Jewish Federation bound to our community
November will mark 18 months since I began as the new executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. The number 18 is important. It means something to us; it’s synonymous with the word chai, meaning life. It corresponds to the 18 vertebrae in a person’s spine, the 18 times that our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mentioned together in the Torah, and the 18 times God’s name is mentioned in the Shema.
There is even a connection to food, because for matzah to be kosher for use on Passover, it must be made in a maximum of 18 minutes, as this is the time it takes for dough to rise and that is why you might see the words “18 minutes” printed on the box.
In normal years, there would be something to celebrate, but of course, things feel different this year. In the wake of COVID-19, celebrations have given way to opportunities for the Jewish Federation and the community. An opportunity to reflect. A chance to consider. We tally our successes. We judge our efforts. We plan for tomorrow. We do more.
We now understand how quickly and drastically our world can change. How we connect, how we communicate, and how we congregate — all were redefined in an instant, and the Federation answered the call. We led our community response to the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic and demonstrated our strength.
In response to the community needs, we offered more services and funding than ever before. Federation delivered 3,000 masks to the most vulnerable — seniors and staff in nursing homes and assisted living facilities — and more masks are on the way. With more people out of work, we are helping more people pay their rent and utilities.
Through Operation Cool Down, we gave out dozens of air conditioners to keep families healthy in hot weather. Our JFEC Food Pantry remained a beacon for the community. It never closed and has been operating in overdrive. For every 12 people we were feeding last year, we are now feeding 60; we have given out over 12,000 meals to hungry families.
To fight loneliness and depression, we increased our senior activities and created a call program, through which seniors receive a telephone call twice weekly — just to connect.
In addition to our services to the entire local community, we continued to enrich local Jewish life. We brought Jewish education to our children and young adults. In high schools (over Zoom), we combatted antisemitism, hate and Holocaust denial on a personal level through Encountering Survivors, a program that offers students a face-to-face experience with children of Holocaust survivors. And, our Encountering Differences program is hosting an adult series of provocative webinars on race and religion in our region.
We launched PJ Library in the middle of the pandemic. Children are receiving free books to strengthen Jewish identity and families are connecting to online events like making challah in a bag and making Mitzvah Masks. We began with 37 families and have grown to 90. We are connecting with our young people more than ever with new virtual programs in Hillel, Hebrew High and BBYO and they are actively promoting Voice Your Vote effort to other young people.
While COVID-19 curtailed our international travel and sent our young Israeli Emissaries home, we offered a new way to embrace Israel with the launch of the Israel Desk. Open to the community, Zoomers can now learn about Israel from their living room, through cultural programs about food, music, films and even virtual missions to Israel.
The power of Tzedakah (the Jewish word for charity) and the practice of Tikkun Olam, (the Jewish term for repair the world), have never been more vibrant at the Jewish Federation. We are growing and we are working harder than ever before. We do more because the character of our greater New London community is determined by how we care for one another.
We are bound up with one another. We know that in a world that feels so unpredictable right now, it could be any one of us who needs the compassion and support of a caring community. So, we say, L’Chaim — to life!
Carin Savel is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.