During the coronavirus crisis, most media attention has focused on the benefits social distancing has had on preventing the spread of the virus. However, this policy of isolation has had an unintended and negative impact on the mental wellness of the elderly population, many of whom live alone and depend on others for assistance. Fortunately, there is an organization in Israel – the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) – that is addressing both the physical and the emotional needs of elderly Israelis living in isolation during this challenging and unprecedented time.“When the corona crisis started,” says Racheli Muler, field project manager with the Fellowship, “we realized that we needed to get in touch with the people whom we assist, to help them with their loneliness.” At a time when North American Jewish organizations must focus their attention to the challenges facing their own communities, the Fellowship was able to step in and rise to the challenge. With its continuing focus on Israel, the Fellowship succeeded in adding another 800 volunteers above its existing roster of 850 who are already working with over 15,000 elderly citizens. “This is a very difficult time for me,” says 86-year-old Loti Korituru. “A caregiver usually comes three times a week. Because of the crisis she can’t come, and I’m all alone.”
Social distancing may be a necessary step that protects people by isolating them to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but if the anti-quarantine protests erupting around the globe are any indication, isolation is no laughing matter. This is especially true for those in Israel with vivid memories of concentration camps and pogroms. For them, the kind of anxiety and fear isolation creates is, tragically, not new. That is why, especially during these difficult times, the support provided them from the partnership between Christians and Jews has become more vital than ever. Perhaps ironic for a pandemic, for Israel’s elderly, physical health may be the lesser fear. Israel’s Health Ministry recently exceeded its daily testing target of 10,000 and the nation has maintained a death rate lower than the global average. Healthcare workers are clearly doing a commendable job in treating the physical ailments of coronavirus.Though they are not getting headlines, some people are volunteering their time to treat the other effects of coronavirus, like anxiety and loneliness. Zvi Ortenberg, 83, is a Holocaust survivor who lives on Kibbutz Tel Katzir in northern Israel, south of the Sea of Galilee. Each month, Ortenberg receives a list of elderly people to contact in Israel’s northern towns, ranging from Afula, Migdal Ha’emek, Tiberias, and Bet She’an. “I ask them how they are feeling, what’s bothering them, and I try to give them the feeling that we are not forgetting them. If you can help people with a phone call, to show that you are interested in them, it is like giving them oxygen.”Ortenberg spends several hours each day on the phone speaking to the elderly. “It's a good thing to do,” he says. “These days, if a person can volunteer to help others, not only does the other person benefit, but the one helping benefits no less.” He adds that anyone who is healthy and has the time to help others should do so.Hundreds of others like Zvi throughout Israel are using their time in quarantine to help the elderly cope with the situation. Tamara Katz, 79, made aliyah from the Former Soviet Union thirty years ago. She lives in Ma’alot and has been volunteering during the past year. She speaks Russian fluently, and calls elderly Russian olim in Safed, Karmiel and Ashdod each week. She enjoys making her calls every day and says that people feel less lonely after speaking with her. “I ask them questions from the printed questionnaire that I received, and after that I ask them where they are living.” She reports that despite the situation, the people with whom she speaks are optimistic.Not every conversation is as easy. Twenty-five-year-old volunteer Ziva Maximov says she sometimes finishes her calls with tears in her eyes. “The situation is difficult for everyone, but it is especially difficult for the elderly who suddenly find themselves completely isolated. I always try to convey optimism, raise their spirits, and make them laugh, but it is not easy to hear about their situation.”Ziva, who operates a youth center in Ofakim, has made more than 200 calls to seniors in the southern region. “I can have conversations in Hebrew and I also speak Russian, which enables me to talk to elderly Russian speakers.” She keeps in touch with some on a daily basis. “One woman with whom I spoke is very interesting and lively, with children and grandchildren who would visit her regularly before the corona outbreak,” she reports. “Once the virus spread, the visits stopped, and she became very lonely. We had a long conversation. She was also interested in me, and since the first conversation, we keep in touch,” she says.College students, recently laid-off workers, and retirees are among those joining the fight against the coronavirus crisis in Israel, armed with only a phone and special training from The Fellowship. “Each volunteer is provided with a list of items to discuss and receives support from coordinators after the calls are completed,” says Muler.These multilingual volunteers (covering a wide range of Israeli communities including Russian, Amharic, Spanish, French, Georgian, and Arabic) have come to the fore, making calls, speaking to senior members of society who are isolated and ensuring that they are not alone. They are among Israel’s unsung heroes.