Volunteers from Jewish Family and Children's Services get ready to deliver groceries. (Photo/Courtesy JFCS)
Volunteers from Jewish Family and Children's Services get ready to deliver groceries. (Photo/Courtesy JFCS)

From groceries to phone banking, volunteers step up during coronavirus outbreak

Throughout the Bay Area, synagogues and Jewish agencies have discovered their secret power: volunteers.

From running phone banks to buying and delivering groceries, volunteers are supplementing staff efforts to help mitigate the isolation for thousands of homebound elderly and sick members during the pandemic.

“Tomorrow at noon, 1,000 pounds of produce are arriving at a volunteer’s house,” said Kathryn Winogura, director of volunteer services at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. She sounds a little astounded herself as she says it.

Food delivery is one way local Jewish organizations and synagogues are mustering volunteers to help; another is asking for people to make phone calls — offering a friendly voice can make a huge difference for anyone feeling alone.

“One thing that is so cool is the wave of all the great people that come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Give me something to do!’” Winogura said.

At San Francisco-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, about 100 volunteers have been trained to deliver from the organization’s food pantry and to make calls to some 500 seniors.

“The response is beyond words,” said Traci Dobronravova, director of the JFCS senior care program. “This is how much people in the community have been wanting to give back.”

While organizations are finding that the outpourings of support sometimes exceed the immediate need, they are continuing to encourage people to step up. “As needs change, there will be new opportunities,” Dobronravova said.

Synagogues are also doing their part to keep vulnerable members well-stocked with food and connected to the Jewish community.

Donated produce arrives to be delivered by Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay volunteers. (COURTESY JFCS EAST BAY)
Donated produce arrives to be delivered by Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay volunteers. (COURTESY JFCS EAST BAY)

“I’d say that we made, in these two [past] Shabbatot, about 340 calls among us,” said Keren Smith, director of membership at Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah.

About 25 volunteers and staff first called the older members, then extended the calls to the whole congregation to check in. The calls have been gratefully received, Smith said.

“People I called actually would spend 15 to 20 minutes, have real conversations,” she said.

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills also has been staying in touch with members, “just to check in and see how people are doing, see how people’s sanity is,” said Rabbi Heath Watenmaker. Online forms have been set up so people can either request or offer assistance with grocery shopping and other tasks. The number of volunteers has exceeded the need here as elsewhere.

There’s been about a dozen requests for assistance, “but we’re had about 30 people volunteer,” he said.

Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco has a phone bank staffed with volunteers and is also preparing seder supplies to be delivered for Passover — at the recommended social distance.

“We’ll be dropping them off at people’s doors and then leaving,” said Debra Braun, board president.

That’s also the protocol at JFCS East Bay. It’s been a “big pivot” to help people remotely and maintain the rules of no-contact social distancing, Winogura said. Volunteers who buy groceries are delivering them at the doorstep and wiping down bag handles. But it doesn’t mean all human contact has been abandoned, Winogura said.

“I’m getting reports back of people saying, ‘Yeah! We stood there and talked!’” she said.

She estimated about 35 people needed grocery deliveries, including elderly Holocaust survivors and refugee families who have no transportation. About 25 volunteers offered to help. It’s not a small commitment.

“All these people who are out shopping are doing it on their own bill,” she said.

Volunteers like Mark Rabinovitz are stocking up for seniors. (COURTESY RABINOVITZ)
Volunteers like Mark Rabinovitz are stocking up for seniors. (COURTESY RABINOVITZ)

That’s the case for Mark Rabinovitz, who has been shopping and dropping off groceries on behalf of the agency. The longtime volunteer was ready to go from the start.

“Off I went to Trader Joe’s, with a page full of stuff!” said the Walnut Creek resident, who delivered groceries to an Afghani family who had just arrived to the area.

“It was a personal donation of time and money,” he said.

Chabad of Tri-Valley, too, has found plenty of people eager to help. The call for volunteers was so successful, in fact, that Rabbi Raleigh Resnick said there were more helpers than needed in the moment. He found that out firsthand when he made a phone call last week to an elderly man.

“Rabbi, you’re the fourth phone call I got to say Shabbat Shalom!” Resnick recounted the man saying.

It’s just a sign of how the community is sticking together, community leaders agree. “Everyone knows it’s times like these that literally bring out the best,” Resnick said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.