Jewish Agencies Work to Protect Philly Seniors From Coronavirus

Jewish Family and Children’s Service staff prepare food for clients and the Mitzvah Food Pantry with Drew Gold, kitchen manager and educator, in The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center’s Teaching Kitchen.
Jewish Family and Children’s Service staff prepare food for clients and the Mitzvah Food Pantry with Drew Gold, kitchen manager and educator, in The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center’s Teaching Kitchen. (Photo by Lisa Ney)

According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s 2019 Community Portrait, there are almost 100,000 Jews over 65 in the Greater Philadelphia area, including nearly 11,000 over 85. These are some of the people, the Centers for Disease Control says, who are most at risk of complications of the novel coronavirus. So how to protect them?

That’s the challenge for Jewish community organizations traditionally dedicated to social services, housing and social events for older Jewish adults. From top to bottom, every such agency is reevaluating its services and programs to figure out how they can continue to serve older constituents without exposing anyone to greater risk. And, of course, with new state and city guidelines announced as we went to press, the measures adopted may already have to change.

“The steps that we’ve taken are really growing rapidly,” said Eric Naftulin, the executive director and CEO of Federation Housing.

Just under 1,500 low-income seniors over the age of 62 are spread across 11 Federation Housing buildings. (Federation Housing, Naftulin clarified, is not a nursing home, which is a common misconception; residents come and go as they please, and caregivers are not barred from entry.) Now, their services are changing.

Meals that are delivered from an outside caterer or plated hot and then served to residents are being replaced by box lunches, which residents are encouraged to pick up and eat in their rooms.

All social rooms — libraries, computer rooms, dining spaces, etc. — have been closed. The social events provided by groups like Golden Slipper Gems have been temporarily discontinued, van transportation to shopping malls and other stores is limited to food markets and pharmacies and the planned seders have been suspended.

Naftulin’s team is doing everything it can to inform residents about the precautions that they’re taking, as well as the ones that the residents themselves should incorporate. He said that he’s not yet heard much from families wondering about how they can ensure the safety of their older relatives, but expects that to change soon.

Brian Gralnick is the director of the Center for Social Responsibility at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which oversees and provides grants to a fleet of organizations that have daily contact with older Jewish adults, including Jewish Family and Children’s Service, KleinLife, JEVS, Federation Housing, Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence and the Abramson Center for Jewish Life. The center also oversees the Mitzvah Food Program and Northeast NORC, a retirement community.

On a daily basis, well over 1,000 older adult volunteers and participants take part in the events and services that are planned, provided or funded at least in part by the Center for Social Responsibility.

The organizations’ leaders are coordinating as much as possible via web conference. They’re managing the questions of families whose older relatives are under the care of Abramson, rearranging the meal selection process for those who can still pick up drive-by meals at the Mitzvah Food Program and determining how JRA food packaging and delivery can be staggered, to avoid having too many people concentrated in one area for too long.

Though many events that bring people together are suspended, the essential services will continue.

For those who live alone without relatives nearby, the loss of those social events can hit especially hard.

Carly Bruski, director of the Holocaust Survivor Support Program at JFCS, said that the approximately 450 survivors served by her group of social workers and nurse practitioners are saddened to lose the social events that keep them active, but understand the need for caution.

The program’s main function is care management, which entails going into the homes of survivors and assessing their needs in terms of personal care and social interaction. Those home visits are being suspended for at least two weeks, though regular phone calls are being made.

Bruski is in contact with other survivor groups across the country, learning the practices that they’ve undertaken to continue their work. The program is also receiving assistance from KAVOD, a Memphis-based survivor’s group, and The Blue Card, a New York-based survivor’s group that provides its clients with food, medical supplies and safety kits.

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