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Aid Groups Gear for Next Battle Against Covid-19
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Aid Groups Gear for Next Battle Against Covid-19

Panelists at a US-Israel conference on the humanitarian response discuss pivoting from 'crisis' mode to sustainable relief.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Latet volunteers pack Rosh Hashanah food boxes for impoverished families affected by the pandemic at the organization's logistics center in the Har Tuv industrial area in Beit Shemesh. (https://www.latet.org.il/)
Latet volunteers pack Rosh Hashanah food boxes for impoverished families affected by the pandemic at the organization's logistics center in the Har Tuv industrial area in Beit Shemesh. (https://www.latet.org.il/)

Eran Weintrob, the executive director of Latet, an Israeli humanitarian aid organization, said his experience of war had prepared him when Covid-19 cases first spiked in Israel earlier this year.

“We have a protocol with specific procedures in place when we declare emergency mode,” he said, speaking on the first virtual U.S.-Israel Conference on the Humanitarian Response to Covid-19.

Now, with winter coming here and Israel on the brink of a second national lockdown, aid groups have to continue to wage the battle. 

“When the [Israeli] government first responded to the outbreak, they tried to bypass civil societies and NGOs,” said Weintrob. But now, in the midst of a second Covid-19 wave and on the brink of a second national lockdown, Weintrob said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with him and his team at Latet to find out “what are the needs for Rosh Hashanah.”

Latet, an Israeli humanitarian aid organization, responded to Covid-19 crisis with care packages for affected Israelis. (https://www.latet.org.il/)

Weintrob spoke alongside national experts on the humanitarian crisis caused by Covid-19 during the first of three online panels during the Sept. 10 conference; his fellow panelists included Alex Roth-Kahn, managing director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Department; Bill Shore, executive chair of Share Our Strength, and Jeff Swartz, a social change investor and chairman of American Friends of Latet.

“We were overwhelmed with need and continue to be overwhelmed with need,” said Roth-Kahn, who spoke about UJA-Federation’s effort to “fund coalitions” to catalyze an immediate response to the Covid-19 crisis in March. One example: Her team worked with New York City’s department of education to provide kosher food options to students across the city (currently, kosher food options are available for students and their families at six different locations in Brooklyn and Queens, said Roth-Kahn). A similar program was set up to provide quality kosher food to the aging when they were unable to leave their homes.

“We were invited by the mayor’s office to sit at the funding table,” said Roth-Kahn. “We had a data-driven process to get that food out using city distribution channels that work best.”

Shore, whose organization is working to end childhood hunger in the United States, quoted “The Art of War,” the ancient Chinese military treatise, to describe tactics his organization used to navigate the crisis: “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”

“Our stakeholders understood the need to be nimble,” said Shore, who spoke about how his organization pivoted from distributing food via public schools to other methods. “Congress changed the laws immediately so meals could be distributed in different ways,” said Shore, referring to the the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March. “Incredible agility” was key to an effective response, he said.

In both America and Israel, the Covid-19 crisis brought families out of the woodwork who had never before received government aid, according to the panelists.

“Thirty percent of families were approaching us for the first time,” said Weintrob, describing the response to the first Covid-19 outbreak in Israel. “People from the middle class can deteriorate into deep poverty” within a matter of months, he said.

Now, with a second wave spiking in Israel and the American Jewish community holding its breath before the High Holiday season, the key to a continued response is “pivoting from crisis mode to recovery mode,” said Roth-Kahn.

“Our community is still in a state of distress but now, it’s about recovery and long-term solutions people need to become self-sufficient.” In the states, UJA-Federation is shifting its approach from “making food possible in every way we could imagine,” to providing services, such as employment services, financial services, and eviction prevention services to the gird the community for the long haul.

“Now is the time to empower people,” said Roth-Kahn.

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