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Idle Hands Become Helping Hands Amid the Outbreak
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Idle Hands Become Helping Hands Amid the Outbreak

Volunteers rush to help the homebound, and to fight their own feelings of isolation.

Students volunteering with Met Council in Murray Hill.
Courtesy of Rabbi Joe Wolfson
Students volunteering with Met Council in Murray Hill. Courtesy of Rabbi Joe Wolfson

According to her last count, Atara Gorsetman is an administrator of 11 different WhatsApp groups related to the coronavirus. It started earlier this month, with a group to help those from her Riverdale synagogue who were quarantined, but quickly grew from there.

Within a few weeks, that original WhatsApp group had spun off to include one for volunteers willing to pick up groceries or medication for the quarantined or homebound, another for volunteers to call seniors who were isolated at home, and yet another offering creative ideas for parents with young children who were home from school and day care.

“It’s just beautiful,” said Gorsetman, who works as a school nurse at the Shefa School. “People cannot jump in fast enough to help.”

As New York City hunkers down — by Gov. Cuomo’s orders, as of Sunday night — rabbis, lay leaders and regular people are stepping up to do good and help those in need in their communities. Whether it’s running errands for those at the greatest risk of contracting the virus, checking in on those in need of human interaction while remaining physically isolated, or collecting food for the hungry, helpers are emerging in Jewish communities all over the city.

“It’s about agency, it’s about giving people a sense that they can do something in this moment,” said Rabbi Joe Wolfson, who serves as the OU-JLIC rabbi at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. “It really helps to have something productive to do.”

With college students attending classes in virtual classrooms and many headed home for the rest of the semester, Rabbi Wolfson knew he needed to do something to engage his community from afar. He started a Google Form for students to volunteer in whatever capacity they could. The options included actions that could be taken from home, like writing letters or making calls to isolated seniors, and opportunities to volunteer in person with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which serves poor New Yorkers, unloading and packaging food for the needy. Four hundred people have signed up to make calls or write letters, from all over the world. They have volunteered from Los Angeles, New York, Teaneck, Binghamton, N.Y., Oaxaca, Atlanta, Chicago, Palo Alto, Calif., Fairfax, Va., Sao Paulo and Herzliyah.

Since he started the effort last Wednesday, 45 people have volunteered directly with the Met Council after being connected through Rabbi Wolfson’s organizing.

Of course, with these in-person interactions, there is always a risk of spreading the virus further. While Rabbi Wolfson said he had received some pushback for organizing in-person volunteering, he insisted it was necessary. “There isn’t actually any client interaction, it’s just taking things off the lorries, putting them on the shelves, putting them together with what the individual people are going to need,” said Rabbi Wolfson, who grew up in London. “But there are people who need to eat and if people are healthy, then we have to do it.”

NYC.gov, the city’s official website, offers guidance for volunteers, saying those who are ill or are over age 50 should not volunteer in person, and others should take health precautions like washing hands, monitoring their health and keeping at least six feet away from others.

Coming from the Upper West Side, Rabbi Avram Mlotek delivered several bags of canned goods to a food pantry in Westchester after asking neighbors and community members to drop off food on his family’s stoop. He said the people at the food pantry were happy to receive the donation but were in need of far more. Rabbi Mlotek, who runs Base Hillel Manhattan, a community for young Jews in their 20s and 30s, plans to organize more donations of money and food.

“I’m hopeful that as Pesach comes up, we can activate the community in an even more intense way to donate their chametz to these shelters,” said Rabbi Mlotek. Passover begins on April 8.

The rabbi and his wife, Yael Kornfeld, a social work supervisor at DOROT, an organization that works with seniors in New York City, are also pairing up Base community members with elderly people who are increasingly isolated due to the large number of coronavirus cases in New York City. “A lot of seniors are already isolated,” said Kornfeld. “Regular, small interactions that are going to be cut out for a while are going to have a huge impact on them, so just having human contact is so important.”

For both the volunteers making the calls and those picking up on the other end, the phone calls are mutually beneficial. “We’ve got plenty of 20s and 30s who are living independently who are also isolated,” said Rabbi Mlotek.

Volunteers are also launching efforts on their own. Yale junior Liam Elkind, whose family belongs to Manhattan’s Steven Wise Free Synagogue, along with some friends organized “Invisible Hands,” a network that delivers groceries and medicine to elderly and vulnerable New Yorkers. It counted 5,000 volunteers just a week after its founding. Their efforts “remind me that we’re able to come together when the world feels like it’s pulling us apart,” Elkind told Vanity Fair. “That’s the only way we pull through this, by pulling together.”

“We can connect with people around the world but we need to make sure that we take care of those that live across the street or next door to us,” agreed Gorsetman. “This model of caring for others in our community is just the beginning.”

Gorsetman says she has about 50 to 60 dependable volunteers who have been ready to help with the needs of the Riverdale community. She makes sure to keep requests private so that people are not embarrassed to ask for help. “Most people aren’t askers in this way but our world is changing,” she said.

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