As the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc in our professional and personal lives, many turned inwards hoping to keep financially afloat, healthy and sane. However, many Jewish organizations did the opposite, by funding and supporting initiatives in Israel and around the world, being a lifeline to Jews and others in distress. The ROI Community was one example.
ROI, an initiative of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies – Israel, is a global network of the next generation of Jewish leaders, in their 20s and 30s, who are transforming Jewish life and fostering positive social change for Israel, the Jewish people and the world.
ROI director, Beri Rozenberg, tells The Jerusalem Report, “COVID is a wicked problem (one that doesn’t have a single, straightforward cause or solution) that affects everyone. In this sense, it was important for ROI to create a tool for our members to begin to address this specific issue—one that perhaps can’t be solved, but whose effects can be mitigated through creative, collaborative approaches.
“When COVID began, we knew that ROIers would be looking for ways to make a difference in their communities. We believed that empowering ROIers with small amounts of funding could help get direct support and innovative initiatives to people in need, quickly and creatively.
“Thanks to some advance contingency planning, we were able to roll out a micro-funding opportunity for ROIers based on our year-round systems and protocols, adapted to the current realities caused by COVID: Coronavirus Response Micro Grants. Each member who has received this grant has addressed a need they’ve identified, thanks to their unique perspective on the ground.”
Rozenberg concludes, “We are so proud of our members for stepping up and finding ways – big and small – to help those most affected by the current situation. We have roughly 1,600 ROI Community members, but their actions impact thousands – if not millions – more. That ripple effect of good is something that gives me hope despite the darkness.”
The Jerusalem Report spoke to four ROIers who, with a small financial boost from ROI and the encouragement of a global network of likeminded peers, were able to offer support to Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike during these difficult COVID times.
Klaudia Klimek grew up in Krakow, Poland and is the president of the Krakow department of the Social Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ); vice-president of Social Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ); and founder of the Jewrnalism Foundation.
“Having grown up and loved Krakow so much, I couldn’t just stand by and watch my community – especially the elderly – suffer in silence,” Klimek says.
As most members of the Krakow community were elderly, many did not use a computer or and were not able to run Zoom. Klimek was afraid that the community would become divided, as not everyone would be able to participate.
Later she used channels like Facebook and YouTube live streaming, comments on Facebook, posting photos and calling people, for who those who couldn’t use Zoom.
Klimek organized three online Shabbat dinners, two were funded by ROI and one by the Jewish Community in Krakow, led by Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum, a Polish Jew, who was actually living in London. “The Friday night community meals are so important – the online meals I arranged were such a success. It was so sweet – we all dressed up in our best clothes and jewelry. We also had an online seder on Pesach that was so moving. “
As well as the Shabbat meals, Klimek ran a daily Zoom lecture program at 5 p.m. “The aim wasn’t to educate but to connect and reduce the feeling of loneliness and depression. People came together online - they chatted, shared their worries, ate their dinner and even had a wine-tasting event!”
Klimek also ran online exercise classes like yoga, mindfulness sessions and activities with the 2017 Polish fitness champion, Malgorzata Galkowska.
Another ROIer, Yonatan Blumenfeld, a freelance artist and musician, based in Jerusalem, initiated a fascinating project he called “Im L’Savtah Hayu N’Ganim” - literally meaning, “If grandmother had musicians” and brought music and entertainment into the lives of the elderly and housebound. Their first performance was in May 2020, and already by June they were inundated with phone calls.
“COVID brought many new problems into our daily reality, and increased preexisting ones such as loneliness amongst the elderly. In addition, during the first lockdown there was a big discussion about who is vital to our society and who isn’t. The culture industry was thrown under the bus - still now the government hasn’t provided a solution,” says Blumenfeld.
“We (Anna Barst and I) wanted to act in a way that would help deal with the problems caused by our new COVID reality and would also remind Israeli society how important art and culture are. We turned to ROI for financial support and my network of ROIers provided logistical aid. I received some advice from some friends at ROI, such as Avraham Hayon.
“We started facilitating live music shows in front of entrances, windows, and terraces of retirement homes and geriatric departments to reduce the isolation of the elderly.
“Each show was exciting and emotional – we met people who had not received visits for weeks and months, even from their families. After a while we paid the performers. We were delighted to be able to create a network of unemployed artists, who brought joy to every corner of Israel,” Blumenfeld concludes.
ROIer Analucía Lopezrevoredo ran her COVID project remotely from her apartment in Tel Aviv. “I saw two related problems - a huge shortage of masks and huge unemployment - it caused me such pain to see their situation.”
Managing this program was an opportunity for Lopezrevoredo to stay connected with various members of her community and their specific needs. “The pandemic hurt an ecosystem. When thinking of ways in which to help, it was important to me that we maximize opportunities and give immigrants who are often disconnected from mainstream economic and social life the opportunity to be seen as vital to the functioning of society via dignified work,” Lopezrevoredo says.
“Together with my sister who is a school counsellor, we got things going and made a real difference. Our system both helped the local population protect themselves from COVID and the local economies. We created a system where we would supply face masks and in so doing create employment opportunities.
“My professional background was in social work and I had experience in working with immigrant communities in the US, so I applied my professional training and experience to helping communities in South California – in the larger Los Angeles Metropolitan area.
“ROI made this experience possible. They believed in my vision and without much hesitation said ‘make it happen.’ I wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without their support and encouragement,” Lopezrevoredo concludes.
ROIer Elisa Trotta Gamus had been working in Argentina with Venezuelan immigrants for years - in 2019 she was even called the ambassador of Venezuela in Argentina! However, given the government change in Argentina, she was no longer recognized as such. Nonetheless, being a leader for the Venezuelan community, she continues working through social actions to help all the Venezuelans in Argentina.
Gamus’ project was developed in Buenos Aires City. They were able to collect 2.5 tons of products in total and gather together 20 volunteers, including ROIers, family and friends and managed to put together 204 kits in 6 hours. The basic products, delivery of kits and logistics tasks were financed by ROI.
Due to COVID, she received hundreds of requests for social aid. Together with her friend Jenny Zitser, a Venezuelan-Israeli doctor, she sought organizations, partners in the field, which help vulnerable people.
Gamus says, “Given the world-wide crisis that resulted from COVID, it made sense to anticipate a rise in the number of people living in vulnerable conditions, worsening the complex situation that was already striking multiple families, even before social distancing restrictions were put into place. This was the case for thousands of Venezuelan immigrants living in Argentina.
“Running this project was very satisfying – the amount of people who wanted to help and get involved was really impressive. On the other hand, knowing that there are still so many needing our support because of COVID and the social distancing restrictions was frustrating. That’s why we called this initiative “Saving one life is like saving the whole world” as the Talmud teaches us – to remember that even if we can’t change everything, contributing what we can, means the world for some,” Gamus concludes.
Thanks to ROI they were able to deliver basic products to more than 200 Venezuelan families in need. After evaluating all the aid requests they received from Venezuelans living in Argentina, they organized them according to the families in most need.
Through the Coronavirus Response Micro Grants program, ROI has helped its members run projects that have been invaluable in helping communities in Israel and throughout the world cope with COVID. Our only hope is that as more and more people around the world are vaccinated, the pandemic will slow down and these types of projects will be needed less.