Jewish Vocational Services helped Monica Rivera get a job right as the pandemic began. (Photo/Courtesy JVS)
Jewish Vocational Services helped Monica Rivera get a job right as the pandemic began. (Photo/Courtesy JVS)

Our Pandemic Year: Change is here to stay, say heads of local Jewish agencies

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Part Five of OUR PANDEMIC YEAR, a week-long series examining how the Covid pandemic has changed our local Jewish world.

One year ago, when the pandemic began shutting down many parts of daily life, Jewish Vocational Service felt the effects almost immediately.

A nonprofit in San Francisco that helps train and prepare individuals seeking employment, JVS suddenly had a rush of job-seekers coming to the agency as companies across the Bay Area made round after round of layoffs.

JVS tried to shift its services as best it could. In late March 2020, it hosted a virtual training session on how to interview for a job over Zoom. It was so popular, CEO Lisa Countryman-Quiroz said, it crashed JVS’ website.

Lisa Countryman-Quiroz
Lisa Countryman-Quiroz

But there was a silver lining. The sudden shift to online training was a big help for clients living on the outskirts of the Bay Area, said Countryman-Quiroz. Before the pandemic, some would drive for hours to attend JVS job training sessions, she said, something that took a toll on people.

“This new option is really significant,” said Countryman-Quiroz, who took over as CEO at JVS a scant two months before the pandemic hit, but had been with the agency since 2013.

The JVS story is not unlike that of other Jewish organizations in the region. The six leaders of Bay Area Jewish agencies who were interviewed for this article described a situation in which their day-to-day operations — such as figuring out how to shift work to a virtual setting, or finding new and innovative ways to bring in revenue streams — had to make changes that they are keeping for the long run.

JVS, for one, most likely will continue with a hybrid format going forward, so that those who live far away from San Francisco can eliminate the long journey. In addition to the virtual shift, JVS also has begun training for jobs that are more secure during the pandemic, in technology or cybersecurity, for example. The latter industry, Countryman-Quiroz said, is lucrative and growing as more businesses shift their operations online so people can work remotely.

Another S.F.-based Jewish nonprofit, Hebrew Free Loan, also had to quickly shift operations last March. HFL, which offers interest-free loans for a variety of needs, found itself inundated mere weeks after Bay Area counties went into lockdown — and just like that, $1 million in loan requests came in from laid-off workers and small businesses.

Ayal and Leah Amzel, owners of Yali’s Café in Berkeley. The couple received an interest-free loan from Hebrew Free Loan that allowed them to continue their business during the pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy Hebrew Free Loan)
Ayal and Leah Amzel, owners of Yali’s Café in Berkeley. The couple received an interest-free loan from Hebrew Free Loan that allowed them to continue their business during the pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy Hebrew Free Loan)

“When Covid hit, it was all hands on deck,” said Cindy Rogoway, who is in her seventh year as the nonprofit’s executive director. “We had to respond as quickly as we could.”

In normal times, the organization used to lend out about $400,000 in a month. But in just a two-day period at the start of the pandemic, requests stood at $500,000 — a 230 percent increase, Rogoway said.

One year into the pandemic, those numbers seem small in retrospect. Rogoway’s organization has given out $8 million in loans in the last 12 months — dwarfing the $4.7 million it usually gives in the same time period — with approximately $5 million going to people who need financial help related to the pandemic.

These loans have gone toward a myriad of needs: small businesses that have lost customers, child care costs, medical costs, rent money to fend off eviction, utilities, debt consolidation and student loans.

Cindy Rogoway
Cindy Rogoway

“Just about anything you’ve seen in the national news, we’ve seen that,” Rogoway said.

To meet the explosion in demand, Rogoway said she needed to make some substantial changes at HFL. For one, the loan application process has been sped up so recipients can get their money faster. Also, an additional loan officer, to oversee requests, was hired.

Likewise, S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services has boosted its workforce, but in its case, 60 employees have been added since last March.

The nonprofit, which provides a slate of services for the elderly, families and children, also had to redirect many of its volunteers to accommodate the increased need, such as delivering groceries from its food bank to home-bound seniors.

“It’s definitely been a learning year,” said Traci Dobronravova, the director of JFCS’ Seniors At Home division, “not knowing what the next challenge is going to be.”

While the three agencies have warded off any layoffs or programmatic cuts, the same cannot be said for the Bay Area’s JCCs.

Fitness centers are the main sources of revenue for the area’s largest JCCs, and questions about whether members will return to JCC gyms in San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Rafael, Foster City and Los Gatos anytime soon are up in the air.

And how are members responding when asked when they will return to the fitness center? “There is a range,” said Nathaniel Bergson-Michelson, chief operating officer at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. “There are folks who say, ‘I don’t know, until the pandemic is over.’”

The OFJCC had 3,000 gym membership families before the pandemic. Membership is currently at a quarter of that amount, said Bergson-Michelson.

JCCSF reopened its indoor fitness center on March 8. (Photo/Courtesy JCCSF)
JCCSF reopened its indoor fitness center on March 8. (Photo/Courtesy JCCSF)

The numbers are somewhat higher at Jewish Silicon Valley, the new name of the Los Gatos entity that resulted from the recent merger of the Addison-Penzak JCC and the region’s Jewish Federation. Its CEO, Lael Gray, said that the membership at her JCC is approximately 40 percent of what it was a year ago.

Lael Gray
Lael Gray

“Typical revenue streams have been decimated,” Gray said, noting that the center’s early childhood development program is running at 50 percent capacity.

In turn, the loss of revenue streams has made it difficult for JCCs to keep full staffs. OFJCC currently has 45 percent of its staff employed and Jewish Silicon Valley has 70 percent.

But the pandemic effects for JCCs are not all gloom and doom. For one, they’ve been able to shift much of their programming online, and attendance is robust, said Gray. Currently, Jewish Silicon Valley’s virtual lineup includes painting, yoga and comedy shows.

Gray said it has changed the way programming could be done after the pandemic ends.

“There are so many advantages to accessing events virtually,” she said, adding that in the future she envisions in-person events that are also shown online, a sort of hybrid model.

Marci Glazer
Marci Glazer

Marci Glazer, CEO at the JCC of San Francisco, said the virtual events are creating a “bridge” across different generations. She brought up the example of the preschool afternoon Shabbats, which before the pandemic were difficult for working parents to attend.

“Now we have grandparents 3,000 miles away joining that Shabbat,” Glazer said. “The ability to transcend physical location and welcome in more generations is really powerful. We can be in people’s private space in a way that fosters togetherness.”

After the pandemic ends, she added, “there are things we want to take forward.”

Recently, the slowing coronavirus rates have allowed the JCC fitness centers to welcome back people indoors (some had set up outdoor workout spaces). The JCCSF, OFJCC and Jewish Silicon Valley, as well as Peninsula JCC and Osher Marin JCC, have all opened their indoor gyms in March at limited capacity.

But the return to normalcy will be a long and winding road, Glazer said.

“We’re wounded,” she said. “We’re going to need to be patient. It will take a while for the weight to truly lift. The pandemic came, tried to kill us. It killed too many of us, [but] it didn’t take us all down. Now it is time, with appropriate seriousness and reflection, to plan for celebration.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.