A Jewish Family and Children's Services client receiving groceries from JFCS volunteers. (COURTESY JFCS)
A Jewish Family and Children's Services client receiving groceries from JFCS volunteers. (COURTESY JFCS)

JFCS ramps up its services to meet daunting coronavirus challenges

Anita Friedman thought she’d seen it all: wildfires, earthquakes, 9/11 and the brutal 2008 economic recession.

But the longtime executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services had not seen it all — not until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, which she calls “the deepest and most profound crisis we’ve had to deal with in the last generation. This combines both a health crisis with a mental-health crisis with an economic crisis, and it affects everyone.”

Having served the local Jewish community for more than four decades, Friedman is used to responding to disasters.

In normal times, JFCS annually helps tens of thousands of homebound frail elderly, special-needs kids, at-risk teens, hungry families, Holocaust survivors and others.

With the pandemic, JFCS is facing the added burdens of social distancing, forced telecommuting and aiding an already vulnerable population under an even greater threat of falling deathly ill.

Anita Friedman
Anita Friedman

“We’re in the first-responder category,” she said of her staff, which she defined as 1,000 strong, including administrators, social workers and health-care professionals (full-, part-time and independent contractors), plus an additional 2,000 or so volunteers. “We’re working with a huge amount of people who need help under different circumstances. I think it’s going to get worse here before it gets better.”

Friedman believes her staff — especially the social workers in the agency’s Seniors at Home program, who deliver meals, administer medications and provide other services — are prepared.

“Protocols are in place, and we have supplies for now,” she noted. “We had masks and gloves and gowns on hand, and so we had all our systems in place throughout the Bay Area. The combination of being prepared, of know-how, and having supplies, made it easier to respond.”

Though its main offices are in San Francisco, JFCS serves people on the Peninsula and in Marin and Sonoma Counties. There is also a JFCS in the East Bay, but that is a different agency and its acronym stands for Jewish Family and Community Services.

Friedman said some JFCS clients have tested positive for Covid-19, but are still at home. Despite the risk of infection, providers go into the homes to do their jobs.

“People who work for us are very heroic,” she said. “They understand they are saving lives. They are dedicated to taking care of people.”

Beth Berkowitz is a psychologist and director of children’s service for JFCS. She said the pandemic has posed a double-whammy: The kids and teens her staff treats have increased levels of fear and anxiety, and the agency’s social workers are unable to help those kids in person.

She said her staff has created work-arounds to normal face-to-face therapy, such as online support groups, workshop webinars, tele-therapy, writing blogs and other techniques. For details of these services, visit JFCS’ Parents Place.

“It’s been a shift,” Berkowitz said. “As helping professionals, we’re getting used to this new way of life in the same way our clients are, adapting as needed, and thinking outside the box. Our clinicians are conducting therapy sessions with kids virtually, and they’re amazing.”

The need is great, she noted.

“We are seeing a significant increase in anxiety among kids,” Berkowitz continued, “a significant jump in depression among teenagers. You can imagine what this is like for the adolescent world. Kids who weren’t all that anxious before are anxious now. We see a lot of kids with a history of trauma. The symptoms are being exacerbated by this [pandemic].”

Volunteer Valerie Testa delivering groceries to JFCS clients. (DORIT ISRAEL)
Volunteer Valerie Testa delivering groceries to JFCS clients. (DORIT ISRAEL)

She said her clinicians report that more than a few children are experiencing nightmares, some of them featuring zombies, which Berkowitz suspects symbolize the virus.

Friedman acknowledges that parents will need guidance on how to talk to their children about this crisis, and its impact.

“This is a generation of children who’ve never faced this kind of disruption before,” she said, noting previous generations experienced such traumas as the Great Depression, World War II and the Vietnam War. “This is the first time this generation will experience this kind of profound disruption in their lives.”

Because of the critical nature of its work, JFCS regional offices in San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Rafael and Santa Rosa (and its food banks) remain open, and no one has been laid off, though the agency’s four clinics and senior centers for adult day care have been forced to close. Thus, all senior care services are now delivered directly to the home, with volunteers obtaining food and other essentials for homebound seniors. The agency also is offering food vouchers, as well as zero-interest loans and other forms of financial aid.

Friedman pointed out that the crisis means an emergency fundraising drive is underway. In the first two weeks, the agency had raised $3 million of its $5 million target.

“We hope when this is over, it will be our community’s defining and finest hour,” Friedman said. “I found that very moving. It buoys the spirit [to see people] donate without having to make a lot of calls and explain. People understand.”

The normally unflappable Friedman admits she is feeling challenged by the scope of the crisis.

“Mostly I’m feeling strong because everyone around me is strong. This is the time people are tested. Are we able to rise to the occasion and take care of members of our community? Do we have enough strength to rise to the occasion when it affects all? The answer is yes.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.