JReady: Jewish Agency program helping communities amid COVID and beyond

Challenges to Jewish communities will continue even after the pandemic has ceased.

Jewish Agency returning shlichim participate in a JReady emergency  preparedness course, listening to a lecture by an IDF colonel (res.) who  established a COVID-19 war room. (photo credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)
Jewish Agency returning shlichim participate in a JReady emergency preparedness course, listening to a lecture by an IDF colonel (res.) who established a COVID-19 war room.
‘All Jews are responsible for one another.” In a typical year, such a sentence might sound a bit trite and overused. But after a year of living through a pandemic, these words ring truer than ever for Jewish communities around the world. For the first time in decades, Jewish communities everywhere have been confronted with a variety of challenges – medical, financial, and organizational – for which no one was prepared or could ever expect.
In an effort to deal both with the current crisis and plan for future emergencies, The Jewish Agency for Israel has embarked on an ambitious project called JReady. Officially launched this past November, JReady is the outgrowth of The Jewish Agency’s support for global communities during the initial stages of the pandemic. Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and CEO Amira Ahronoviz decided to establish JReady in response to the devastation the pandemic has caused in global Jewish communities.
“This initiative embodies the Jewish value of mutual responsibility, sharing the know-how acquired in Israel and global communities for the benefit of us all,” said Ahronoviz. “JReady is another layer of the global network that The Jewish Agency is building to strengthen ties between Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.”
In the words of Ayelet Nahmias Verbin, chairperson of JReady’s public and professional committees, “JReady is the crisis and resilience network for Jewish communities around the world.” For Verbin, a former member of Knesset who dealt with issues of global Jewry, assisting Jewish communities comes naturally.
The Jewish Agency developed JReady in collaboration with a group of volunteer experts in crisis management and emergency response who have been assisting Israel in dealing with COVID-19. A crack team of experts was assembled, including prominent figures such as Haim Bibas, Mayor of Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut who also serves as head of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, and the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Prof. Eli Waxman, who headed Israel’s National Security Council’s Committee on Combating the Pandemic. Together with Jewish Agency staff, the team began to develop a wealth of online and offline resources for Jewish communities – both large and small – around the world.
The JReady site (jready.org) was launched in November, thanks to special COVID-related allocations from the Jewish Federation of Minneapolis and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Its digital platform of resources, including a detailed listing of best practices, dedicated training courses, a chat forum featuring experts from Israel and around the world, and access to advanced research and technologies, such as the Haggai App – an Israeli app for food distribution to those in need, has already proved itself in communities around the world.
The Jewish community of Athens has had a longstanding relationship with The Jewish Agency. Taly Mair, director of the community, says that when the pandemic hit Athens, Agency staff informed her about JReady, after reading the community newsletter describing their difficulties in dealing with the pandemic. “We saw that there was a lot of useful information for us,” says Mair. “We realized that we are not alone. It is essential when you are in a crisis situation to know that others are there for you, and there are people who went through this already and are a step ahead of you.”
Approximately 3,000 Jews live in Athens, says Mair, and like many communities, it has had to help its elderly members by providing food and other assistance. Through the help supplied by JReady, the community is now utilizing Tribu, an Israeli app donated by founder Michaela Berko, that helps coordinate and connect people in volunteer situations, thus streamlining the process. “We are proud to be the first community outside Israel that will be using the Tribu app,” she says. Mair adds that the app is being modified for use in Greek and will be used by volunteers in the organization to assist fellow members of the Jewish community in managing volunteers to coordinate medicine deliveries, make supermarket purchases for the elderly, and conduct a variety of other volunteer activities for the Jewish community. She notes that JReady not only provides resources from which her community can benefit but also enables her to share her experiences and successful practices that she has utilized that can be adapted for use in other communities.
Jarred Abelson, head of finance and group services at the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa, says he was contacted by the Jewish Agency after the pandemic struck, offering him the opportunity to participate in an 11-week training program for community leaders in times of crisis. The program, which is conducted in partnership with the Tel Aviv University Department for Crisis Management, consists of weekly three-hour Zoom classes given by Israeli academic professionals on subjects such as community decision-making and crisis management, family and community emergency plans, risk communications, assisting vulnerable and unique populations, and mental health. “The course has given us a framework,” says Abelson, “to say ‘this is the step-by-step process of how you deal with a crisis.’”
Abelson says that participants in the training program have come from all denominations and groups in the South African Jewish community, and he adds that the JReady program has engendered a great deal of cooperation and understanding between different groups. “We have made so many connections with fellow sister organizations with whom we never engaged in the past. We all brainstorm about what we are doing – what is working in Johannesburg, what we are doing that is working in Durban, and what are they saying in Israel. There has been a lot of interagency cooperation between people in Israel and South Africa. It’s just wonderful.” Abelson adds that there is now a WhatsApp group between people in the different organizations, which speeds up communication and the problem-solving process.
Abelson points out that unlike many other catastrophic world events, when an event occurs and is immediately followed by a recovery, the pandemic has become a chronic crisis. “In this situation, we have been sitting in lockdown for nearly a year. No one could ever have planned for it.” He recounts a recent session in which participants learned relaxation techniques designed to help them cope with the current situation by learning how to breathe in a relaxed manner. While participants scoffed at the beginning, “by the end, everyone was calm and mellow.”
Both Abelson and Mair say that they expect to use JReady’s resources in the future for other crisis-level events that may confront their communities. Verbin explains that JReady can become a hub for an innovative relationship with Jewish communities worldwide and can help communities communicate and support each other on a variety of issues. “For example, the Jewish community in Australia is concerned about wildfires. We have assisted, by making a connection with the California Jewish community that has experienced wildfires every year and assembling names of experts that can share their experience in how to face these challenges.” Verbin adds that while Israel can offer a great deal in resilience in times of crisis, eventually, she expects that assistance will be provided by experts from around the world as well as from communities themselves.
Verbin adds that other types of challenges to Jewish communities will continue even after the pandemic has ceased. “I do think that COVID-19 is not the only challenge that we will be facing. Wildfires are just one example. We are all concerned about antisemitic attacks, and the many other local and global crises that occur. COVID-19 is a global challenge, but each community has its own internal challenges when it comes to their specific needs.”
JReady is a particularly well-suited solution for smaller communities, says Verbin. “We are especially concerned about smaller Jewish communities around the world who have fewer resources available. We want them to know that they now have a digital and technological support system at their disposal.” She points out that through offline consultations, specific solutions can be tailored and adjusted for various communities. “We know that there are small Jewish communities with scarce resources where JReady can make a significant impact. We want them to know that someone has their back.”
Verbin says that the web analytics about visits to the JReady website – jready.org – are revealing. “People engage with the website, and they read information, and they linger. There is a craving for information that is located in one place and a need to connect with us for questions and answers. I think it can make a very big difference.”
The Jewish Agency has brought in additional partners to help build JReady, including the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod, the National Emergency Authority at the Ministry of Defense, the IDF Home Front Command, and civil society organizations. “It’s important to emphasize,” adds Verbin, “that we are working with a number of Israeli organizations that deal with trauma, and recently JReady has initiated collaboration with different communities through the Foreign Ministry.”
“’All Jews are responsible for one another’ is a sentence that The Jewish Agency is really turning into reality,” says Mair. “They realize it, and it is obvious with JReady as well as with everything else they are doing for Jews around the world.” ■
This article was written in cooperation with The Jewish Agency for Israel.