UPDATED March 23 with current amount of money raised.
Twenty-seven-year-old Doe Taryn remembers a moment about a decade ago, in a class on Jewish philosophy at her synagogue in Florida, that left a strong impression on her.
The teacher posed an ethical conundrum: “You have a lifeboat. It can only fit so many people,” Taryn said. “You have a poet, a doctor, a construction worker, a mother and a sick man. Who do you save?”
The students pondered the question.
The doctor had the training to save lives. The poet could enrich the spirit. And the mother was somebody’s entire universe.
“We all fought through the question, who are you gonna put on this boat?” she said.
“And eventually the teacher was like, ‘Wrong!’
The right answer: “Everybody gets on the boat,” she said. “You don’t get to leave people behind.”
Last week Taryn, who lives in Berkeley, her friend Binya Kóatz and three other Jewish Bay Area 20-somethings created a “lifeboat” they hoped would help people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
This week they saw it transform into something more like a rescue yacht.
It began with a Facebook post by Kóatz, a 25-year-old software engineer at LinkedIn, who sings in a Yiddish klezmer band in her spare time. She asked her network, particularly tech workers and others with white collar, salaried jobs, to give to those hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis — gig workers, hourly workers, and people who are sick, elderly or otherwise vulnerable. Taryn created a Google spreadsheet, and on March 11, Kóatz shared it to her Facebook page.
“Idk if there’s another one of these around, but here’s a draft of a mutual aid doc for COVID stuff,” she wrote. “Please offer suggestions.”
Maria Tostado, a social worker in Oakland who dances with the queer Latin dance company In Lak’ech, was one of the first people to join. “When I first signed up there were like 10 people offering, and three people asking, for help,” she said. “It was kind of fun just sitting and watching it grow.”
The spreadsheet, called “Covid-19 Financial Solidarity,” was shared around on local listservs, including left-leaning, progressive Jewish groups in the East Bay. “It kind of spread really quickly,” Kóatz said.
By March 16, it had surpassed $40,000 in donations. By March 20, nine days after it was shared, the spreadsheet had offers from the Bay Area to Tel Aviv to Bordeaux, France. As of March 23, it had distributed $114,000 in direct contributions … and counting.
It was featured in a vertical publication of the Washington Post that highlighted several other “how to help” blogs and websites.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the global economy, it is bringing into relief wide gaps in income, wealth and job security. Filings for unemployment benefits reportedly have risen 30 percent.
Many seeking help on the mutual aid list are freelancers, workers facing cuts to their hours and gig-economy workers like Uber and Lyft drivers whose customer base has all but vanished.
“I am a home health aide and a full-time student,” wrote Ellany, from Manhattan. “I went from working 30 hours a week to five hours a week because of the coronavirus crisis. I need money for transportation and groceries.” She asked for and received $250.
“I’m a full-time music student and survive off of gigs,” wrote M. in Oakland, asking for $200. “All of my gigs have been canceled these past few weeks … I appreciate anything ya’ll can give.”
“All upcoming work lost. Need rent relief for one or two months,” wrote Sabrina, also from New York. “Promise to pay it forward.”
Taryn said in the Bay Area, young people are used to wide income disparities, even among close friends. In talking about the mutual aid spreadsheet, she does not like words like “support” and “help,” but prefers “solidarity.”
“When young people are hanging out here, some are artists, some are nonprofit workers, some are in the restaurant industry,” she said. “And then you have someone making $200,000 per year,” usually in the tech industry.
“Local folks are acutely aware of this,” she said. “That’s why it took off so well.
“People who have money have got to understand that we are all interconnected,” she said. “Someone I don’t know, who’s a freelance writer, matters.”
One of the donors to the project is Katie Simpson, a 30-year-old UX (user experience) writer at DocuSign. She lives in San Francisco and attends services at The Kitchen, an S.F. indie Jewish community.
Simpson said she had a strategy with her donations: to fund as many outstanding requests as possible, some with relatively small dollar amounts, in order to open room for more. As of Friday there were 400 requests in backlog. Each day, the list order is randomized to cycle which requests show at the top.
Simpson also donated to those whose experience she related to personally.
“Someone said they needed help with diabetes medication,” she said in a phone interview. “My grandmother was a Type-1 diabetic.”
Like other crowdfunding sites, donors are responsible for vetting requests for authenticity. Kóatz and the other moderators delete requests that seem obviously off, or are only half filled out — and said that there had been no “obvious” spam. Requesters are asked to provide contact information. In most cases, donors can call or email before they give.
Simpson realizes why some around her are skeptical.
“Some people in my life are like, ‘What do you mean you’re just giving money to people you don’t know?’” She said it’s not her place to “question someone’s need.” And she trusts people she does not know every day (for example, the bus driver, she said).
“You know what, if someone takes advantage of me …” she paused. “I would rather be trustful than have another X number of dollars in my pocket.”
In a time of widespread uncertainty and anxiety, giving has proven a sort of antidote for some.
For example, Tostado, the social worker, had to cut herself off before putting herself in a financial hole. She says she has given $50 per day, and $300 total.
“Unfortunately I manage my anxiety by helping other people,” she said. “And I’ve had a lot of anxiety the past couple of days.”
Kóatz, who was raised Conservative in Queens, New York but has become drawn to a progressive Orthodox practice in her 20s, said her Yiddishkeit is “not incidental to this moment.” She even wrote a song with her klezmer band about the importance of Jews washing their hands.
“This is how you practice Judaism,” she said of the mutual-aid project. “It’s by doing this.
“We are b’tzelem elohim [in God’s image], and there shouldn’t be divisions and disparities that exist in this society, between us as children of HaShem,” she said.
Kóatz, who is trans and calls herself a leftist and anti-capitalist, believes the problems being caused by the coronavirus crisis are “highlighting problems that already exist.”
And to help solve those problems right now? “The question is,” she said, “what do you have, and what can you do?”
As for Taryn, she thinks she got to the bottom of the lifeboat riddle. Her answer is tied up in what she says she learned about the Jewish experience, historically, having been scarred by disaster, tragedy and hardship.
“When a really intense thing happens,” she said, “everyone needs to get in the lifeboat together.”