A duty to our vulnerable, stalled indefinitely in Covid lockdown

As we inch toward the in-person activities snatched from us during the pandemic-triggered lockdown, there still are significant numbers of people who must remain tethered to their homes for the foreseeable future.

People like Liza Rosenblum. In her 18 years, Liza has faced enormous challenges, with intellectual and physical disabilities that leave her medically fragile. It was a “complicated life” even before Covid-19 swept through the world, her father, Chuck Rosenblum, said.

For Liza and many others, both young and old alike, phased re-openings are meaningless milestones. As the doors are pried open to the face-to-face gatherings that fill our lives with purpose—from worship to work, lectures to leisure—people considered highly susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19 because of their medical complexities or advanced age will be shut out as they linger in lockdown to curtail their risks.

And with no timeline for their own re-entry, there is an added layer to their challenges: the inescapable feeling of isolation, a known driver of anxiety and depression.

But leaders of some organizations have reconfigured their programming for the long haul—not just as a stopgap measure to accommodate stay-at-home orders—so those who are homebound can remain engaged. And they are demonstrating just how much can be accomplished when vision, determination, and flexibility are leveraged for that purpose.

Their success is a persuasive message for other organizations that pivoted skillfully to connect with their constituencies during the lockdown: Resist the temptation to slide back to the status quo as more people venture out. That way, many others with underlying medical issues remain partnered with you, not alienated.

“The discrimination people with disabilities feel on an everyday basis, whether in schooling or housing or employment, can be exacerbated in a situation like this,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and has offices in Israel and the U.S. “We have to make accommodations for them to participate.”

Even before the pandemic, Liza’s father pushed hard to build “a bigger life in a Jewish world” for his daughter that provided the human interaction she so craved. Yachad fulfilled that goal. The organization, a division of the Orthodox Union, serves some 1,000 people with disabilities and their families across all Jewish denominations as well as those who are unaffiliated. With a mission of breaking social isolation, Yachad operates in major metropolitan Jewish communities throughout the U.S. and also in Jerusalem and Toronto.

“It allowed my daughter to have a sense of freedom as a person,” Rosenblum told me as he described its array of in-person program offerings. There was bowling, kayaking, mini-golfing, Shabbatons, and more.

But with the onslaught of Covid-19, all that changed—and so did Yachad.

Without any previous online programming experience, the organization had to quickly rethink, learn the technology and adapt their methodology to a virtual platform in ways that ensured no one would be left behind.

“Our turbulent time demands that we respond and that we create community beyond physical space,” explained Liz Offen, executive director of Yachad New England, the U.S. region in which the Rosenblums live. “Isn’t that what for thousands of years Judaism is all about? It’s creating community and connectedness, and it wasn’t reliant on physical space. We were wandering in the desert for 40 years. We kept moving. We learned at Yachad we can really create community virtually and very successfully.”

And so within days of the state-mandated shutdowns, “Yachad on Demand” was born. Serving all ages, it is a comprehensive virtual menu for social, spiritual, recreational, and family-support programs with such choices as Zoom-based art, music, exercise, and virtual trips to zoos and museums.

Notably, there also are smaller breakout sessions so “everyone has a voice,” Offen says. It enables Liza to happily see her friends in sessions she’s comfortable with, Rosenblum told me. It is an important social anchor for a teenager who has experienced immense difficulties, including the death of her mother after a prolonged illness.

To ensure broad participation, Yachad distributed technology to those who needed it, and has a phone-in option for the few who prefer it. Without the barriers of distance, new participants are joining from across the globe.

With a “significant portion” of the Yachad population medically vulnerable, it plans to move forward with a “hybrid” that serves both those who can re-enter the public domain and those who cannot, Offen told me.  “We plan to not only maintain the current momentum, but to elevate it and keep it going,” she said. “Why should anybody not have community? Why should anybody suffer without friendships and connections?”

Amid this volatility, those are questions the leadership of The Blue Card also pondered regarding its own vulnerable population. The New York-based nonprofit provides financial assistance to needy Holocaust survivors, the only U.S. organization with that sole mission.

Its elderly clients in 35 states grapple with escalating expenses and depleting savings but are desperate to live out the remainder of their lives at home even as they are more alone than ever due to Covid-19. “Being institutionalized is a great fear that survivors have,” said executive director Masha Pearl.

So Covid-19 prompted an expansion of its services to help them stay put safely. The organization arranged delivery of household supplies, meals and fresh groceries to clients needing them. As that need continues, so will those offerings.

The organization also has rolled out a series of national teleconferences for Blue Card recipients and their caregivers. Dr. Eva Fogelman, a psychologist with expertise in counseling survivors and their descendants, offered support while discussing some unique challenges Covid-19 presents for Holocaust survivors despite their remarkable resilience. Intensely protective of family because of their innumerable losses during the Holocaust, survivors nevertheless feel powerless to protect against a virus that is both unpredictable and indiscriminate, she explained.

A similar session will be held next week for Russian-speaking clients. Pearl is exploring future topics that will keep the isolated survivors connected as they confront the realities of an uncertain future. Meaningful moments already seized from them by Covid, like hugging their grandchildren, might not be recaptured anytime soon. And with ensuing loneliness, open wounds of the past begin to throb.

As we frame our “new normal” with Covid-19 hovering, we must not forget that an unsettled tomorrow is especially palpable for the many who are medically vulnerable. It is our duty to ensure that those who remain homebound are fused into, not fractured from, our communities in ways that open doors for us all to contribute, thrive, and learn from each other. We all need “a window to the world,” as Liza Rosenblum’s dad articulates so poignantly and lovingly.

The prototypes are there, but our mindset must be as well.

About the Author
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss is an award-winning reporter and the recipient of a journalism fellowship that supported her graduate education at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe for six years, reported for The Associated Press, and worked for other news organizations as a writer and editor. She also has been published in The Wall Street Journal and on foxnews.com, and blogged for The Jerusalem Post.
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