Connecting in the Crisis

CJP and partner agencies are finding new and different ways to engage Jewish families.

In March, the JCC Greater Boston – like most organizations – closed its doors and moved all of its programming online.

Ten months later, the virtual celebrations, enrichment classes, and sing-a-longs still dot the JCC’s calendar. Over time, they’ve been joined by a roster of in-person socially distanced programs.  

As the pandemic marches on, ensuring families stay connected to Jewish life remains a top priority for the JCC, as well as for CJP and other community partners. Thanks to deepened collaboration, innovation, and technology, the organizations – despite the constraints of COVID-19 – have continued to offer robust Jewish programming for children of all ages, their parents, and in some cases, their grandparents. 

“Pandemic or not, our job is to provide different ways for families to connect. The JCC wants to make sure entering the Jewish community is always possible, relevant, and meaningful,” said Jamie Darsa, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Collaborations at the JCC Greater Boston. “We have always grounded our work in meeting people where they are.” 

These days, that means less about families’ geography and work schedules – and more about comfort levels around COVID-19. To that end, the JCC offers everything from virtual classes for kids (on fun topics including magic, chess, and ballet) to Zoom support groups for single parents to tightly regulated indoor educational pods at the JCC’s Newton campus for children in remote learning. 

COVID-19 is not putting a dent in attendance. Since the spring, 3,000 individuals from 2,000 families have participated in the JCC’s virtual and in-person programs. And already, registration for the JCC’s summer camp is booming, said Darsa. 

“Sometimes in life, we have to do things differently in the moment,” she said. “Over the last year, programming has been a learning experience for our whole team. With the funding and partnership from CJP, we’re finding more ways to reach more families, which has always been our goal.” 

One of the most popular options, said Darsa, has been the newly-virtual “Welcome Baby!” initiative, run in partnership with CJP. It offers new parents a chance to connect online with a trained visitor, a free tote sent by mail filled with gifts, and a follow-up email with resources on the Jewish community in the family's region. Since the pandemic began in mid-March, 144 people have registered for the Welcome Baby! program. 

Additionally, families can participate in the new Welcome Baby! From Home program, a weekly virtual small group series on parenting topics led by an early childhood specialist. Sessions are designed around the groups’ needs during various ages and stages – and focus on families learning and sharing together while building community. Since the pandemic, 87 families have participated in Welcome Baby! From Home, said Jolie Helmbrecht, CJP’s Early Engagement Consultant.  

“It’s been a priority to us to keep Welcome Baby! running, and these connections growing, during this time at home,” Helmbrecht said. “We love sharing resources about the Jewish community and helping parents socialize from the comfort of their own couches.” 

On the North Shore, the Lappin Foundation has also transitioned its programming online, said Executive Director Deborah Coltin.

That means events like Shofar celebrations to Hanukkah gatherings to puppet shows are done via Zoom. For many of the programs, the Lappin Foundation mails a corresponding item to participants in advance. Recent examples include “DIY Hanukkah at Home” gift bags before an online Hanukkah event and a cake-in-a-mug mix with a candle for virtual PJ Library birthday-of-the-month celebrations with Jewish performer Eliana Light. 

“We’re busier now than we were pre-COVID-19,” said Coltin. “We’re doing more programming. That’s the business we’re in – creating positive Jewish experiences for families.” 

The Lappin Foundation’s’ Rekindle Shabbat program provides families with dinner and a kit to celebrate Shabbat at home. A recent participant shared that her family started a gratitude jar filled with things they’re thankful for during the pandemic, and her 6-year-old’s answer was “Shabbat dinner.” 

“Thanks for allowing us to have these great memories even in these crazy COVID times,” she wrote to Coltin. 

Virtual programming allows the Lappin Foundation to reach more families nationwide, as well as making it more convenient for local families to “hop onto a program without driving,” said Coltin. It’s also pushed her and the Lappin staff to deepen their collaboration with CJP and other partner organizations. 

“Our CJP funding is really critical to Lappin’s ongoing success and vibrancy,” said Coltin.  

What’s been more challenging is connecting with parents without face-to-face opportunities. Coltin has started emailing parents the day after a program to thank them for attending and to share links for upcoming virtual events. 

“You just innovate and do outreach differently,” she said. The same holds true for promoting Lappin’s PJ Library program, which sends monthly Jewish-themed books to children ages 6 months through 12 years old.  This year, Coltin has relied on outreach to secular preschools and public libraries, instead of in-person events, to promote PJ Library registrations. 

Once the vaccine is widely available, both Darsa and Coltin said their organizations plan to offer a hybrid of both virtual and in-person events. While they said they look forward to being able to gather the community in person, they now appreciate the appeal of online programming for time-strapped parents. 

“The crisis has forced the JCC to do a lot of things we never thought we would do,” said Darsa. “We could have seen it as a challenge or an opportunity. Luckily, we saw it as an opportunity – and the community responded.”