Jewish Ottawa Helps!

A rapidly-growing Facebook group is helping community members cope with COVID-19.

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

On Sunday, March 15, with normal life in the city – indeed, across the country and around the world – on hold as we take social-distancing and self-isolating measures to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa launched a Facebook group – Jewish Ottawa Helps! – dedicated to matching people in the community who need assistance of some kind with volunteers who can help.

In the first two days, the group has swelled to more than 700 members, and as of March 24 is closing in on 1,000 – including volunteers and those seeking some sort of assistance.

“Difficult times also have the tendency to bring out the best in people,” said Federation President and CEO Andrea Freedman. “Pauline [Colwin, Federation’s communications director] and I came up with the concept as a way to connect the helpers with the people who need help. I am grateful to the members of the Federation team and the volunteers who have stepped up to manage the initiative and all those who have been quick with assistance. It makes me so proud to be part of this incredible community.”

And, already, the group has been meeting its goals, says Freedman.

“Every person who has posted with a need, has been met with assistance, often, with multiple people offering to help. It is heartwarming!”

Nikki Shapiro, a Federation board member, is one of the volunteers coordinating Jewish Ottawa Helps!

“Andrea approached me to ask for help Sunday evening saying Federation was starting a new group, Jewish Ottawa Helps! She felt it would take off quickly and knows I manage an active social network and I am administrator of another Jewish Ottawa group,” said Shapiro.

“I love helping out our community to continue its vibrancy and unity and this offer to assist is right up my alley so I agreed to help. Social media is a powerful tool and when used effectively can bring greatness to our community by creating social comfort, unity, and connection.”

Shapiro says the sheer numbers of people in the community ready and willing to lend whatever assistance they can is “heartwarming and restores faith in humanity.

“One needs to just scroll down through our site to see all the goodness and love in our little Ottawa Jewish community.”

For example, Shapiro points out there was post from someone in Barrhaven who was out of toilet paper.

“Within minutes over 20 posts were made to offer spare rolls. Within an hour this community member’s need was met and toilet paper was hand delivered to their door.”

Shapiro also said Jewish Ottawa Helps! is assisting Ten Yad – a volunteer-run organization which keeps kosher pantries in Ottawa’s hospitals – deal with the challenge of stocking the pantries and cleaning them for Passover during a time when Ten Yad’s regular volunteers cannot access the hospitals.

“We have close to 30 volunteers and counting wanting to help Ten Yad anyway they can,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro says her role with Jewish Ottawa Helps is one of coordination by “working hard with our team to make this group as user-friendly as possible,” and by facilitating matches between people needing help and those offering it.

Federation staff is working with the agencies to match volunteers with those in need and is identifying ways people can help.

“I know in the days and weeks ahead more and more people will be isolated and in need of a loving community member’s help,” Shapiro said. “Whether it will be a phone call and check-in, food delivery, a drive to an appointment or even help accessing resources and service, Jewish Ottawa Helps! will do our best to be there and facilitate assistance.”

Shapiro adds she is “humbled by this community” and that “it’s very uplifting to be a part of this group. It certainly is keeping me busy and making our time pass quickly!”

Lisa Levitan, another community volunteer helped create central listings to keep track of and ensure that people with needs are matched with someone who can help.

“These are very difficult times and the unknown creates much anxiety,” said Levitan, a teacher, who has written an Ottawa Jewish Bulletin guest column – available at this link – with suggestions on how parents can help their children cope with COVID-19 isolation.

Of the Facebook group, Levitan said, “I knew our generous Jewish community would be all over it. In only 1 day, we have over 740 members. Wow! The amount of generous people wanting to help in such a short period of time is truly outstanding. Young or old, everyone can lend a helping hand so that no one has to feel alone. Even those who are at-risk are offering anything they can do from home.”

Levitan has nothing but praise for the many community members who have stepped forward to help others.

“Whether you’re helping deliver groceries, organizing kosher meals in hospitals, or checking in on those who are self-isolating, you are the best of our Ottawa Jewish community,” she said. “Being a small part of it not only humbles me, but also reminds me of how proud I am to be Jewish in Ottawa. This amazing group of people are coming together in the most difficult of circumstances. What’s more Jewish than that?”

Note: This article, originally published online on March 24, was updated on March 24, 2020.