Jewish Family Service Looks Back at Ten Years of Service Through Flood, Tornado & Pandemic

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This article was originally published in The Jewish Observer.
May 1, 2020
by Barbara Dab

For Nashville’s Jewish Family Service, responding to crises, large and small, is all in a day’s work, but it is by no means an easy day’s work. For the last 10 years, the agency has assisted families reeling from the aftermath of some of the city’s historic, and catastrophic, events. Beginning in Spring of 2010 with what is called the “100 Year Flood,” JFS provided support, both monetary and personal, to families and businesses impacted. According to Pam Kelner, Executive Director of Jewish Family Service, “In Federation, we have a mechanism for raising emergency funds quickly to provide the critical social service work that JFS performs, it is a perfect partnership.” Kelner says the agency created a two-part plan for helping get people back on their feet. During round one, in the immediate aftermath, families received a stipend for each member to help with replacing essentials like food and clothing. Round two was a grant-based system, requiring individuals applying for funds to demonstrate specific expenses needed to rebuild. In total, JFS awarded grants of up to $7500 per household to rebuild. Twenty-two families applied for round 2 grants which totaled $150,000. In addition, free counseling sessions were offered, and local Jewish-owned business owners stepped in to provide discounts on basic household items and electronics. Kelner says, “This is what Jewish Family Service is here for, day in and day out, helping people through their own personal crises.”

For those who provide JFS’ services, locating people in need can be a challenge. Toni Jacobsen, Clinical Director, has been with the agency for 20 years. She says after the flood JFS was able to respond quickly because of the previous experience helping people relocate after Hurricane Katrina. So, when the recent tornado occurred, there was already a model in place. But many people in the affected neighborhoods are relatively new to Nashville and are unaffiliated. She says, “Reaching out to them was a ‘cold call’ for us. We heard about these families through Jewish professionals and friends of the family.” She adds that many newcomers were pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support. “They felt cared for and part of the Jewish community even if they were not affiliated,” she says, “Several said they are now glad they moved to Nashville and have a greater desire to connect with the community.” And according to Pam Kelner, six families suffered catastrophic damage to their homes, representing 19 people. To date, assistance is still in round one. But this time, says Kelner, there appears to be greater emotional trauma. “We are finding that the experience this time was much more traumatic. People literally thought they were possibly going to die and are extremely appreciative of the free counseling sessions to get them through this time.”

Coming just days after the tornado and JFS’ early recovery efforts was the current COVID-19 pandemic. According to Pam Kelner, requests for assistance are just beginning. “We are just beginning to receive calls for assistance and have already begun service through our emergency financial assistance and Kosher food box programs. We’ve had a lot of calls for Information and referral where our social workers connect individuals with resources in the Jewish community, locally as well as at the federal level,” she says. She says many of the calls are from people finding it difficult to navigate what many call, “the new normal,” and JFS is helping guide them through it. From the beginning, she says volunteers have been reaching out to seniors in the community to be sure their needs are met and to determine whether they need referrals back to a social worker.

Providing services to the community during the pandemic presents unique challenges to JFS social workers. According to Toni Jacobsen, this is the first time JFS has been in the role of serving the community when the crisis is theirs, too. “This crisis has been the toughest because I cannot go home at the end of the day and unwind,” she says, “My office is now the kitchen table and when I am done for the day, the crisis remains.” Like most frontline workers, she worries about the health and safety of her family and tending to their basic needs for groceries, toilet paper and masks. She says, “Frankly it’s been difficult to relax. It feels like we have 40 extra grandparents to look after. But I have to admit that having extra grandparents is the fun part.”

To date, there is no way of knowing how long this current pandemic will last or how it will impact the world. But Pam Kelner says JFS will continue to be the first line of contact during a communal crisis. She says, “The agency is proud that we were there in 2010 during the floods, during the 2020 tornadoes and are here for the Jewish community through this ongoing communal crisis of COVID-19. Jewish Family Service is here supporting our community one child, one adult, one family at a time.”

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