.” Moreover, other parents who usually receive JFS of MetroWest support services are finding it’s more difficult to have their regular clinical sessions because they don’t have either the time or a private place to talk. 

For all these new and other challenges that have emerged during the era of coronavirus, JFS of MetroWest is working toward offering virtual support groups accessible to anyone during the week.

“Things are changing day by day,” said Squadron. “But the longer this goes on, the more services people will need.”

If you or a loved one needs help, or if you’re interested in volunteering, please call Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey or Jewish Family Service of MetroWest. For matters related to domestic violence call Rachel Coalition, the Safe House, or one of the other numbers listed below:

Jewish Family Service of Central NJ: 908-352-8375
Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ: 973-765-9050
Rachel Coalition Hotline: 973-740-1233
The Safe House: 973-759-2378 or 973-759-2154
NJ Statewide domestic violence hotline: 800-572-SAFE (7233)
National Domestic Violence hotline: 800-799-7233

read more: