The Atlantic Canadian Jewish community might be small, but during the COVID-19 isolations and quarantines, it has drawn close to ensure the comfort of its people.
“We started a phone support program in Halifax (and followed up in the rest of the region) after calls were received from ex-pat Nova Scotians whose senior parents, relatives and friends live here,” said Naomi Rosenfeld, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC). “They were concerned of isolation because of the need to stay home because of their age and/or health vulnerability.
“They asked ‘can anyone do errands for my folks, even check on them, visit them, to be sure they’re OK, while they’re isolated,’” she said.
AJC leaders in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland-Labrador made similar initiatives.
“We set up a volunteer telephone committee, eventually about 85 wonderful people, and started contacting almost everyone in the community, not just seniors, but everyone,” Rosenfeld said.
Lea Wagner had a very astute 94-year old man on her list who still lives alone, in his own home.
He told her he is fine for now, walks to do his own grocery shopping at a nearby supermarket, but would welcome another call which Wagner has provided.
“I’m only living in Halifax six months a year now,” said Wagner, who made her volunteer calls from New York. “This keeps me in touch. And it makes me feel good keeping someone company for a bit. My recipients were happy someone was reaching out to them.”
Volunteers were on call to arrange grocery shopping or other errands. As the threat of the virus intensified, and Nova Scotia health officials urged isolation and even quarantine, the need for the calling program became more important.
While most people reported no immediate needs, the appreciation was evident.
Devorah Gillard was excited to make calls. “I talked to five families and I have to say this has been one of the most rewarding and uplifting things I have ever done. I get off the phone feeling energized and so encouraged. People’s responses have been just joyous and so appreciative. I feel like I am building new relationships. It took so little time to have gained so much joy.”
The AJC’s Rosenfeld added, “I’ve made some calls and feel so wonderful talking with these people. I wish I had more time to make more calls. I’m learning a lot more about the community by connecting one-on-one.”
In the smaller communities throughout the region, callers contacted people they’ve known their entire lives.
“It’s easier for them to make the support calls than it might be in Halifax where many volunteers are making cold calls,” Rosenfeld said.
One 85-year-old woman in Halifax had a call from a woman in her 20s. They hit it off so well that the younger woman has called almost every day since. The older lady refers to her as a ”second daughter.”
One Halifax man said he had no concerns other than, “there’s no hockey for me to watch.”
As Pesach nears, and only two major grocery stores in Halifax carry Passover products, some of those isolated are asking for help shopping. Volunteers rush to their aid, knowing stores might run short, but, in this last week, the supply seems ample.
Events honoring Yom ha-Shoah and celebrating Yom ha-Atzmaut have been scrubbed, although the latter will become a virtual program. Other virtual programs were planned to keep the community engaged and connected during the time of isolation
Rosenfeld was proud that AJC transitioned certain planned programs to an at-home model, such as creation of seder plates by children. Emergency grocery funds were dispersed to support Atlantic Canadians who regularly received the service from AJC.
“There was no negative reaction (to cancellations) as people fully understood,” she said. “No one felt we made the wrong decision but it was a shame after much planning had gone into many of them.”