Opinion | Jewish Federation Responds to COVID-19

Hand holding an umbrella against the 2019 novel coronavirus pneumonia, global plague virus
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By Sherrie Savett

As the COVID-19 situation changes every day, I, like you, have been watching with growing anxiety about what the future weeks and months may hold for us. Most of us have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes and are struggling to find our place in the new order.

For me, I find strength in the fact that, as Jews, we’ve been in difficult situations, even much more grave than this one, many times before in our history. We have always found ways to cope. I am grateful that the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has taken the leadership mantle and is gathering our community together and leading us out of the darkness.

The Jewish people were the very first to ever talk about social responsibility. Ancient societies focused on self-survival and self-promotion. Core principles were simply power and force. The Torah introduced to the world the radical concept of social responsibility as a moral obligation of civilization and its individual members. Our ancient texts show us how this idea guided the Jewish people through war and strife and laid down fundamental principles for Jewish communities today.

This includes our commitment to care not just for ourselves but for all those around us, as is stated in the Babylonian Talmud, which says, “You shall walk after the Lord your God” this means that you should imitate God’s virtues. Just as God clothed the naked so too should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One visited the sick so too should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One comforted mourners so too should you comfort the mourner.”

The spread of the COVID-19 virus has exposed the weakest in our communities to great hardships and deprivation of their most fundamental needs. Many have no access to food, cannot pay their rents, and are experiencing the decline or demise of their livelihoods with loss of employment or devastation of their businesses.

It is incumbent upon us to lead and bring the community together and provide assistance. I am so proud to have seen the Jewish Federation rise to this challenge and tackle head on the responsibility of standing up for our community’s most vulnerable members.

Before the pandemic officially reached Philadelphia, the Jewish Federation had already convened dozens of local organizations to determine where the initial needs would be.

Resources were immediately diverted and volunteers called into action to ensure food deliveries would continue and that all older adults in our region who lived alone would be properly looked after. Every day as this crisis takes on new forms, the Jewish Federation has worked hard to adapt, raise critical funds and convene and connect both Jewish and non-Jewish members of our community. In frightening and uncertain times like these, it is human nature to look for strong leaders to guide us.

I, for one, am grateful and incredibly proud that the Jewish Federation is acting, not just talking. By the actions of assisting those in the greatest need, we as a community are carrying the light for all of us as we journey into the unknown.

As the days move on and we begin to prepare for the Passover holiday, our liturgy reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt who escaped to a new land and found a way to build and support a community in the desert.  We were taught  Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh b’zeh: All Israel is responsible for one another. Israel is now a strong and resilient nation and, except by those blinded by irrational hatred, is admired the world over.

It is now our responsibility to do the same for the Greater Philadelphia community. I believe we are more than up to the task as long as we continue to work together. As the Jewish Federation has shown us, our individual power is much more potent as a united community force. 

In times of hardship, I often turn to the teachings of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who guided Britain’s Jewish community through immense challenges. He is someone who truly understood the meaning of a united Jewish community and the immense power of the collective.

He once said, “Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good … There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighborliness.”

In the next few weeks and months, may we continue to live by these principles. Please continue to give generously to the Jewish Federation’s COVID-19 emergency fund, volunteer if you are able and check in and support your friends and neighbors.

Throughout our history, it’s the Jews that have led the world out of darkness. It’s our time now. Let’s all step up and meet this challenge.

Sherrie Savett
Sherrie Savett

Sherrie Savett is the campaign chair and the former board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. You can donate to the Jewish Federation COVID-19 Emergency Fund at jewishphilly.org/donate-now-covid-19-emergency-fund.

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