Thirty-three years ago, on Sunday, December 6, 1987, while I was studying for final exams at UConn Law School, I received a call from Bob Fishman, then Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, asking me to meet at him at Bradley Airport for a flight that was departing for Washington, D.C., in an hour. Bob was leading a delegation from Greater Hartford to a rally on the National Mall to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. I dropped my books and just made the flight.
That rally changed the course of history and certainly changed everyone who participated. An estimated 250,000 showed up, animated by the concept of kol yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh - all of the Jewish people are responsible for one another.
The rally was the brainchild of Natan Sharansky, the famous Russian refusenik who was living in Israel and had been released the year before after serving 9 years in prison, half in solitary confinement, for the "crime" of being a Zionist. Never in American history had the Jewish community joined in such numbers, with such unity, and with such political strength. One speaker noted that "from the podium, it looked like an endless sea of Jews. It was as if the horizon ended with the crowd." That rally changed history - motivating President Reagan to increase pressure on the Soviet Union and ultimately resulting in the release of millions of Jews.
Today our community faces a different test and it is similarly rallying. We certainly can't march together, but we are rising up, in so many ways, motivated by that same ethos of kol yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh, to address the social, emotional, and physical needs of everyone in our community. Congregational leaders are reaching out to make sure that those isolated at home feel connected and supported. Rabbis are moving classes and services online. The Mandell JCC has created a rich array of remote offerings. Our Jewish Day Schools have moved with lightning speed to ensure that their students don't miss a beat with virtual classrooms. Jewish Family Services, the backbone of social service delivery in our community, is working to make certain that vital counseling and social service needs are met (here is a wonderful d'var Torah from Pia Rosenberg, President of JFS, about those critical needs). And, the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation have launched the Jewish Hartford Rapid Relief and Recovery Fund¸ an unprecedented initiative to sustain our community in this critical hour. You can read more about the Fund and Federation's other efforts at the bottom of this email.
Natan Sharansky offered the spark of inspiration and leadership, three decades ago, that catalyzed our community and changed history. This week Sharansky was featured in a new video, linked here, that was created by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America. He draws on his experiences in Russia to provide a unique and motivating perspective on our reality. I encourage you to take three minutes to watch it - and I urge you to join with us in the coming weeks as we mobilize and unite to overcome our current challenge and emerge even stronger.
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
COVID-19: How Federation Is Helping
Below are a few of the ways that Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and its partners have been working together to support our Jewish community:
- On Wednesday, our Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation announced the launch of the Jewish Hartford Rapid Relief and Recovery Fund to address urgent needs in our local Jewish community related to COVID-19. Initially, the Fund will provide financial and human resources to help our community partners deliver kosher meals to the hungry and homebound, offer counseling to those in crisis, supply financial assistance for basic needs and vital social services to individuals and families, and combat social isolation among seniors by ensuring that they receive regular phone calls, support and the services they require. The Foundation and Federation seeded the Fund with an initial contribution of $150,000, and it has already received more than $250,000 in additional gifts from generous community members. Contributions to the Fund are not intended to replace regular contributions to local Jewish agencies and synagogues. If you'd like to contribute to the Fund, please visit bit.ly/HartfordJewishRelief.
- Our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) has put together a comprehensive process for assessing our community's needs during the COVID-19 crisis. We're enlisting JCRC Board members to begin calling vulnerable community members to ask about their needs, including food, hygiene, reassurance, and counseling. An online "get help" form will be available next week.
- Federation's Leadership, Education & Engagement team has partnered with colleagues from Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Community Foundation to develop a kosher food procurement and distribution process for community members in need. Together, we've identified and ordered kosher and kosher-for-Passover pantry staples and prepared meals, as well as hygiene items such as soap and shampoo. Beginning on or around April 2, we will be delivering food to synagogues, who can then offer it to their congregants, and we'll also offer direct delivery to individuals and families as needed.
- Schools may be closed, but learning doesn't stop! Federation is now offering remote learning resources and support to Jewish Day School and synagogue school principals. And although they have returned to Israel, our Israeli Young Emissaries are still interacting with hundreds of Greater Hartford students using interactive platforms like Zoom.
- Likewise, Children's Reading Partners staff have been keeping the lines of communication open with our volunteers and gauging interest in opportunities for virtual reading mentorship. We have offered assistance to all of our participating schools, and we are exploring using the schools' remote learning platforms to continue our work with at-risk students.
- The Greater Hartford Jewish Leadership Academy has started a book club to bring our community together. Everyone is welcome to join, and no book purchase is required. We will be reading one section per week of Simon Sinek's book, "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action." Each Thursday we will email our questions to the author; he'll answer our questions and those submitted by other book clubs live, on YouTube. To learn more or to join the book club, email Jody Angell at firstname.lastname@example.org.